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Chapter Forty-One

Caslet did his job to perfection. The incoming cruiser never suspected a thing, and there was no reason she should have. After all, what could possibly go wrong on StateSec's most secure prison and private base? The orbital defenses were intact, so clearly no outside enemy had attacked the system. Every com procedure was perfect, for it was carried out in accordance with the instructions logged in the SS's own computers and every message carried all the proper security codes. And the wreckage of Citizen Lieutenant Commander Proxmire's courier boat had long since dispersed.

And so PNS Krashnark followed Caslet's instructions without question, for they, too, were precisely what they should have been. The cruiser passed through the safe lane Honor's people cleared through the mines for her and assumed the parking orbit Honor's people assigned her. And then Krashnark stood by to receive the three shuttles Camp Charon sent up to take off the Alliance POWs she'd come to deliver.


Citizen Sergeant Maxwell Riogetti, State Security Ground Forces, stood in the boat bay gallery with his back to the personnel tubes, cradling his flechette gun in his arms and watching the Manty prisoners narrowly. They weren't really all Manticorans, of course. There were Zanzibarans, and some Alizonians—even twenty or thirty Graysons and a handful of Erewhonese who'd been unfortunate enough to be serving aboard picket ships assigned to Zanzibar— but Riogetti thought of them all as Manties. And he heartily hoped that every single one of them was sweating bullets at the thought of being sent to Hell.

They damned well ought to be, the Citizen Sergeant thought with bitter satisfaction. But it's okay with me if they aren't. Maybe it's even better that way. Citizen Brigadier Tresca will sort the bastards out soon enough!

He smiled thinly at the thought. The damned Manty plutocrats were not only greedy bastards who hoarded the enormous wealth they'd stolen from the People, they were also pains in the ass every step of the way. It was as if they were absolutely determined to prove they were every bit as much enemies of the People as Citizen Secretary Ransom had always insisted they were.

Riogetti's smile turned into a frown at the thought of Cordelia Ransom's death. Now there had been a true heroine of the People! And horribly though her loss had hurt, it was fitting that such a courageous and charismatic leader should have died in mortal combat with the People's enemies as she would have wished. Yet her death had left a tremendous hole on the Committee of Public Safety and in the People's hearts. The Citizen Sergeant had tried hard, but he couldn't bring himself to think very highly of Citizen Secretary Boardman. He'd done his best, no doubt, but no one could have filled Ransom's shoes after her tragic death. Still, Boardman's heart was in the right place, and he knew how dangerous scum like these prisoners were to the People. Why, the bastards weren't even grateful to Citizen Vice Admiral Tourville and Citizen Admiral Giscard for picking up their life pods! They seemed to think that had been no more than their due, the very minimum the Navy could have done for them, despite the way their kind had callously abandoned Republican life pods in battle after battle—when they weren't using the pods for point defense practice!

Riogetti felt rage trembling in his muscles and made himself take his finger out of the flechette gun's trigger guard. It was hard. What he really wanted to do was switch to full auto, drop the muzzle, and empty the magazine into the handcuffed garbage waiting for the shuttles. But he couldn't, however much they deserved it.

Not without orders, anyway, he thought longingly.

He should have been given those orders, too. Oh, sure. Some people—even some of his fellows in StateSec—actually believed the Manty propaganda claims that they always picked up Republican survivors. But Riogetti knew better than to be fooled by such clumsy lies. He'd heard the truth from Public Information often enough. Hell, PubIn had even broadcast actual Navy sensor recordings that showed the Manties shooting up life pods! It was going to take more than plutocratic lies to explain away that kind of hard evidence, and—

A chime sounded, and he glanced over his shoulder as the shuttles from Camp Charon settled into the docking buffers. The mechanical docking arms engaged, and a green light blinked as the personnel tubes pressurized.

Now that's the way a maneuver should be performed, the Citizen Sergeant thought. All three of them docked in less than a ten-second spread!

It never occurred to him to wonder why bored shuttle pilots from a prison planet should care enough to make their approach with such perfect coordination. Not until the first battle-armored border emerged simultaneously from each personnel tube.

The Citizen Sergeant gawked at the apparitions in confusion, wondering what the hell was going on. He didn't feel alarmed, precisely, despite the new arrivals' abrupt appearance, for their armor carried standard StateSec rank emblems and unit flashes and they'd arrived aboard StateSec shuttles cleared by Charon Central and Krashnark's own CIC. That meant there had to be a reasonable explanation, but hard as Riogetti might think, he could come up with no reason for prison guards to strap on the equivalent of old prespace main battle tanks just to go up and fetch a bunch of unarmed, handcuffed POWs!

Eight or nine armored troopers had disembarked from each shuttle by the time Citizen Lieutenant Ericson, the boat bay officer, got over his own shock enough to react.

"Just a minute—just a minute!" he shouted over the bay intercom. "What the hell is going on here? Nobody said anything about this to me! Who's in command of you people, anyway?"

"I am," an amplified voice replied over a suit speaker, and someone stepped to the front of the newcomers. It was a man's voice, deep but very young, Riogetti thought, and there was something about its soft accent. . . .

"And who the hell are you?" Ericson demanded, storming out of his control cubicle to glare at the newcomer. The very tall newcomer, Riogetti realized. Battle armor made anyone look tall, but this fellow must have been a giant in his bare feet. And he and most of his fellows were armed with flechette guns, not pulse rifles. Well, that made more sense than most of what was happening. The flechette guns were much more effective than pulse rifles for prisoner control—and much less likely to blow holes in shuttle hulls or other important equipment.

The giant turned, gazing thoughtfully at the boat bay officer through his armorplast visor while still more armored troopers emerged from the shuttles. There must have been forty-five or fifty of them in the bay gallery by now, and then the giant smiled thinly, and somehow his flechette gun was in his armored hands and the safety was off.

"In answer to your question," he told Ericson flatly, "my name is Clinkscales. Carson Clinkscales, Ensign, Grayson Space Navy, and this ship is no longer under StateSec command."

The citizen lieutenant gaped at him, and so did Riogetti and every other guard in the boat bay. The words were clear enough, but they made no sense. They couldn't make sense, because they were manifestly impossible. But then, suddenly, one of the guards shook herself and reacted. She wheeled with her flechette gun, reacting out of pure instinct, not reason, and hosed a vicious stream of flechettes at the nearest boarder.

The razor-edged projectiles whined uselessly off her target's armor, ricocheting wildly, and another SS guard screamed as three of them chewed into his back. One of the boarders jerked up his own weapon and triggered a single shot back at the guard who'd opened fire, killing her instantly, and a StateSec officer shouted something frantically. Perhaps it was an offer to surrender, or an order for the boat bay guards to lay down their weapons. But whatever it was, it came too late. Other guards were following the dead woman's example while prisoners flung themselves desperately to the deck to get out of the line of fire, and the rest of the borders responded with lethal efficiency.

Citizen Sergeant Riogetti saw Citizen Lieutenant Ericson reach for his holstered pulser, saw him jerk it free, saw the giant's gun come up, and saw the citizen lieutenant's mangled body fly backward under a blast of flechettes. And then the citizen sergeant saw the same flechette gun swinging towards him, and another muzzle flash.

And then he never saw anything at all again.


"I should have called on them to surrender before the shuttles docked," Honor said with quiet bitterness. She, McKeon, Ramirez, and Benson sat in the small briefing room off the main control center, viewing Solomon Marchant and Geraldine Metcalf's report from Krashnark. Marchant was safely in command of the ship, and there had been remarkably little fighting after the initial outbreak in the boat bay. Or perhaps not so remarkably, given that Krashnark's skipper had been given his options by Charon Central just about the time that idiot guard opened fire. With the equivalent firepower of three or four squadrons of the wall locked onto his ship, Citizen Captain Pangborn had recognized the better part of valor when he saw it.

Unfortunately, twenty-nine members of his crew—and eight POWs—had been killed in the boat bay bloodbath first.

"Anyone can be wise after the fact, Honor," Jesus Ramirez said almost gently.

"But if they'd waited to board until Pangborn had agreed to surrender, none of this would have happened," Honor replied, jabbing her index finger at the casualty figures on the terminal before her.

"Maybe, and maybe not," McKeon said before Ramirez could respond. "Don't forget that Pangborn was up against a two-pronged threat—boarders inside and weapons platforms outside—and we really don't know which was the decisive factor for him. Without the boarders, he might have tried to bluff or threatened to kill the prisoners. Hell, he might have figured you wouldn't dare push the button, since you couldn't kill him without killing the POWs as well!"


"Don't second-guess yourself!" Ramirez rumbled more forcefully. "Alistair is right. It wasn't your fault, and it wasn't young Clinkscales' fault, either. It was that idiot Black Leg. Once the first shot was fired—"

He shrugged, and Honor sighed. He and Alistair were right, and she and Nimitz could both feel Benson's firm agreement with her superiors. But still. . . .

She sighed again, then made herself nod unhappily. Yet despite Ramirez's firmness, she knew she was going to go right on second guessing herself, and knowing he was right wouldn't change a thing. She'd made the call hoping the double threat would minimize any temptation to resist, and it should have worked—had worked, once the initial firelight (if you could call such a one-sided massacre that) was over. But she was the CO. It was her job to get things right, and she hadn't, and whether it was reasonable or not, she blamed herself for it.

Still, she couldn't afford to brood on it, either, and she opened her mouth to speak, then looked up as the briefing room door opened to admit Geraldine Metcalf and a stranger in an orange jumpsuit. Honor felt a spasm of confused emotion—distaste, anger, and an undeniable stab of fear—as she saw the jumpsuit, for she had worn one just like it in PNS Tepes brig, but the jumpsuit hardly registered, for it was buried in her surprise at seeing Metcalf. The situation aboard Krashnark had only just started settling down, and she'd expected Metcalf to remain aboard the cruiser as Marchant's XO until they had everything buttoned up. But she hadn't . . . and Honor stiffened in her chair as Metcalf's emotions hit her like a hammer.

"Gerry?" she asked, half-raising a hand to reach out to the other woman before she could stop herself.

"Excuse me, Ma'am," Metcalf said, her voice curiously flat and almost stunned sounding. She didn't even seem to see Honor's hand, and she clasped her own hands behind herself, coming to a sort of parade rest and straightening her spine. "I realize I shouldn't have burst in on you like this, Milady," she went on in that same flat voice, "but this is Commander Victor Ainspan. He was the senior Manticoran POW aboard Krashnark, and Solomon and I thought you should hear his news as quickly as possible."

"What news would that be?" Honor's voice sounded almost calm, but that was solely because decades of command experience had control of her vocal cords. Underneath her apparent composure the jagged spikes of stress and shock radiating from Metcalf twisted her nerves like taut cables, and she kept herself in her chair only by sheer force of will.

"The prisoners aboard Krashnark, Ma'am," Metcalf told her. "They're all military POWs, not politicals, and fifteen of them are from the Zanzibaran Navy."

"Zanzibaran?" Honor's eyebrows furrowed. The Caliphate's navy didn't have anything bigger than a heavy cruiser, and its units were assigned almost exclusively to the defense of their own home system, so how—

"Zanzibaran," Metcalf confirmed harshly, and her nostrils flared. "Milady, according to the prisoners, the Peeps hit Zanzibar hard two T-months ago." Alistair McKeon muttered a disbelieving imprecation behind Honor, but she couldn't look away from Metcalf's face. "They rolled right over it—sucked the picket into a head-on pass, blew it out with missile pods, and then went on and took out every industrial platform in the system."

Ramirez and Benson looked perplexed. They'd been on Hell too long, and they were too unfamiliar with the members and dynamics—not to mention the astrography—of the Manticoran Alliance to realize how far into the Allies' rear the Peeps had gone to strike at Zanzibar. But Honor and McKeon knew.

"My God, Gerry," the commodore said. "Are you sure?"

"Whether I am nor not, the prisoners are, Skipper," Metcalf told him, her expression grim. "But that's not the worst of it. Commander Ainspan?"

The dark-faced, whippet-thin commander stepped forward, and Honor shook herself.

"Excuse me, Commander," she said. "It was rude of us to ignore you."

"Don't worry about that, Milady," Ainspan said, and Honor's eyebrows flipped back up as she truly concentrated on him for the first time and the boiling confusion of his emotions reached out to her. His eyes were fixed on her ravaged face, and they positively glowed with some deep reaction she couldn't even begin to sort out. Whatever it was, it wasn't the same as Metcalf's—which was reasonable enough. Gerry's news was no surprise to him, after all. But even so, he radiated a sense of shock almost as great as the lieutenant commander's. It was just a different kind of shock. One that was almost . . . reverent, and he seemed unable to go on after his first short sentence.

"Are you all right, Commander?" Honor asked after a few seconds of silence, and the liberated prisoner flushed darkly.

"I— Yes, Milady. I'm fine," he said. "It's just that . . . well, we all thought you were dead."

"Dead?" Honor frowned for a moment, then nodded. "So they admitted what happened to Tepes? I didn't think they would."

"Tepes?" Ainspan blinked at her. "No, Milady. They never said anything about anyone named Tepes."

"It wasn't an 'anyone,'" Honor explained. "It was a ship—Cordelia Ransom's ship." This was insane, she thought. The fact that the Peeps had hit Zanzibar was incomparably more important than discussing the names of blown up StateSec battlecruisers, yet Ainspan seemed almost more concerned about her than he was about the fact that he himself had just been rescued from Peep custody!

"It was—?" the commander began, then stopped and shook himself. "INS didn't give the name of her ship, Milady. But how did you know it? It only happened nine months ago."

"What?" It was Honor's turn to feel confused. "I don't know what happened nine months ago, Commander, but we've been on Hell for a T-year and a half, and Commodore McKeon and his people blew Tepes up before we ever landed!"

"A year and a—?" Ainspan blinked, then stopped again, thinking furiously, and Honor turned to look at her subordinates at last. McKeon still seemed almost too stunned for coherent thought, but Ramirez and Benson looked just as perplexed by Ainspan's odd behavior as Honor felt.

"I guess that would make sense," he said finally, and Honor frowned.

"What would make sense, Commander?" she asked rather more sharply than she'd meant to, and he gave himself a shake.

"I'm sorry, Milady. It's just that I never expected— I mean, we all thought— And Commander Metcalf didn't even mention your name to me until just before we grounded, so I didn't—" He stopped again, drew a deep breath, and visibly got a grip on himself. "Lady Harrington, the reason we thought you were dead is that the Peeps told everyone you were. More than that, they broadcast the video of your execution over INS."

"They what?" Honor stared at him in disbelief.

"They broadcast the video of your execution—your hanging— Ma'am," Ainspan said. "They said they'd executed you for that business on Basilisk Station, and they showed everyone the imagery to prove it."

"But why?" Surprise startled the question out of Honor, but she knew it was a foolish one even as she asked it. Ainspan couldn't possibly know why they'd done it. He hadn't even known she was alive until Metcalf told him!

"Actually," Jesus Ramirez said slowly, "it could even make a kind of sense, in a sick, Peep-minded sort of way."

"Sense?" Honor turned to him, still grappling with the news, and a darker thought hit her with sudden, sickening force. Her parents! If the Peeps had broadcast her "hanging" and done it so realistically that no one in the Alliance had even questioned it, then her mother and father must have seen—

"In a way," Ramirez repeated. His voice jerked her free of the horrifying image of her parents watching her "death" on HV, and she felt a stab of gratitude so powerful it was almost painful. She clung to his words, using them as a shield against her mother's and— especially!—her father's probable reaction to that imagery and nodded choppily for him to go on.

"You hadn't heard anything about the Tepes, had you, Commander?" the San Martino asked Ainspan, and the Manticoran shook his head. "Then I suspect that's the explanation, Honor," Ramirez said, turning back to her. "They think you are dead, as well as Alistair and anyone else who was with you and could ever dispute their version of what happened. And they damned well wouldn't want to admit that twenty or thirty POWs broke out of StateSec custody and blew an entire battlecruiser to hell in the process! Even announcing that they'd destroyed your shuttle as you 'fled' wouldn't make up for the kind of black eye that would give them—and especially if this Ransom was aboard her at the time. So they decided to cover it all up and carry through with your execution for the record because they'd already told everyone they were going to and it was one way to keep anyone from continuing to ask questions about you. Which meant they still had to explain what had happened to Ransom and her ship, so they announced her death after they'd had time to decide exactly how they wanted to handle the fallout. And when no one would have any reason at all to associate her death with yours." He snorted bitterly. "Legislaturalist or 'New Order,' Public Information's thinking doesn't seem to change very much, does it?"

"Um." Honor gazed at him a moment longer, then nodded again, more normally. It did make sense, in an insane sort of way, and she should have seen it for herself. But she knew why she hadn't, and she reached out to gather Nimitz close as the 'cat walked down the table to her. She held him against her breasts, clinging to the comfort of her link to him even more tightly, and forced herself to put all thought of her parents out of her mind for the moment. Then she turned back to Ainspan and somehow summoned up a smile.

"As you can see, Commander, the reports of my death have been somewhat exaggerated. That, however, is less significant than your other news. What, exactly, happened in Zanzibar?"

"We got our asses kicked, Milady," Ainspan said bitterly. He, too, seemed to have struggled past the initial shock of finding her alive, but there was no relief in that for him, and his poison-bleak emotions washed into her. "The Peep CO—according to their propaganda, it was Tourville, the same bastard who captured Prince Adrian— completely wiped out our picket force, then carried through and destroyed the system's deep-space infrastructure, just like Commander Metcalf said. And after he'd done that, he moved on and did exactly the same damned thing to Alizon."

"Jesus Christ!" McKeon breathed, and Honor fought to keep the shock out of her own expression. It was hard—and even harder because she was still tapped into Ainspan's emotions.

"Why do I have the feeling there's more, Commander?" she asked flatly.

"Because there is, Milady," Ainspan replied just as flatly. "They also hit Hancock and Seaford Nine. I don't know exactly what happened at Hancock. I'd guess they got their asses kicked there, because I haven't run into any of our people who were captured there, and the Peep propaganda's made a big deal out of all the naval losses they supposedly inflicted but never claimed that they'd taken the system. They did take Seaford, though, and punched out another picket squadron and all the fleet facilities, as well. But that's not the worst of it."

He drew a deep breath, as if stealing himself. Then—

"They hit Basilisk, too, Milady," he said quietly. "They killed Admiral Markham and destroyed the inner-system picket, then went on and wrecked everything in Medusa orbit."

"Basilisk?" McKeon sounded strangled. "They hit Basilisk, too?!"

"Yes, Sir," Ainspan looked as if he wanted nothing in the universe more than to give McKeon a different answer, but he couldn't. "I don't have anything like official numbers, Milady," he went on, turning back to Honor, "but I know we got hurt and hurt bad. According to the Peeps, we've lost sixty-one of the wall, plus most of their screening units. I think that has to be an exaggeration, but I've personally met prisoners who can confirm the attacks on Zanzibar, Alizon, and Seaford Nine. I think—" He drew another deep breath. "I think this time they're actually telling the truth, Milady—at least about the systems they hit."

Honor felt Ramirez and Benson flinch at last as the number sixty-one hit them. They might not be sufficiently familiar with the Alliance's astrography to know where Zanzibar was or what the significance of an attack on it might be, but they thought they knew how hard the Alliance had been hit if the Peeps' claims about Allied ship losses were anywhere near accurate.

Only they were wrong, she thought, and her brain was so numb she felt almost calm. The ship losses and loss of life were serious enough—even assuming the Peeps had inflated them by thirty or forty percent, they were still the worst the Royal Manticoran Navy had suffered in its entire four hundred-year history—but the impact of that paled beside the sheer audacity of the Peep attack.

It must have hit the Admiralty like a thunderbolt, she thought. After all this time, no one could have anticipated the possibility that the Peeps might try something like this. I certainly never would have! But if they've really punched out Zanzibar and Alizon and hit Basilisk, then—

She closed her eyes, and despite the insulation of her shock, her thoughts raced. Even the total destruction of all industry in Zanzibar and Alizon would be a relatively minor blow to the industrial base of the Alliance as a whole, and the civilian loss of life wouldn't have been too bad—not if Ainspan was right about who'd commanded the raids. Lester Tourville would have done everything humanly possible to hold down the noncombatant death count. And from an industrial viewpoint, the RMN satellite yard at Grendelsbane Station alone had more capacity than Zanzibar and Alizon combined. All of which meant the Alliance could take up the slack without dangerously overstraining itself.

But that hardly mattered, for the political and diplomatic consequences of a successful strike of this magnitude upon two allies of the Star Kingdom must have been devastating. And the destruction of the Basilisk support structure must have been even worse. Basilisk was Manticoran territory, and no one had dared to attack the Star Kingdom's home space in three hundred and seventy years. The economic cost alone had to have been catastrophic, at least as bad as the Zanzibaran and Alizonian losses combined, but the other consequences of such an attack must have cut deeper than any financial loss. And—

"We're on our own," she said softly, not even aware she'd spoken aloud.

"What did you say?" It was McKeon. He sounded far more abrupt than usual, but at least he was beginning to fight sufficiently clear of his own shock to think again, and she looked at him. "I beg your pardon?" she said.

"You said 'we're on our own,'" he told her. She looked at him blankly for a moment, then nodded. "So what did you mean?" he asked.

"I meant that we can't whistle up a rescue expedition after all," she told him bleakly. He cocked his head as if to invite fuller explanation. The beginnings of understanding already showed in his eyes, but she went on anyway, looking up at Ainspan while she explained it to him, as if using the words to hammer home her own acceptance of them.

"We thought we could send a ship like Krashnark back to Alliance space if we could ever take her in the first place," she said. "Then all we'd have to do would be sit tight while the Admiralty organized a convoy and escorts and came to get us out. But if the Peeps have hit us that hard back home, the Alliance couldn't possibly justify sending a force big enough to lift us all out of here. Even if the Admiralty were willing to, the Government would never authorize it—not when every voter in the Star Kingdom and every member government of the Alliance has to be screaming for ships of the wall to reinforce their picket forces!"

McKeon's gaze met hers. He started to open his mouth, but she'd read the thought behind his eyes and gave a sharp, tiny shake of her head. His mouth closed again, and she looked away, watching her non-Manticoran officers grapple with the news. It didn't seem to have occurred to any of them that the Allies certainly would send a ship to pick up Steadholder Harrington if they knew she was alive, and Honor hoped it never did occur to them. Sending a single fast ship to collect one person—or even a few dozen people—was one thing. Sending enough personnel lift to take everyone else off Hell as well was something else entirely.

"But if we can't call for help," Harriet Benson said at last, speaking very quietly, "then we're screwed, aren't we? We needed that support, Honor. What the hell do we do if we can't get it?"

"Do, Harry?" Honor turned to look at her, and the living side of her mouth turned up in a grim, cold smile. "We do what we have to do," she said in a voice that matched the smile perfectly. "And if we can't do it the easy way, then we do it the hard way. But I'll tell you this now—all of you. There aren't enough Peeps in this galaxy to keep me from taking my people home, and I am not going to leave a single person I promised to get off this planet behind me when we go!"


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