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Chapter Forty-Two

"So that's what I intend to do," Honor told the officers around the conference table. "I know it's risky, but given Commander Ainspan's news—" she nodded her head courteously at the Commander, who sat at the foot of the table, where he'd just finished briefing her senior officers "—I don't see that we have any choice."

"Risky? That plan isn't 'risky'—it's insane!" Rear Admiral Styles' voice was flat and hard. No doubt he meant for it to sound firm, decisive and determined, but she heard the naked terror behind it only too clearly. And when she glanced around the conference table at the expressions of her other senior officers, she knew that impression was neither her imagination nor solely due to her link to Nimitz.

"Keeping Krashnark here in the Cerberus System is the worst thing we could possibly do," he went on, turning slightly away from her to address her other officers as if lecturing a crowd of school children. "I've never heard a senior officer suggest anything so reckless and ill-considered! I remind you all that she is the only means of communication with the Alliance we have! If we don't use her to send for help, no one can have the least possible idea that we're even here awaiting rescue!"

"I'm aware of the risks, Admiral." Honor managed—somehow—to keep her voice level and wondered if she were being wise to do so. Speaking around a senior officer to her subordinates, especially when criticizing that senior officer's plan in such immoderate language, constituted a serious offense by RMN standards. At the very least it was insubordinate; at worst, it was an attempt to undermine the chain of command, and she knew she ought to bring the hammer down. But Styles remained the second-ranking Allied officer on Hell and this was no time for divisiveness, and so she gritted mental teeth and made herself speak to him as reasonably as if he had a functioning brain and a desire to use it.

"Risk or no, however, I don't believe the Alliance could possibly justify sending a sufficient force to lift all of our people off this planet so far from the front under the circumstances. Even assuming that there haven't been still more raids on Allied systems since Commander Ainspan was captured, the threat of such attacks has to have thrown all our dispositions into confusion. Allowing for the inevitable communications delays, the Joint Chiefs and Admiralty probably don't even know where all our vessels are at the moment! And even if they decided that they could risk uncovering the core systems just to send an expedition out here after us, it would be criminal for us to ask them to." She shook her head. "No, Admiral Styles. We have to accomplish whatever we can on our own, and that means I can't possibly justify sending Krashnark to ask for help."

"That's one opinion," Styles shot back, "and I suggest that the decision as to what the Alliance can and can't do ought to be made at a much higher level than this. More than that, allow me to point out—in case it's slipped your own attention—that by keeping Krashnark here you're probably throwing away our only chance to get at least some of the people on this planet to safety! If we stripped her down and cut her life-support margins to the minimum, we could get forty percent of the people currently on Styx aboard her. Surely getting at least some of us out is better than having StateSec recapture all of us!"

"And just which forty percent would you advocate we get out, Admiral?" Alistair McKeon asked flatly. The other officers present—Jesus Ramirez, Gaston Simmons, Harriet Benson, Cynthia Gonsalves, Solomon Marchant, and Warner Caslet—all looked acutely uncomfortable, and their expression got still more uncomfortable at McKeon's question. None of them were Manticoran and all were junior to Styles, and they looked like family friends trying to stay out of a domestic quarrel. But they'd also come to know Styles much better than any of them would really have preferred, and, like McKeon, they knew exactly which forty percent of the eight thousand people actually on Styx Styles would advocate sending to safety. After all, it just happened that approximately forty percent of those people were members of one or another of the Allied militaries . . . just as forty percent of the people in this conference room were.

But however furious and terrified he might be, the admiral seemed unwilling to be quite that explicit.

"That's neither here nor there," he said instead. "Obviously some sort of screening or selection process would have to be worked out. But the point is that we could get at least that forty percent—whoever it was—to safety and inform higher authority of the situation here at the same time. Given that, it would be the height of irresponsibility even to contemplate holding Krashnark here! And," he took his eyes from McKeon's just long enough to dart a sideways glance at Honor but went on as if speaking solely to McKeon, "I suspect a board of inquiry might well conclude that it went beyond simple irresponsibility into criminal disregard of duty and—"

"That will be enough, Admiral Styles." Honor's voice had changed. Unlike Styles', her tone was now cool and calm, almost conversational, but Andrew LaFollet smiled coldly when he heard it. He stood against the conference room wall behind her, able to see and hear everything yet so unobtrusive no one even noticed his presence after so many weeks, and he watched Styles' choleric face with anticipation. The Steadholder had put up with more than enough from this big-mouthed fool, and LaFollet felt himself silently urging Styles to misread her tone and manner.

"I beg your pardon, Admiral Harrington, but it is not enough!" the Manticoran said sharply, and satisfaction widened LaFollet's smile. The idiot had misread her voice. He actually thought her apparent calmness was a good sign. Or perhaps he simply thought it indicated that she was uncertain and trying to hide it, or that he finally had a pretext he could use to undercut her authority in the eyes of her subordinates for his own gain.

"I have questioned the wisdom of many of your decisions here on Hades," he went on, "but this one goes beyond unwise to insane! I have accepted your command authority despite the . . . irregularity of your claimed seniority in a non-Manticoran navy, but your current course of conduct leads me to seriously question my own wisdom in doing so. Whatever the actual status of your commission—or even the legality of your holding commissions in two different navies simultaneously—this decision absolutely proves you lack the experience for your supposed rank!"

Alistair McKeon had started to lunge furiously up out of his chair when Styles began. Now he sat back instead, regarding the Rear Admiral with the same sort of fascination with which people watched two ground cars slide inexorably towards one another on icy pavement. Honor sat very still in her chair beside him, watching Styles with her single hand flat on the table before her and her head tilted slightly to one side. Her only expression was the small, metronome-steady tic at the living corner of her mouth, and Nimitz crouched on his perch, as motionless as she . . . except that the very tip of his tail flick-flick-flicked in exact rhythm with the tic of her mouth.

McKeon looked away from Honor long enough to glance at the others around the table and felt reassured by what he saw. None of them really understood why Honor hadn't already crushed Styles, and while none of them wanted to get involved in a fight between her and an officer of her own navy—or one of her own navies, at least—they were entirely prepared to support her against him now. McKeon happened to agree with them that Honor should have stepped on the loathsome bastard the first time he got out of line, but he also knew (far better than they) that she didn't do things that way. Sometimes—as in McKeon's own case, once upon a time—that could be a good thing. This time, as far as he was concerned, she'd waited far too long, and he felt an anticipation very much like Andrew LaFollet's as Styles went right on running his mouth.

"I'll accept that you believe you're doing the right thing and performing to the very best of your ability," the Manticoran went on, his voice oozing damning-with-faint-praise scorn, "but one of the things experience teaches is the ability to recognize the limitations of reality. Yes, and the true nature of responsibility, as well! Your primary duty as a Queen's officer is—"

"I don't believe you heard me, Admiral Styles," Honor said, still in that conversational tone, her body language completely relaxed. "I said I had heard enough, and I remind you—for the final time— of the penalties laid down by the Articles of War for insubordination."

"Insubordination?" Styles glared at her, apparently oblivious to the dangerous glitter in her single working eye. "It's not 'insubordination' to point out to a manifestly inexperienced officer that her conception of her own duty and importance is obviously and completely divorced from reality and—

"Major LaFollet!" Honor's voice was no longer calm. It was a blade of chilled steel, cutting across Styles' hotter, bombastic bellicosity like a sword.

"Yes, My Lady?" LaFollet snapped to attention behind her.

"Do you have your side arm, Major?" she asked, without so much as looking over her shoulder or taking her steely gaze from Styles' congested face.

"I do, My Lady," her armsman replied crisply.

"Very good." The right side of her lips curled up in a thin, dangerous smile, and Styles' eyes began to widen as the fact that she had been anything but intimidated by his bluster finally started to seep into his awareness. LaFollet was already moving, circling the table towards Styles in anticipation of Honor's orders, but the rear admiral didn't even notice that. He stared at Honor instead, opening his mouth as if to speak, but it was much too late for that.

"You will place Rear Admiral Styles under arrest," Honor went on to LaFollet in that arctic voice. "You will escort him immediately from this conference room to the brig, and you will there place him under close confinement on my authority. He will not be allowed to return to his quarters. He is not to be permitted contact with any other individual between this conference room and his cell."

"This is preposterous—an outrage—!" Styles lunged to his feet and started to lean threateningly towards Honor, only to break off with a gurgle as Andrew LaFollet's left hand caught the collar of his tunic from behind. LaFollet no more believed Styles had the courage to physically assault his Steadholder than anyone else in that conference room did . . . but he didn't very much care. It was far too good a pretext to pass up. He was a good five centimeters shorter than Styles, but he was all wiry muscle and bone, and he got his back and shoulders into it as he pivoted and heaved.

Styles pitched backward, arms windmilling. He sailed through the air, crashed down on his back with a grunt of anguish, and slid across the floor until his head slammed into the wall and stopped him. He lay for an instant, half-stunned, then blinked and started to push himself back up—only to freeze as he found himself looking into the muzzle of Andrew LaFollet's rock-steady pulser from a range of two meters.

His eyes went huge. Then they traveled slowly up the Grayson's arm to the armsman's face, and his heart seemed to stop as he recognized LaFollet's complete willingness to squeeze that trigger.

"I have tolerated your gross insubordination, incompetence, cowardice, defiance, and disrespect for as long as I intend to, Admiral Styles," Honor told him coldly. "You have been warned dozens of times, and you have steadfastly declined to amend your behavior, despite repeated warnings that my patience was not without limit. Very well. I will not warn you again. You will now accompany Major LaFollet to the brig, where you will be held in close confinement until such time as formal charges are preferred against you before a court-martial board of Her Majesty's Navy. I have no doubt that those charges will be sustained . . . and you know as well as I what the penalty attached to them will be."

Styles seemed to wilt down inside himself, his normally dark face turning a sickly paste-gray, and she watched him with the dispassion of a scientist gazing at some particularly revolting new bacterium. She gave him time to speak, if he should be foolish enough to want to make things still worse, but he said nothing. From the taste of his emotions, he was probably physically incapable of making his vocal apparatus work at the moment, and she forced her mouth not to twist with contempt before she glanced back at LaFollet.

"Carry out your orders, Major," she said quietly, and her armsman nodded and stepped back from Styles. His pulser twitched commandingly, and Styles came to his feet as if the weapon were a magic wand that had cast a spell of levitation upon him. He stared at LaFollet, unable to take his eyes from the Grayson's implacable expression, and swallowed hard as the contempt and loathing discipline had prevented LaFollet from displaying earlier looked back at him. The last thing in the universe that he wanted to do, Harry Styles realized in that instant, was to give Andrew LaFollet even the smallest excuse to do what the armsman wanted so badly to do.

"After you, Admiral." The major spoke almost courteously and nicked a nod at the conference room door. Styles stared at him a moment longer, then darted one dazed look around the conference room only to see unwavering support for Honor on every other face, and all life seemed to ooze out of him. He turned without another word and shuffled out, followed by LaFollet, and the door closed silently behind them.

"I apologize for that unseemly episode," Honor said to the officers still seated around the conference table. "If I'd dealt with the situation more effectively sooner, I could have avoided such an undignified confrontation."

"Don't apologize, Admiral Harrington." Jesus Ramirez used her rank title with quiet emphasis. "Every military organization in the galaxy has its share of fools who manage to get promoted far beyond their abilities."

"Perhaps." Honor drew a deep breath, more than a little ashamed of herself now that LaFollet had marched Styles off. Whatever Ramirez might say, she knew she could have handled things better than this. At the very least, she could have ordered Styles to place himself under quarters-arrest after any of a dozen earlier, less virulent confrontations. She hadn't had to let it get to this stage, or to humiliate him so utterly in front of others, and she wondered if she'd let it go so far deliberately. She knew how badly a part of her had wanted to crush him like a worm. Had her subconscious always hoped the opportunity to act as she just had would eventually present itself if she just gave him enough rope?

She didn't know . . . but she suspected she wouldn't have liked the truth if she had.

She closed her eyes for a moment and inhaled deeply once more, then made herself put Styles' fate out of her mind. She would have to return to it eventually, for she'd meant exactly what she said. Whatever her own motives, she simply could not let this most recent behavior pass, and she had more than enough witnesses—not simply to this episode, but to others—to guarantee that his career was over. The Judge Advocate General might allow him to resign rather than prosecute, given the circumstances which had put him on Hell for so long, but either way he would be disgraced, dishonored, and ruined. Yet she couldn't let herself be distracted by that just now, and her expression was calm when she opened her eyes once more.

"Whatever my opinion of Styles may be," she said calmly, "he did make at least two accurate statements. If I hold Krashnark here, I deliberately turn down a chance to alert the rest of the Alliance to the situation on Hell, and I may be wrong about their ability and readiness to cut loose the forces needed to lift us off this planet. Even if I'm not, my action will effectively make that decision for them, without ever giving them the opportunity to consider it. And he's also right that holding her throws away the near certain chance of getting two or three thousand people to safety in Alliance space."

"If I may, My Lady?" Solomon Marchant half raised one hand, forefinger extended, and Honor nodded for him to go on.

"In regard to your first concern, My Lady," Marchant said very formally, "I would simply like to point out that whatever Admiral Styles may believe, you are the second-ranking officer of the Grayson Navy, which happens to be the second largest navy of the Alliance—and the third largest in this entire quadrant, after the RMN and the Havenite Navy. As such, you would be one of the people who would normally help make any decision as to whether or not the Alliance could safely divert shipping on such a mission. Under the circumstances, I believe it's entirely appropriate for you to exercise your own judgment in this situation."

An almost inaudible murmur of agreement supported his argument, and Honor felt the sincerity of the emotions behind the murmur.

"And as to your second concern, My Lady," Marchant went on, "you say we could get two or three thousand people off Hell." He glanced at Cynthia Gonsalves. "Could you tell us what the current total number of evacuees is, Captain Gonsalves?"

"Three hundred ninety-two thousand, six hundred and fifty-one," Gonsalves replied with prompt precision. Since the courts-martial had wound down, she had taken over as Styles' second-in-command . . . which meant she'd actually been doing virtually all of the work in coordinating the prisoner contact and census project. "To date, two hundred seventeen thousand, three hundred and fifty-four have formally declined to collaborate with us. Most of those are Peep politicals, of course, but some of them are military or ex-military POWs."

Her voice hardened and flattened with the last sentence, and Ramirez stirred in his chair.

"It's hard to blame them, Cynthia," he said, his deep voice oddly gentle. "Most of them have just run out of hope after so long on Hell. They don't believe we can possibly pull this off, and they don't want to be part of the reprisals the Black Legs are going to carry out when and if they come back."

"I understand that, Sir," Gonsalves replied, "but understanding it doesn't change the consequences of their decision—for them, as well as for us."

"You're right, of course, Ma'am," Marchant said, reclaiming the floor. "But my point, My Lady," he turned back to Honor, "is that while Admiral Styles was correct that we could cram forty percent of the people on Styx aboard Krashnark, even packing her to the deckheads would account for less than one percent of the total on Hell."

"Which is still a lot more than none at all, Solomon," Honor replied quietly.

"It is," McKeon agreed before the Grayson officer could speak again, "but I think you're missing Solomon's point—or simply choosing not to admit it." He smiled wryly as her eye flashed at him, then continued more seriously. "Whichever it is, though, the question you have to ask yourself isn't whether or not holding Krashnark here throws away the certainty of getting eight-tenths of a percent of us out, but rather whether or not it ups the odds of getting more than eight-tenths of a percent out by a large enough factor to justify accepting the risk of getting no one out."

"Alistair is right, Honor," Ramirez said before she could reply. "Certainly there are going to be people—like Styles—who second-guess you however things work out. And some of the people who criticize you won't be idiots, too, because it's a question that can be legitimately argued either way. But the bottom line is that for everyone else, it would be a hypothetical question . . . and for you, it isn't. You're the one who has to make the call, and you have to make it now. So make it. In your considered judgment, does holding this ship in Cerberus improve your odds of success more than sending her for help the Alliance may or may not be in a position to extend to us?"

Honor sat back in her chair, feeling Nimitz's warm, supporting presence at her shoulder, and gazed into the mouth of Ramirez's stark options. She'd already considered the consequences and the odds, of course. If she hadn't, she never would have stated the intention which had so horrified Styles. But she knew herself too well—knew that this time was different, for Marchant and McKeon and Ramirez were right. It was her call, and they were waiting for her to make the decision which would commit them all not to an "intention" which left room to wiggle later but to a hard and firm plan they would all carry through together ... or die trying to.

"If we were talking about a lighter ship," she said finally, "my decision might be different. But this is a Mars-class. She masses six hundred thousand tons—almost as big and tough as most of their prewar battlecruisers—and if we're going to make this work, we've got to have some mobile combat units with real fighting power." Her nostrils flared. "Which means I can't justify sending her off."

"I agree," Ramirez said softly, and other heads nodded around the table.

Honor felt their support and knew how much it meant to her, but she also knew it was only support. The responsibility was hers, and the responsibility for the deaths of all of them would also be hers if she blew it.

Yet she had no choice. She simply could not abandon the POWs who hadn't run out of defiance for their captors after their time on Hell, just as she could not abandon the non-Allied POWs who had actively aided her in capturing and securing Camp Charon in the first place.

A "calculated risk," she thought. Isn't that what they called a decision like this back at Saganami Island? And they were right, of course. But it's an awful lot easier to analyze past examples of them in a classroom and decide where the people who took them screwed up than it is to take responsibility for them yourself!

"All right, then," Admiral Lady Dame Honor Harrington said with calm, confident assurance, "we keep her. Alistair, I want you and Harry to grab Gerry Metcalf and Master Chief Ascher. We're going to need as many people trained to combat-ready status on Peep hardware as we can get, because if this is going to work at all, we'll need a lot more hardware than a single heavy cruiser. But she's got simulators on board as well as complete manuals on all of her hardware in her data banks. So we'll use her for a training ship while we start getting our people brought up to speed."

"Yes, Ma'am." McKeon tapped a note to himself into his liberated Peep memo pad. "I'll snag Gerry as soon as the meeting breaks up. Harry," he looked at Captain Benson, "can you free up Commander Phillips and . . . Lieutenant Commander Dumfries, I think, to help Gerry and me with the initial planning?"

"I'll have to rework the watch schedules a little, but I don't see a problem," Benson said after a moment.

"Be sure you're comfortable with that before you give them up, Harry," Honor warned her. "Because once Alistair's got that running, you and Jesus and I are going to have to put our heads together and start thinking seriously about genuine tactics. I've got a few thoughts, but to make this work, we may well be going to have to get a lot more performance out of the orbital defenses than I'd initially planned on. If you give up Phillips and Dumfries, do you have someone else who can replace them?"

"I do," Benson replied firmly.

"All right, in that case—"

Honor turned to Cynthia Gonsalves, her expression calm and focused, and her brain ticked smoothly and efficiently. There were no more doubts. She was committed now, her mind and thoughts reaching out to the challenge without a shadow of uncertainty, and her concentration was so complete she never even noticed Alistair McKeon and Jesus Ramirez grin broadly at one another across the table.


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