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"—so we're on schedule for our construction projects, and the yard is fully operational for local repairs," Commander Lord Haskel Abernathy concluded.

The commander shut his memo pad down, and Vice Admiral of the Green Sir Yancey Parks nodded in approval.

"Thank you, Hack," he said to his logistics officer, then raised his eyes to the staff officers and squadron commanders in the flag briefing room of the superdreadnought HMS Gryphon. "And well done," he went on. "That goes for all of you, and especially for Admiral Sarnow's people. Between you, you've put the yard a good month ahead of projections."

Abernathy smiled at the compliment, and Sarnow gave a silent nod. It was a courteous gesture, yet Parks felt an instant stir of irritation.

He stepped on it quickly, castigating himself for feeling it at all, but it was hard. There was always a certain awkwardness when an officer relieved a junior who stayed on under him, and Parks resented being put in such a position. Knowing the situation couldn't be any easier for Sarnow didn't help much, either. Parks had been in Hancock for barely a T-month, and the rear admiral would be more than human if a part of him weren't gauging Parks' successes against what he might have achieved if he'd retained command. To his credit, he'd never let a sign of it show, but that didn't prevent the new station commander from feeling challenged by his very presence.

Parks pushed the thought aside and cleared his throat.

"All right, ladies and gentlemen. That brings us up to date on what we're doing. What do we think the Peeps are up to, Zeb?"

Commander The Honorable Zebediah Ezekial Rutgers O'Malley, Parks' staff intelligence officer, was a tall, rangy man with mournful eyes whom everyone but his admiral knew as "Zero." He also had a lively sense of humor (fortunately, given the burden of his initials) and a memory like a computer, and he didn't even bother to key his memo pad.

"At this moment, Sir, Seaford Nine has been reinforced to two squadrons of superdreadnoughts, one dreadnought squadron, and one understrength battlecruiser squadron, with half a dozen cruiser squadrons and three full destroyer flotillas as escorts."

He paused, as if inviting comment, but there was none.

"That means, of course, that we've got an edge of about forty percent in ships of the wall," O'Malley went on, "and once we have the rest of Admiral Sarnow's squadron on hand, we'll have sixteen battlecruisers to their six, though we have reports a third superdreadnought squadron may be en route to Admiral Rollins. That would give him the edge, but, according to ONI, he's sticking with the same basic activities—drills and maneuvers, never more than a light-year or two out from Seaford—and there's no sign of any particular increase in preparedness on his part.

"There is one item in my latest download which concerns me, however." He raised an eyebrow at his admiral, and Parks nodded for him to continue.

"Our attaché on Haven has expressed a belief that the assassination of the Peeps' finance minister represents a significant increase in domestic instability. His analysis of the situation—which differs somewhat from that of ONI's analysts back home—is that the Harris Government might welcome some sort of foreign crisis to defuse Dolist tensions."

"Excuse me, Commander," Mark Sarnow's melodious tenor interrupted politely, "but how, exactly, does the attaché's analysis differ from ONI's?"

"I'd say it was more a matter of degree than of kind, Sir. ONI agrees the domestic front is giving Harris and his stooges grief and feels Harris probably wouldn't be heartbroken by an opportunity to posture and view with alarm where we're concerned, but their analysts think his hands are too full for him to actively seek a confrontation. Commander Hale, our attaché, thinks they're wrong. That the pressure Harris feels might push him into seeking just that as a diversion from economic problems which are fundamentally insoluble."

"I see." Sarnow rubbed one thick eyebrow, his dark face intent. "And do you have any feeling for which of them is correct?"

"That's always difficult to say without access to the raw data, Sir. Having said that, I happen to know Al Hale, and I don't think he's an alarmist. You want my honest opinion?" O'Malley raised his eyebrows, and Sarnow nodded. "Under the circumstances, I'd give Al a seventy-thirty chance of being closer to right."

"And if they do decide to create an incident," Parks put in, "this region is certainly a logical place for them to do it."

Heads nodded around the table. The Basilisk terminus of the Manticore Wormhole Junction, which lay another hundred and sixty light-years to galactic north of Hancock Station, had become of constantly growing economic importance as the terminus drew ever more colonization and exploration to itself, but stars were sparse out here, and there was precious little of intrinsic worth between Manticore and Basilisk. Which meant, since the Star Kingdom had never been particularly interested in expansion for expansion's sake, that the Navy had developed virtually no bases to cover the region.

That might not have been a problem . . . except that the People's Republic had already made one try at seizing Basilisk. If the Peeps tried a second time and succeeded, Manticore would lose perhaps ten percent of its total out-system revenue. Worse, Haven already controlled Trevor's Star, which meant conquest of Basilisk would give it two termini, raising the specter of direct invasion of the Manticore System via the Junction, and leave the Royal Manticoran Navy no choice but to take it back at any cost.

Getting Basilisk back would be a grim task under any circumstances, but especially if the Peeps established a powerful fleet presence to block access from the home system. Seaford Nine was obviously the first step in creating that fleet presence, and until Manticore had gotten Alizon and (especially) Zanzibar to join the Alliance—and established Hancock Station—there had been nothing to counter it. As it was, the local treaty structure remained untested and quite possibly a little shaky, and Haven was doing all it could to prevent it from stabilizing. Their activities—including political recognition of the "patriots" of the Zanzibar Liberation Front—left Parks an unenviable strategic equation.

Given the disparity in capital ship tonnage and, even more, Manticore's technical edge, he had an excellent chance of crushing the Peeps' local forces. Unfortunately, he had three allies to defend, spread over a sphere nearly twenty light-years in diameter. As long as both sides stayed concentrated, he could handle anything the Peeps dished out. But if he divided his forces to cover all of his responsibilities and Haven chose to mass its full strength against a single target, they could overwhelm the detachment covering it and smash his units in isolation.

"I think," the admiral said at last into the quiet, "that we have to assume a worst-case scenario. I also know Commander Hale, and I've been impressed by his past work. If he's right and ONI is wrong, we could find ourselves looking at two particularly dangerous situations. First, the Peeps may try to engineer a crisis, even create an incident or two, solely for the consumption of their propaganda machine. That's bad enough, given the potential for an incident to get out of hand, but, frankly, it worries me less than the second alternative. They could have finally reached the point of being ready to pull the trigger on a real war.

"The question, of course"—there was no twinkle in Parks' blue eyes to match the whimsy of his smile—"is which they're up to. Comments?"

"I'm more inclined to think in terms of provocations and incidents," Admiral Konstanzakis said after a moment. The tall, big-boned commander of Superdreadnought Squadron Eight leaned slightly forward, looking down the table to meet Parks' eyes, and tapped her index finger on the folder of hardcopy before her. "According to these reports, the ZLF's activities are increasing, and if Haven wants a low-risk, cheap incident, the Liberation Front's their best bet. They're already providing the ZLF'S raggedy-assed 'fleet' with sanctuaries. If they decide to back a major terrorist push against the Caliph's government, as well—" She shrugged, and Parks nodded.

"Zeb?" he asked.

"It's certainly a possibility Sir, but getting significant support to Zanzibar through the Caliph's own navy and the light forces we've deployed to back them up would be a real problem. The Caliphate severed diplomatic relations with the Republic and embargoed Havenite trade when the Peeps recognized the ZLF, so they don't have any good covert channels to slip weapons in. If they try to run them in openly, they risk kicking off an escalation they can't control." It was the intelligence officer's turn to shrug. "Frankly, Sir, there are a dozen places they can engineer a confrontation. Zanzibar would be the most dangerous one from our viewpoint, but that very fact might cause them to look elsewhere, especially if their objective is to generate lots of noise but not an actual war."

Parks nodded again, then sighed and rubbed his right temple.

"All right, let's put the engineered crisis scenario on hold until we have some evidence of actual activities to guide us. Even if there is an incident, the bottom line will be how we respond to it, and that brings us right back to our options. What's the most effective thing we can do with our forces to protect our allies and insure the security of Hancock itself?"

Silence hovered as he looked around the table. No one spoke for several seconds, then Konstanzakis tapped her folder a second time.

"We should at least strengthen the pickets for Zanzibar, Sir. It might not be a bad idea to split one of the battlecruiser squadrons into divisions and spread its units across all three systems. We'd still be superior to Seaford's current capital ship strength, and, politically speaking, it would both reassure our allies and draw a line for the Peeps."

Parks nodded again, though the thought of parceling out battlecruisers in penny packets which couldn't possibly face a concentrated attack was hardly appealing.

He started to speak, but Mark Sarnow cleared his throat first.

"I think we should consider a forward deployment, instead, Sir," Parks' junior squadron commander said quietly.

"How far forward, Admiral?" The question sounded sharper than Parks had intended, but Sarnow seemed unfazed.

"Right on the twelve-hour limit from Seaford Nine, Sir," he replied, and feet shuffled under the table. "I'm not talking about a permanent presence, but an extended period of maneuvers out there would almost have to make Rollins nervous, and we'd still be outside the territorial limit. He wouldn't have a leg to stand on if he tried to protest our presence, but if he started anything, we'd be close enough to keep our force concentrated and stay with him all the way to his intended target—whatever it might be."

"I'm not sure that would be a good idea, Sir," Konstanzakis objected. "We've already got a light cruiser squadron keeping an eye on the Peeps, and they know it. If we move in with ships of the wall, we up the stakes all around. That sort of deployment makes excellent sense if they're really ready to push the button, but if all they want is an incident, we'd be giving them a golden opportunity to find one, territorial limit or no."

"We've just more or less agreed that if they want an incident we can't stop them from producing one, Dame Christa," Sarnow pointed out. "If we sit tight and wait to see what they're up to, we're only giving them the advantage of picking their own time and place. But if we pressure them, instead, they may decide the game isn't worth the risk. And if they don't see it that way and decide to push back, we'll be in position to do something about it. It's unlikely they'd actually attack us if we stay on their backs, and if they do, we'll have our full strength massed to cut them off at the knees."

"I'm inclined to agree with Dame Christa," Parks said in a carefully neutral voice. "There's no point helping them rattle their sabers at this point, Admiral Sarnow. Of course, if the situation changes, my view of the proper response will change with it."

He met Sarnow's eyes, and the rear admiral nodded after only the slightest of pauses.

"All right. In that case, Admiral Tyrel," Parks went on, looking at his other battlecruiser commander, "we'll split your squadron. Put two ships at Yorik and three each at Zanzibar and Alizon. Captain Hurston—" he nodded at his operations officer "—will assign appropriate screening elements."

"Yes, Sir." Tyrel looked unhappy, and Parks didn't blame him. Splitting his squadron would not only increase each unit's individual vulnerability but effectively reduce Tyrel from a squadron CO to a divisional commander. On the other hand, it would put a senior officer at Zanzibar, by far the most ticklish of Parks' responsibilities. And, he admitted to himself, it would leave Sarnow's battlecruisers, once they were all assembled, here in Hancock where he could keep an eye on their aggressive CO.

"I think that concludes our business for the morning, then," he said, rising to indicate the end of the conference, and started for the hatch.

It opened as he reached it, and a communications yeoman recoiled as he found himself face-to-face with his admiral.

"Uh, excuse me, Sir Yancey. I have a priority message for Captain Beasley."

Parks waved the yeoman past him, and his staff com officer took the message board from him. She scanned the text, then made an irritated sound through her teeth.

"Problems, Theresa?" Parks asked.

"Perimeter Tracking picked up a new arrival about thirty minutes ago, Sir," Beasley said, and glanced across at Sarnow. "It seems your flagship's arrived, Admiral. Unfortunately, she's not exactly in fighting trim."

She handed the message board to the rear admiral, and went on speaking to Parks.

"Nike's suffered a major engineering casualty, Sir. Her entire after fusion plant's off-line. According to her engineer's preliminary survey, there's a fracture clear through the primary bottle generator housing."

"Something must have gotten past the builder's scans," Sarnow agreed, still reading the message. "It sounds like we're going to have to pull the entire installation."

"Did they suffer any personnel casualties?" Parks demanded.

"No, Sir," Beasley reassured him.

"Well, thank God for that." The admiral sighed, then shook his head with a dry chuckle. "I'd hate to be her skipper about now. Imagine reporting for your first deployment with the Fleet's newest battlecruiser and having to tell your station commander you're reduced to two-thirds power!" He shook his head again. "Who is the unfortunate fellow, anyway?"

"Countess Harrington, Sir," Sarnow said, looking up from the message board.

"Honor Harrington?" Parks asked in surprise. "I thought she was still on medical leave."

"Not according to this, Sir."

"Well, well." Parks rubbed his chin, then looked back at Beasley. "Alert the yard to expedite their detailed survey, Theresa. I don't want that ship out of action any longer than necessary. If it's going to be faster to return her to Hephaestus, I want to know it soonest."

"Yes, Sir. I'll get right on it."

"Thank you." Parks rested his hand on Sarnow's shoulder for a moment. "As for you, Admiral, it would seem your transfer to your new flagship may be a bit delayed. For the moment, I'll hold Irresistible here for you. If Nike has to be sent home, I'm sure the Admiralty will send you a replacement before I have to release Irresistible." 

"Thank you, Sir."

Parks nodded and beckoned for his chief of staff to join him as he left the briefing room. Commodore Capra fell in at his right side, and Parks glanced back to be sure they were out of earshot before he sighed.

"Harrington," he murmured. "Now isn't that just peachy?"

"She's an outstanding officer, Sir," Capra replied, and Parks' nostrils flared in a silent snort.

"She's a damned hothead with no self-control is what she is!" Capra said nothing, and Parks grimaced. "Oh, I know all about her combat record," he said testily, "but she ought to be kept on a leash! She did a good job in Basilisk, but she could have been more diplomatic about it. And that business about assaulting an envoy in Yeltsin—"

He shook his head, and Capra bit his tongue. Unlike Parks, the commodore had met The Honorable Reginald Houseman, Ph.D., and he suspected Harrington had let him off far more easily than he deserved. But that wasn't a viewpoint he could expect his admiral to share, and the two of them walked on in silence until Parks suddenly stopped dead and slapped his forehead.

"Oh, Lord! It was Houseman she attacked, wasn't it?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Great. Just wonderful! And now Houseman's cousin is chief of staff for the heavy cruiser element of Sarnow's screen. I can hardly wait for the two of them to meet up!"

Capra nodded without expression, and Parks went on, more to himself than his companion, as they stepped into the lift and he punched their destination code.

"Just what we need." He sighed. "Two fire-eaters, one of them flag captain to the other, and the makings of an instant feud between her and a cruiser squadron's chief of staff!" He shook his head wearily. "Somehow I'm starting to think this is going to be a very long deployment."


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