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Chapter Forty-Four

"That's a lot of firepower, Honor," Harriet Benson observed soberly.

"And a lot of chances for something to go wrong if even one unit doesn't do what we expect her to."

"Agreed," Honor said.

She sat with her inner circle, studying the readouts on the ships due to arrive so shortly from Shilo. Two of the new Warlord-class battlecruisers—the Wallenstein and Farnese—were confirmed, as were the heavy cruisers Ares, Huan-Ti, and Ishtar, and the light cruiser Seahorse. They didn't have classes on the cruisers, but from the names the heavies were both probably Mars-class ships, like Krashnark, and Seahorse was probably one of the Peeps' new "frigate-class" light cruisers, like Bacchante. The rest of the escort, or even if there would be any additional escorts, had still been up for grabs when the courier boat sailed, but there would probably be at least a few more ships. Had it been a Navy escort for troopships destined for a front-line system, there would have been, at any rate, and the additional units would have included a minimum of two or three destroyers for long-range scouting. But this was an SS operation, and StateSec had been uninterested in smaller men-of-war when it started collecting its private fleet. Honor wasn't sure why that was, though she suspected that a great deal of the reason had to do with State Security's institutional egotism. Although, she conceded, the Black Legs' apparent belief that sooner or later they would confront mutinous ships of the People's Navy might also help explain it. It did make sense to go for a tonnage advantage if you could get one, after all. Although that left the interesting question of why StateSec hadn't been interested in dreadnoughts or superdreadnoughts.

Too much manpower tied up in crewing ships that size? Honor wondered. Could be, I suppose. Or it might just be that someone on the Committee of Public Safety recognized the insanity implicit in allowing the head of its "security forces" to assemble an actual battle fleet that answered only to him. Not that it matters right this minute.

"Harry's right, Ma'am," Warner Caslet said quietly. "The Warlords are big ships—at least as big as your Reliant class. I know you didn't get to see a lot of Tepes, but I did, and she was more heavily armed on a ton-for-ton basis than your ships are. Of course, their systems aren't as capable as yours, so they need the extra brute firepower to equalize the odds, but they're still bad medicine."

"I don't doubt it," Honor replied, "and I know Harry is right about the sheer number of hulls confronting us with more possible things to go wrong. But I think you're both missing the point. For the initial grab, at least, it wouldn't matter whether they were sending in superdreadnoughts or destroyers or how many of them there are. If they follow SOP, the entire force—escorts and transports alike— will stay together and come in close enough for our orbital weapons to get the drop on them. In that case, we can take out anything we have to, so the worst result from our viewpoint will be that we blow a ship away rather than taking her intact. But if even a single destroyer doesn't follow SOP and come in that close, all she has to do is run away and get help and we're all dead."

She shrugged, and Alistair McKeon nodded. He looked like a man sucking sour persimmons, but he wasn't alone in that. No one at the conference table looked particularly cheerful . . . except, perhaps, Honor.

I really do feel cheerful, too, she thought with some surprise. Because I'm as confident as I try to pretend? Or is it because I'm just grateful to have the other shoe drop at last?

Of course, she reminded herself, it wasn't really "the" other shoe. It was simply the first shoe—or the third, if she wanted to count Krashnark and Bacchante as the first two—and there were likely to be others before this was all over.

"On a brighter note," she went on, "look at all the personnel lift we get our hands on if we manage to pull this off." She nodded at the data on the five Longstops-class transports the warships would be escorting. "They're providing enough lift for a full seventy thousand slave laborers, assuming Tresca could find that many in so short a time, plus another forty-one thousand technicians and supervisory personnel and twenty-four thousand SS ground troops— and that doesn't even count the additional eight thousand SS support personnel attached to the intervention battalions. That's over a hundred and forty thousand total, and according to the readouts, these ships are actually designed to provide life support for forty thousand people each, exclusive of their own crews, so StateSec is planning on running them light."

"Was there anything in the message about why they're running so light?" Benson asked.

"No," Honor replied. "My best guess is that they expect to pick up some more warm bodies further down the line to Seabring. But what matters most to us right now is that we can grab off the personnel lift for two hundred thousand of our people aboard the transports alone. Then each of the battlecruisers has a normal complement of twenty-two hundred, so that's another forty-four hundred, plus a thousand each in the heavy cruisers—counting Krashnark and the three we know are coming, that's another four thousand. So we're looking at enough life support for—what? Two hundred and eight thousand of our people?"

"Which still leaves us a hundred and eighty-six thousand short of the numbers we need," McKeon pointed out in the tones of a man who hated being the voice of cold reason.

"Looking at the numbers from The Book, you're right, Sir," Fritz Montoya said. Honor had called the doctor in for the meeting expressly to address the life support question, and now he turned to look at all of them. "But the transports were designed around a lot of reserve environmental capacity. We could increase a Longstop's load from forty thousand to about fifty without stretching its life support dangerously. In a pinch, I'd be willing to call it fifty-six or maybe even fifty-seven. I wouldn't want to go much over that unless it was for a very short hop, but the enviro plants should carry the atmospheric load for that many as far as we need. The worst problem will be physical overcrowding, because that many people need a lot of cubage, and the ships' other waste processing systems will be heavily strained. But these are military transports. They're also designed to carry heavy combat equipment, and we could probably beef up the reclamation equipment by cannibalizing all the shuttles and pinnaces sitting here on Styx and adding their enviro plants as strap-on backups in their cargo spaces. It wouldn't be pretty or elegant, but there ought to be enough air to go around when we finish."

"I hadn't thought about the shuttles, Fritz," McKeon admitted, and pursed his lips with a faraway look.

"You're right about the Longstops" he went on. "They're way too slow to be used as anything we'd consider a true assault transport, but they are configured to carry all of their embarked troops' equipment as well as just the personnel. If we dump all the other hardware out of their vehicle holds, we could probably pack three or four dozen shuttles and pinnaces into each of them. For that matter, they've probably got around that many of their own already stowed in their boat bays, and if we've got 'em, we could even park a lot of them on the hull exteriors. Remember that Peeps go in for a lot more small craft docking ports than we do."

"You're thinking about putting people aboard them instead of the transports?" Ramirez asked.

"No, I was thinking more of connecting all of them to the ships' internal environmental systems as sort of secondary plants, or maybe booster stages."

"But even without that, Fritz's numbers would get us up to over two hundred and eighty-five thousand," Honor said, looking up from where she'd been scribbling numbers on an old-fashioned scratchpad.

"It would," Cynthia Gonsalves agreed. "But I don't like it. Even assuming Alistair's notion about using the shuttles and pinnaces works, it'll be a fragile, jury-rigged piece of work. And if we go with no safety margin, we create a situation in which if any part of the environmental plant does go down, people die." She sounded troubled, and Honor opened her mouth to reply, but Jesus Ramirez spoke up before she could.

"You're right," he agreed soberly. "On the other hand, if the plant holds, we get them all out. And if we don't get them out somehow, they die eventually anyway. Unless anyone in this room thinks we can hold this planet indefinitely against StateSec ... or maybe even the regular Peep Navy, if we prove too tough for the Black Legs to handle on their own."

"Of course we can't," Gonsalves acknowledged. "And I know it. I just hate stressing the plants to the max with no reserve at all."

"I agree," Gaston Simmons said. "But to be honest, I'm more worried about the hundred thousand plus we still won't be able to cram aboard them." Eyes turned to him from all around the table, and he shrugged. "I think Dame Honor is right to expect that we can take all of the ships we know Shilo is sending this way. We have to figure we can, at any rate, or else we might as well go ahead and give up right now. But even assuming we pack every soul we possibly can aboard those ships, what do we do with the people we can't stuff on board? Leave them behind?"

"No," Honor said so flatly that every eye snapped to her. "We're not abandoning a single person who's told us he or she wants off this rock."

"But if we can't lift them all out—" Gonsalves began.

"We can't lift them all out at once aboard the shipping we expect to be available," Honor said. "So we send out as many as we can in the first flight."

"First flight?" McKeon repeated very carefully.

"Exactly." Honor smiled thinly, with no amusement at all. "Assuming that we take the shipping from Shilo intact, we load the transports up and send them off with everyone we can fit aboard, but we hold the warships here."

McKeon frowned. He could feel where she was headed, and he didn't like it. Which didn't mean he saw an alternative he liked better.

"Hold the warships here?" Jesus Ramirez cocked his head at Honor and scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Are you thinking what I think you're thinking?"

"Probably." This time there was a bit of true humor in Honor's crooked half-smile. "We don't know who or what will be coming along after this first lot, but if we can grab off both battlecruisers and all three heavy cruisers, plus whatever else they send along for escort, we'll have the beginning of a fair little squadron of our own. If we can put even skeleton crews aboard each of them, we'll have the capability to run down and intercept later arrivals even if they get hinky and refuse to come into the orbital weapons' envelope. They'll also give us a mobile combat element that should let us think about some much more flexible defensive plans if the bad guys come calling in force."

"I like the thought, Honor," Benson said, "but do you think you might be getting a little overly ambitious? I know how rusty I am, and we've only got three more weeks to train in. Where do we get the people to man that many ships?"

"Warner?" Honor turned to Warner Caslet and crooked an eyebrow. "You're more familiar with Peep crewing requirements than any of us are. What's the minimum crew that could fight a Warlord effectively?"

"That's a little hard to say, Ma'am, since I never actually served aboard one of them," Caslet replied. But he also rubbed his left eyebrow while he thought hard. "You could start by forgetting the Marines," he said thoughtfully. "Our—I mean the People's Navy's—Marines don't have any real role in ship-to-ship combat, except to back up damage control, so we carry smaller Marine complements than Manty ships. We'd save about three hundred there, which would get us down to around nineteen. Then we could probably cut Engineering about in half and save another two-fifty."

"Cut Engineering in half?" McKeon sounded doubtful, and Caslet shrugged.

"You're going to have to take chances somewhere," he pointed out, "and our engineering departments are heavily overstaffed compared to yours because our people aren't as good. The worst part would be the loss of warm bodies for damage control—which would only be aggravated by leaving the Marines out, of course."

"True," Honor agreed. "On the other hand, I think any fighting we got involved in would have to be fairly short and decisive if it was going to do us any good. Damage control might be fairly immaterial under those circumstances."

"That seems a little optimistic to me, Honor," McKeon said, but then he shrugged. "On the other hand, Warner's right. We've got to take some chances somewhere. So how much more can we cut the designed complements, Warner?"

"We've already cut them by over five hundred," Caslet said, "and if we thin out the energy mount crews to the absolute minimum needed to fire them in local control if we lose the central fire control net, then do the same for the missile tubes, and then gut the boat bay department completely, we can probably save another . . . three hundred to three hundred twenty-five per ship. I don't see how you could reduce a Warlord's crew by much more than that and still have an efficient fighting machine."

"So five-fifty plus three-twenty-five, then?" Honor asked, and he nodded. "All right, call it eight hundred and seventy-five, so the complements come down to thirteen hundred per ship."

"Thirteen hundred and twenty-five by my math," McKeon told her with a slow grin. "But, then, who's counting?"

"I am," she said, "and it's not polite to call attention to the problems I have with math."

"I didn't; you did," he said, and she chuckled. Her other officers looked puzzled, sensing a bit of byplay they hadn't known her long enough to understand, but she felt their moods lighten anyway.

"Yes, I suppose I did," she admitted after a moment, "but using your numbers, then, two Warlords would require a total crew strength of twenty-six hundred and fifty."

"I believe they would," McKeon agreed with a twinkle. She smiled back, then returned her attention to Caslet

"And how far could we cut the crews for the Mars-class ships, Warner?"

"About the same ratio, Ma'am. Call it roughly forty percent."

"So that drops them to around six hundred each," she murmured, scribbling on her pad again. "Which makes twenty-four hundred for the four of them. Twenty-four plus twenty-six . . ." She jotted a total and cocked her head to consider it. "Excluding Bacchante and this Seahorse, I make it five thousand and fifty warm bodies," she said. "Adding the two light cruisers at just under five hundred each, that brings the total to right on six thousand. Does that sound fair?"

"I don't like cutting their companies by that much," McKeon said with a frown, "but Warner's probably right that we could get by with that sort of stretch if we absolutely had to. Especially if we can manage to engage with only one broadside per ship." He rubbed his jaw, then shrugged. "All right, six thousand sounds reasonable . . . under the circumstances."

Ramirez and Benson nodded sharply, followed a little more slowly by Gonsalves and Simmons. Gonsalves looked less happy than any of the others about it, but her nod was firm.

"Well, we've got roughly five thousand Allied POWs whose training is still reasonably up to snuff, in light of how recently they were dumped here," Honor pointed out, "and we've got another eighteen hundred we've been retraining in Krashnark and Bacchante. By my count, that's sixty-eight hundred . . . which is eight hundred more than we'd need."

"And what do we do with any other warships they send along?" Benson asked. Everyone turned to look at her, and she grinned. "I mean, while we're sitting here being so confident, let's assume they increase the escort and we get all of it intact. If we manage to pull that off, I'd purely hate not making maximum use of everything we can grab."

"I doubt we could come up with the people to fight more ships effectively," Simmons put in. "Oh, give us another three or four months, and we could probably change that. Most of our people were trained military personnel before they were sent here, so we know they could handle the load. Assuming we had time to bring them up to speed on modern hardware and put them all through refresher training . . . which we don't. For that matter, even a fair percentage of those Allied POWs you mentioned are going to need at least a quick refresher before we commit them to action, Dame Honor."

"True," Honor agreed. "But we probably can come up with enough people to run the power plants and actually man the cons on anything else we can grab—we wouldn't need more than forty or fifty people per ship for that. And that would let us pack still more evacuees into their crew quarters."

"And don't forget that warships always have more reserve life support than anything else in space, even military transports," Montoya pointed out. "The RMN's designers always assume warships are going to take damage, for example, so they build as much redundancy as they can into the core survival systems. We could increase nominal crew sizes by at least fifty percent and still have some reserve. In fact, we'd probably run out of places to put people well before we maxed out their enviro."

"So that would let us get at least another four or five thousand out," Ramirez mused. He gazed into the distance for several seconds, the nodded. "I like it," he said crisply.

"I wouldn't go quite that far in my own case," Benson said with a small smile. "But I don't think I see any alternative I'd like better— or as well, for that matter. But assuming this all works, where do we send the transports once we capture them?"

"Trevor's Star," McKeon suggested. "We know our people aren't going to take any chances with that system's security—not after how much it cost us capture it in the first place—so we can be fairly confident it's still in friendly hands. Or, at least, if things have gotten so bad that it isn't, we might as well stay here in the first place, because the Alliance is screwed."

"I don't know, Alistair." Honor leaned back and rubbed the tip of her nose. "I agree with your logic, but don't forget that we'll be sending in Peep military transports, possibly with Peep warships as escorts. Trigger fingers are going to be awfully itchy at someplace like Trevor's Star after what happened at Basilisk."

"I would very much like to go home," Jesus Ramirez said softly, the ache in his deep, rumbling voice reminding them all that San Martin was the planet of his birth, "but I believe you may have a point, Honor."

"That's probably true enough," McKeon acknowledged, "but it's also going to be true in just about any Allied system by now. At least Trevor's Star is the closest friendly port we know about, which means less time in transit and less opportunity for life support to fail."

"That's certainly a valid point," Gonsalves said. "And look at the compensators and hyper-generators on those transports. They're basically converted longhaul bulk freighters the Peeps have been using to transport work forces or haul peacekeeping troops to domestic hot spots for decades. That's probably why StateSec had them immediately available, but like Alistair said, they're a hell of a lot slower than anything a regular navy would consider using that close to a combat zone. They can't even climb as high as the top of the delta band, so their max apparent velocity isn't going to be any more than a thousand lights or so, and we're an awful long way from friendly territory. Even the voyage to Trevor's Star would take the next best thing to fifty days base time. The dilation effect will shrink that to about forty days subjective, but that's still over a full T-month for something to go wrong with their life support. If we send them still further to the rear—" She shrugged.

"I know." Honor frowned and rubbed her nose harder, then sighed. "I was hoping to send them clear to Manticore, or at least Grayson," she admitted, "but you and Alistair are right, Cynthia. The shorter the flight time the better. But in that case, they're going to have to be very careful how they approach the system perimeter."

"Careful I think we can manage," McKeon assured her. "I know abject, quivering terror tends to make me cautious as hell, anyway."

"All right, then." Honor looked around the table. "In that case, I want you and Fritz to take care of making the most careful estimates we can of our actual life-support capacity on a ship-by-ship basis, Cynthia. Gaston," she looked at Commodore Simmons, "you're in charge of drawing up the evac priority lists. I need three of them immediately: one of the people who should go in the first lift, assuming we use only the Longstops; one of the people best suited to crew any warships we take; and one that lists every soul who wants off this rock but who isn't on the first two. In addition, I want the last one organized to indicate the order in which they'll be moved out as extra lift becomes available. I don't want there to be any room for panic and fighting for places in the evac queue."

"Yes, Ma'am. Should I consider some sort of lottery for the evacuation lists?"

"I'll leave that up to you, at least until I see how they break down. As for the second list, I want all-volunteer crews for the warships if at all possible, but if we've got anyone with recent experience, I need them. Try and talk any reluctant heroes into volunteering. If you can't, give me a list of their names and let me have a go at them."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Alistair, you and Jesus are in charge of accelerating the retraining program as much as possible, because Gaston is right; we do need to get in at least a quickie refresher for everyone. I want to cycle the current batch of trainees out of Krashnark and Bacchante within the next seventy-two hours, and I want the designed training cycle cut to one week."

"That's not very long," McKeon protested.

"No, but it's all the time we've got," Honor told him flatly. "Increase the percentage of people with recent experience in each cycle. They can help train the people who are completely out of date at the same time they dust off their own skill levels, and, frankly, I'll settle for half-trained companies to take over the escorts if we manage to capture them in the first place. We can arrange for additional training onboard the ships themselves later, if the Peeps give us the time, but I want them able to at least defend themselves— or run away, if the odds go to crap on us—ASAP."

"Understood," McKeon said.

"Good. Harry," she turned to Benson, "I wish I could leave you aboard Krashnark, but I need you for Control Central, at least for now. We need to start pushing training harder there, as well. We've let ourselves slow down once we had four complete watch crews trained, but the control consoles for the orbital weaponry are very similar to the weapons controls aboard the Peeps' warships. Let's get as many people trained on them dirtside as we can."

"Yes, Ma'am." Benson nodded sharply, and Honor turned to Caslet with another of her crooked smiles.

"As for you, Warner, I want you to make yourself available to everybody, everywhere, at every single instant, twenty-six hours a day. I realize we're talking about State Security and not the People's Navy, but you still know more about the ships and the procedures involved than any of the rest of us. I'm sure all of us will have specific questions for you in the next few days, and if you think of anything—anything at all—that could be a worthwhile suggestion, don't hesitate to make it."

"Yes, Ma'am." He returned her smile, and she felt a deep sense of personal satisfaction as she tasted the change in his emotions. The wounded anguish the "desertion" of his country had wakened at his core had diminished. It hadn't vanished, and she doubted it ever would, for he was a decent and an honorable man. But he had come to terms with it, accepted it as the price he must pay for doing what he believed to be right, and she could feel him reaching out to the challenge.

Admiral Lady Dame Honor Harrington let her eye sweep around the conference room one last time. Her entire plan was insane, of course . . . but that was nothing new. And crazy or not, she'd brought them all this far.

Yes, I have, she thought, and I will by God take every single one of them home with me in the end, as well!

"All right, then, people," she said calmly. "Let's be about it."


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