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Chapter Forty-Six

"Welcome to Flag Bridge, Citizen General," Citizen Commander Yang said pleasantly.

"Thank you, Citizen Commodore," Citizen Major General Thornegrave responded, as politely as if they both meant a word of it, and they smiled at one another.

"As I explained when I screened you, we're just coming up on our alpha translation, Sir," Yang went on. "We'll reenter n-space in—" she glanced at the date/time display "—eleven and a half minutes."

"Excellent, Citizen Commodore. And from there to Hades orbit?"

"We're making a fairly gentle translation, Sir." Yang smiled again, this time with genuine humor. "There's no need for what a crash translation does to people's nerves and stomachs, after all. That means we'll hit normal-space with a velocity of only about a thousand KPS, and we'll be about fourteen and a half light-minutes from Hades on a direct intercept course. Unfortunately from the prospect of a fast passage, however, the Longstops can only manage about two hundred and twenty gravities. That gives us a total flight time of almost exactly six hours, but the decel leg will be eight minutes—and about a hundred and fifteen thousand klicks—longer than the accel because of the velocity we'll take across the alpha wall with us."

"I see." Thornegrave nodded gravely, and despite his antipathy for regular officers in general and his awareness of the need to put this regular officer in particular in her place and keep her there, he was grateful for her apparent tact. No doubt a Navy officer, or even a Marine, would have realized what bringing an initial velocity across from hyper-space would have meant for their passage time to Hades. Thornegrave hadn't, but Yang had found a way to give him the information without drawing any attention to the fact that he'd needed it. That might not matter in the long run, but her explanation might also keep him from saying something which would sound at best ill-informed and at worst stupid in front of some junior officer.

Yang saw the flicker of awareness in his eyes, but she had no intention of indicating that she had, for she'd long since decided Thornegrave needed regular stroking to keep him off her back. It wasn't even really because he was StateSec, either. She'd had regular Navy superiors who were just as compulsive about controlling everything and everyone around them, and she sometimes wondered if that sort of personality was what had propelled them to senior rank in the first place.

Of course, she didn't dare forget his SS connections for a moment, either, and he'd seen to it that she hadn't. The one good thing about her current assignment was that there was no people's commissioner attached to her staff. The downside of that was that the reason for it was that she was, in effect, simply attached to Thornegrave's staff, which left him filling the role of watchdog himself. Worse, the Longstops couldn't climb above the delta bands (which was why no Navy officer would have even considered using them to deliver so many troops so close to the front line of a serious war), so the piddling little 33.75 light-year-voyage from Shilo to Cerberus had required over two hundred and ninety-five hours, base-time. Relativity had reduced that to just under ten days subjective at the transports' best speed, but that had still given him entirely too much time to make himself totally unbearable. Of course, she thought moodily, a man with his immense native talent could have done that in just a few hours. Nine days had simply given him the time he needed to achieve complete artistry.

But they were coming up on Cerberus at last, thank God. She could at least hope that the chance to boss around more of his red-coated SS minions would distract him from badgering her for the next couple of days. On the other hand, we're scheduled to ship everyone on board and be out of here within seventy-two hours, and it's going to take us over five and a third T-weeks subjective to reach Seabring. She shuddered at the very thought, but shuddering wouldn't change anything.

"The actual translation from hyper to n-space is quite visually spectacular, Sir," she went on in her most pleasant voice. "Have you ever had the opportunity to observe it?"

"No. No, I haven't," Thornegrave replied after a moment.

"If you'd like a ringside seat for it, Sir, you can watch the main plot here on Flag Bridge. CIC will be keeping an eye out for Tactical, and I'm sure Citizen Captain Ferris will be watching his maneuvering plot carefully. But I rather enjoy watching the translation bleed myself, so I normally have the main plot configured to take a visual feed from the forward optical heads. Or you can also watch it directly with the naked eye from the observatory blister."

Thornegrave regarded her thoughtfully. He more than half suspected she was looking for any excuse to tempt him off "her" flag bridge, but if she was she'd certainly found a bait that piqued his interest. And she had covered his ass for him with that smoothly slipped in little explanation, so he supposed he could argue that he owed her some small triumph in return. He weighed silent pros and cons for several seconds, then shrugged mentally. He had no intention of spending the next six hours standing around on Flag Bridge. Yang was going to, but it was her job to play chauffeur. In his own case, however, he could use the observation blister as an excuse to leave now, then come back several hours later to fulfill his role as the expeditionary CO without losing face.

"I believe I will watch it from the observation blister, Citizen Commodore," he said graciously. "Thank you for the suggestion."

"You're quite welcome, Sir," Yang told him, and her eyes glinted with satisfaction as she watched him head for the lift.


Citizen Lieutenant Rodham was waiting to play guide again. Thornegrave's initial opinion of the citizen lieutenant had been amply confirmed in the course of the trip from Shilo, and he was amazed and baffled by how someone as unprepossessing as young Guillermo could convince so many different women to sleep with him. The citizen major general still didn't like the citizen lieutenant a bit, but he'd been forced to change his mind about him in at least one regard. He'd figured the smarmy, apple-polishing little bastard to be completely useless, but he'd been wrong. The citizen lieutenant wasn't particularly skilled at his official duties, but he attacked them (when anyone was looking, at any rate) with enormous energy, and he'd displayed a facile wit at borrowing other people's work or at least explaining away his own failures. More to the point, however, he had a quality StateSec occasionally needed badly: amorality.

It grieved Thornegrave to admit that, for he disliked seeing people in SS uniform who were devoted to the Revolution solely out of ambition, not conviction. He despised such fellow-travelers on a personal level, and on a professional one, he regarded them as dangerous soft spots in the People's armor. If they would profess one belief out of expediency, there was no reason to believe they wouldn't embrace conversion to another the instant the winds of advantage looked like shifting.

Yet much as he disliked admitting it, he knew people like Citizen Lieutenant Rodham made the best informers. One had to be careful to ensure that they weren't "informing" on some obstacle to their own advancement simply to get the unfortunate person out of their way, but people who had no convictions would not be led by mistaken convictions to risk their own hides to protect others. More to the point, perhaps, they had a priceless gift any really good informer needed: they made people trust them. In Rodham's case, for example, he had not only inveigled Citizen Major Regina Sanderman into his bed, but also into some highly indiscreet pillow talk. Sanderman didn't know it yet, but Thornegrave did. He and his chief of staff were watching the citizen major very carefully, waiting for the actions which would confirm the disaffection her talks with Rodham had suggested.

I really do hate this little bottom-feeder, Thornegrave reflected as, once again, the citizen lieutenant punched the code to summon a lift car, but the People cant afford to throw away a perfectly useful tool just because its handle is a little slimy. And at least he does know his way around this damned ship better than I do. I wonder how much of that comes from nipping in and out of other people's bunks?

"Does the Citizen General wish the Citizen Lieutenant to escort him to the observation blister, Sir?" Rodham asked when the car arrived, and Thornegrave looked at him sharply. Rodham hadn't been on Flag Bridge when Yang made her offer, nor had Thornegrave yet told him where they were headed.

It seems I underestimated him. He's got better sources than I thought. But he may be even stupider than I thought, too, if he's going around showing off the fact that he's keeping tabs on me. Or else he's clever enough—and gutsy enough—to deliberately risk pissing me off by displaying that his ability as an information gatherer extends even to my own movements because he figures his demonstrated value will impress me enough to outweigh my irritation with him?

"Yes," he said after a moment. "Please do escort me to the blister, Citizen Lieutenant."

"Of course, Sir! If the Citizen General will follow me, please?"

Oh, I will. I will! Thornegrave decided. And I'll give you a little more rope, too, Citizen Lieutenant. You're too full of your own cleverness to last forever, but it'll be interesting to see how far you get before you fall off that cliff you're so busy building . . . and how far you bounce.


"Hyper footprint!"

Honor looked up as the grav scanner chief of the watch called out the warning. All other sound ceased in the control room, and every eye joined Honor's in swinging to the master plot as the bright red icons of unidentified hyper translations blinked into life. She realized she was holding her breath, counting the sources as they appeared, and forced herself to breathe out and look away, displaying her calmness to the troops.

"Seventeen point sources, Ma'am!" the chief petty officer announced.

"Acknowledged, Scan. Thank you, and stay on it," Commander Phillips replied. She was the CO of Charon Control now, for Harriet Benson was back in space, commanding ENS Bacchante while Alistair McKeon commanded ENS Krashnark and Jesus Ramirez acted as the fledgling "Elysian Space Navy's" senior officer in space. Honor would have preferred to be out there herself, but her place was here, with the bulk of her people, and between them, Jesus and Alistair made a team which would be hard to beat. Especially with Benson to back them up.

The scan tech said something else to Phillips—a question this time, asked too quietly for Honor to hear—and the commander nodded. Then she patted the CPO on his shoulder and crossed to Honor.

"Any orders, Milady?"

"No," Honor replied, watching the plot once more. "I—"

"Excuse me, Admiral, but we have their probable course plotted," the senior tracking officer said. Honor looked at the woman and nodded for her to continue. "We make it right on six hours for a zero-zero intercept, Ma'am. Their present accel is two-point-one-six KPS squared, which is right on the money for the Longstops, and they haven't had time to ask for course directions yet, but their heading is right to take them exactly to Point Alpha. I'd say it has to be the Shilo Force."

"Thank you, Commander." Point Alpha was the entry point for the shortest of the four cleared routes through the Hades minefields. All four entry points were marked on the standard SS charts, which was evidence that those were StateSec ships out there, but Charon Control routinely shifted the actual routes around. That meant the newcomers certainly would ask for course directions shortly . . . assuming Commander Ushakovna was correct, of course.

Honor suppressed a desire to grimace and nobly refrained from pointing out that she hadn't asked Tracking to speculate, and she heard (and felt) Nimitz's quiet bleek of entertainment from her shoulder at her restraint. Commander Ushakovna was almost certainly right, after all, and Nimitz and Honor both knew Honor's fleeting temptation to say something cutting stemmed solely from her own nervous tension.

Well, at least I didn't do it, Honor thought wryly, and tasted Nimitz's agreement over their link. The cat leaned forward in the carrier she wore on her back now, and the tip of his nose whuffled gently through her hair to find the back of her ear while his amused love flowed into her.

"All right, people," she said, turning to look over the staff manning the control room. "We should be receiving their ID transmission within the next ten minutes or so, but it's going to be a long, slow haul before they get close enough for us to make our move. I want you all to take a deep breath and settle down. We only get one shot at this, but we've done it before on a smaller scale, and we can do it again. Commander Phillips."

"Yes, Milady?"

"If you would, please, I want everyone relieved in rotation. We've got the trained personnel. Let's be sure the people who are going to be carrying the ball when the penny drops are rested and fed."

"Aye, aye, Milady. I'll see to it."


Citizen Major General Thornegrave paused, his hands resting lightly on his keyboard. The words of the memo on the living conditions to be provided for the forced laborers in Seabring glowed steadily on his terminal, but his attention drifted away from them once more. It wasn't like him to be distracted this way . . . but, then, he seldom had a memory quite so spectacular to do the distracting, either.

The hyper translation had been all Citizen Commodore Yang had promised. He'd never imagined anything like it, and he knew he'd stood there, gawking through the observation blister's magnifying grav lens, as ship after ship followed Farnese across the hyper-space wall into the Cerberus System. The sleek battlecruisers had been magnificent enough, with the two hundred and fifty-kilometer disks of their Warshawski sails bleeding blue lightning, but the transports had been even more awesome. They outmassed the battlecruisers by over five-to-one, and despite their weaker drives, the actual area of their sails was much greater. They had flashed into existence like huge, azure soap bubbles, blazing against the blackness like brief-lived blue suns, and the sight had driven home the reality of their sheer size. There were many larger ships in space, yet for the first time in his memory, Thornegrave had been pushed into standing back and appreciating the sheer scale of the human race's dreams. By many standards, the Longstops were little more than moderately oversized cargo barges, and he knew it, but they didn't feel that way as they glowed and flashed in the long night.

And if we can build ships like that, surely we also have the capability to complete the Revolution, he'd thought, gazing in awe at the spectacle. But then he'd felt a cold chill as the unsought counterargument trickled through his brain: Unless someone equally capable— like the goddamned Manties—manages to stop us.

It was at such moments that he most missed Cordelia Ransom. Unlike ninety-nine-point-nine percent of his personnel, Prestwick Thornegrave knew what had really happened to Ransom right here in this system. In his personal opinion, PubIn had been wise to announce that she—and Tepes—had been lost in action while acting as the Committee's personal representative at the front. It had been no more than true—aside from the minor issues of where and how the ship had been destroyed—and it had given her the status she had so richly earned as one of the Revolution's most revered martyrs. Her loss had still been a savage blow to the New Order, and Thornegrave rather regretted the fact that the delay in announcing her death had required State Security to lie to the survivors of so many of its own personnel—by omission, at least—by concealing Tepes' loss. But the Committee had clearly recognized that admitting the Manties and their lackeys had killed her after she ordered that aristocratic, elitist murderess Harrington's execution would have hurt the People's morale—and boosted the Manties'—more than her later, more traditionally heroic "official" death.

Now he grunted irritably as the familiar thought reminded him once more of the People's loss and dragged him back to the present. He glowered at the words on the display in front of him, then snorted and saved and closed the file. His moment of exaltation on the observation deck lay five-plus hours in the past, and it was time he returned to Flag Deck.


"They're coming up on their final course change, Milady," Commander Phillips said quietly, and Honor nodded, never looking away from the plot. Phillips' voice was a bit hoarser than it had been when the Peeps first made translation, and Honor wasn't surprised. The tension had ratcheted steadily higher as the enemy continued blithely in-system, and in an odd sort of way, their very failure to show any suspicion at all only made it worse. It was as if everyone in the control room was holding his or her mental breath, waiting tautly for some indication that all their plans were going into the crapper, and every moment in which that didn't happen simply made the dread that it might that much stronger.

Of course, it isn't all "their" plans; it's all my plans, Honor thought wryly. She felt the dryness in her own mouth, and Nimitz leaned forward against her back, resting his chin on her shoulder and crooning almost subliminally to her. Or perhaps it was subliminal, something sensed over their link and not heard by her ears at all.

She drew a deep breath and made herself stand motionless, the thumb of her single hand hooked into her belt. She didn't really care for that pose—it felt slouched and unprofessional—but she could hardly clasp one hand behind her in her usual "I'm feeling no tension" mannerism. The thought wrung a genuine chuckle out of her, and she saw Phillips turn towards her in surprise.

She shook her head at the other woman, declining to explain her humor. It wouldn't have done much for her image as a calm, cool combat commander. Besides, she wasn't sure how much of it was a tension reaction. Everyone had felt nerves tighten as Scanning got a better read on the seventeen point sources. They had expected two battlecruisers and three heavy cruisers; they'd gotten six BCs and four CAs, with two light cruisers as a screen. In the final analysis, the additional firepower shouldn't make much difference, but that hadn't kept the increased odds from making them all wonder what other surprises the Peeps might have in store for them.

Not that we don't have a few surprises of our own, Honor thought more grimly. She glanced at a secondary plot, this one showing the two green icons hiding behind Niflheim, the outermost of Hell's three moons. Krashnark and Bacchante held their positions, concealed from any Peep sensor in the moon's shadow but ready to dash out firing at need. They wouldn't add much to the orbital defenses' sheer weight of fire, but their mobility gave them a tactical value all their own . . . not to mention what the realization that her people had already seized at least two enemy ships might do to the Peeps' morale.

The convoy from Shilo made its last course alteration, swinging just outside the innermost ring of mines and settling into parking orbit. Their short-range active sensors were on-line, but that was no more than a sensible precaution this close to such a massive concentration of mines. It was always possible for the station-keeping drive on one or more mines to fail and send the weapons into what was supposed to be a safety zone, and no sane captain (even an SS captain, apparently) wanted to be taken by surprise when something like that happened. But the incoming ships obediently shut down their wedges as they came up on their assigned orbital positions, and Honor looked up as Phillips leaned towards her tactical officer.

"Any sign of active weapon systems?"

"No, Ma'am," the lieutenant commander at Tactical replied. "And they're powering down the nodes on the freighters."

"Only on the freighters?" Phillips voice started out sharply, but she got control of it by the third word and smoothed it out quickly.

"So far," the tac officer confirmed. "Wait one. . . . We've got node power-down on the cruisers, as well, Commander, but the battle-cruisers are showing standby power readings."

Phillips said something under her breath, then glanced at Honor, who shrugged more calmly than she felt.

"It was always a possibility," she said evenly. "If I were in command up there, I'd probably do the same thing with all my ships, not just the battlecruisers. It's the only way they can hope to execute any radical maneuvers quickly enough to do some good if a mine does come adrift up there. But it won't make much difference against the amount of firepower we can actually hit them with."

"Agreed, Milady," Phillips said, and then grinned tautly. "Not that I wouldn't be happier if they'd gone ahead and shut them all down!"

"You and me both, Commander," Honor admitted, then drew a deep breath and stepped over to the communications station. She reached down and took the microphone the com officer handed her. The Al-driven "Warden Tresca" Scotty Tremaine and Horace Harkness had built out of the dead Black Leg's file imagery had performed beautifully during the Peeps' approach, but it was time for a more hands-on approach, she thought grimly, then nodded to Phillips.

"All right, Commander. Pass the word to Krashnark and Bacchante to stand by, then prepare to execute Flypaper."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am."


"That's odd," Citizen Commodore Yang murmured.

Citizen Major General Thornegrave glanced up from his conversation with Voyager's skipper at the sound of her voice. The big transport's CO went right on talking in response to Thornegrave's last question, but the Citizen Major General wasn't listening. He was watching Yang as she leaned over a waterfall display at the tactical station and frowned.

"What is it, Citizen Commodore?" he asked.

"Probably nothing, Sir," Yang replied, eyes still on the display, "but Camp Charon is still hitting us with an awful lot of active sensors, radar and lidar alike."

"Why should they be doing that?" He heard a small, sharp edge in his own voice, yet there was no real concern in it. Just puzzlement that grew as Yang shrugged.

"They were tracking us all the way in, Sir—as a routine security precaution, I assumed. Why they should continue doing it now that we're in orbit is beyond me, however. Oh," she waved one hand in a dismissive gesture, "I suppose they could be running some sort of training exercise down there. They can probably use all the live tracking experience they can get. It's just that there are a lot more sensors involved than I would have expected, and lidar is normally used primarily as fire control."

"Fire control?" Thornegrave half-rose, but Yang turned and shook her head quickly at him.

"Fire control teams need practice, too, Sir," she reassured him, "and the fact that their sensors are active doesn't mean their weapons have been released. In fact, it's SOP for the weapons not to be enabled in an exercise, so I'm not afraid of anyone shooting us by accident. It's just that the exercise, or whatever it is, is on a much greater scale than I would have antici—"

She broke off as her com officer jerked suddenly upright in her chair. The woman spun towards her CO, then remembered Thornegrave's presence and started towards him, only to freeze half way. She hovered indecisively, training and desire drawing her one way, the formal chain of command and fear of the SS drawing her the other, then shook herself out of her paralysis. She didn't face either of them directly. Instead, she aimed her eyes at an invisible point midway between them.

"Citizen General, I—" She sounded shaken, almost stunned, and broke off, then cleared her throat. "I believe you'd better listen to this message from Groundside, Sir," she said in a flatter, mechanical tone.

"What message?" Thornegrave growled. "Is it Warden Tresca?" He'd already had a long conversation with Tresca on his way in, and the man had signed off less than ten minutes ago. What could he be comming back about so soon?

"No, Sir." The com officer swallowed. "It's— Here, Sir."

She held out an earbug and Thornegrave blinked at her in astonishment. She was clear across the bridge from him, and he snorted in impatience.

"Just put it on my display, Citizen Commander," he said brusquely. She gazed at him a moment longer, still holding the earbug, then shrugged and turned back to her own console.

"Yes, Sir. Replaying the original transmission now." Thornegrave leaned back in his chair, wondering what in the world could explain the woman's odd attitude, and then his eyebrow rose as another woman appeared in his display. There was something oddly familiar about her, but the uniform was entirely wrong. Her tunic was sky-blue, her trousers were dark blue, the stars on her shoulder boards were the wrong shape for any of the People's uniformed branches, and she appeared to be missing her left arm. The hair under her bizarre visored cap was a close-cropped mass of feathery curls, and the left side of her face looked almost paralyzed, and he frowned. That face and that uniform rang distant warning bells, but he didn't know why, and at the moment, surprise kept all other reactions at bay. But then a small, sharp-muzzled head appeared over her right shoulder, and air hissed in his nostrils. Grayson! That was a Grayson admiral's uniform, and the woman was—

"Attention PNS Farnese," the face on his display said in a cold, hard voice. "I am Admiral Honor Harrington, Grayson Space Navy, and the planet Hades is under my control. I am transmitting this message to the attention of Citizen General Thornegrave over a whisker laser in order to ensure privacy. My purpose is to allow you the opportunity to reply to my transmission before its contents become general knowledge and inspire someone to panic and do something stupid."

She paused, very briefly, and Thornegrave stared at her numbly while his brain slithered and skidded like a man on slick ice.

"I am transmitting from the central control room at Camp Charon," she resumed in that same, diamond-hard voice, "and the targeting systems now locked onto your vessels are under my command. You are instructed to cut all power to your nodes immediately and stand by to be boarded. Any resistance to those instructions, or to any other order from myself or my subordinates, will be met with deadly force. I require an immediate response to these instructions."

Thornegrave fought his horrified shock, but his mind was too stunned to function. It was impossible, a small, cold voice insisted in the back of his brain. Honor Harrington was dead. She'd been dead for weeks before Publn faked up her execution for the media. There was no possible way she could be looking out of his com screen and issuing ultimatums. Damn it to hell, she was dead!

But her grim, purposeful expression was awfully determined looking for a dead woman's.

"My God!" Thornegrave looked up at the whispered half-prayer and saw Yang standing at his shoulder. "That's— It can't be her! I saw the imagery of her execution myself! Unless—" She jerked her eyes from the display to stare at Thornegrave, and the citizen major general saw the speculation erupting behind her eyes. But he could only look back at her, his own brain refusing to accept the evidence of his senses, and then the com officer spoke again.

"I'm receiving another transmission, Sir!" she said sharply, and Thornegrave twitched as the citizen commander switched the new message to his display without orders.

"I am awaiting your response, Citizen General Thornegrave," Harrington said coldly, "but my patience is not unlimited. You will comply with my instructions now, or I will open fire on your vessels. You have thirty seconds to acknowledge my transmission."

"Sir, we have to do something!" Yang said urgently.

"But we— I mean, I can't—" Thornegrave swallowed hard and forced his brain to function by sheer willpower. "Citizen Commander!" he barked at the com officer.

"Yes, Sir?"

"Is she telling the truth, or is this going out to the other ships, as well?"

"I don't believe it is, Sir. We're receiving an encrypted whisker laser from one of Charon's comsats. I think she meant it when she said she doesn't want anyone else hearing her just yet." The citizen commander paused a moment, then cleared her throat. "Is there a reply, Sir?" she asked.

"No, there is not!" Thornegrave snapped. "I will tell you when I decide—when I decide, Citizen Commander!—to respond to any messages. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Sir," the com officer replied flatly, and Thornegrave glared at her. A part of him knew he was lashing out at her as a sop to his own incipient panic, but the rest of him didn't much care. And if using her as a target helped hold that panic at bay and jog his brain back into working, so much the better.

"Citizen General, we don't have time for this!" Yang said in a low, urgent voice. "Her time limit is running out, and we're sitting ducks up here. You've got to respond now!"

"I don't have to do anything, Citizen Commodore!" Thornegrave told her sharply.

"Yes, you do!" Yang snapped back. "She's giving you a chance to settle this without bloodshed, Sir. If you throw it away, God only knows what will happen!"

"I am not accustomed to being dictated to by escaped prisoners who—" Thornegrave began, but Yang cut him off harshly.

"She's not an escaped prisoner; she's the person who controls the firepower to blow this entire convoy to hell in a heartbeat!" she told the SS officer in a voice like ground glass.

"Nonsense! You're panicking—exaggerating!"

"No I'm not!" She glared at him, "Sir, this is my area of expertise, not yours, and we are utterly helpless up here. None of us have our wedges up. We can't maneuver, our point defense is down . . . Hell, we don't even have our rad shielding on-line! If we even bring up our fire control, her sensors will spot it instantly, and she can swat us like flies before we lock up a target or—"

"Very well, Citizen General," the cold, flat voice from his com said. "Your time is up. What happens now will be on your head." She looked out of the field of the pickup. "Switch to the all-ships' frequency," she said.

"What? What does she mean?" Thornegrave demanded, but Yang had already spun away from him. She ignored him completely, snapping urgent commands for her com officer to get her a link to the other captains. But there wasn't time, and Thornegrave saw Harrington turn back to face the pickup.

"To all units orbiting Hades," she said flatly. "This is Admiral Honor Harrington, Grayson Space Navy. I am in control of Hades and all of its facilities, including its orbital defenses. You are locked up by my fire control as I speak. You will immediately cut all power to your drives, shut down all active sensors, and await boarding. Any delay in the execution of or disobedience to any of those instructions will result in the destruction of the disobeying vessel. This is your first, last, and only warning. Harrington out."

"All ships," Yang was barking into her own microphone. "All ships, this is the Flag! Comply with all instructions from Charon! I repeat, comply—"

"Citizen Commodore—the Attila!"

Yang swung towards the master plot, and a spiked fist grabbed her stomach and squeezed as PNS Attila's StateSec CO panicked. She couldn't really blame him, she thought numbly—not when Harrington's demand came at him cold that way. If that idiot Thornegrave hadn't blustered and delayed, it might not have happened. As it was, every captain was on his or her own, and Attila's impellers were still at standby. Yang would never know exactly what Citizen Captain Snellgrave had hoped to achieve. Perhaps he'd thought that if he got the wedge up fast enough, brought his sidewalls on-line quickly enough, he might last long enough to take Charon out with a missile strike before the orbital defenses killed his ship. Perhaps he actually thought he could maneuver clear under the cover of his wedge, though only a fool—or someone driven to fatal stupidity by panic—could have believed anything of the sort. The most likely answer was that he simply didn't think at all; he just reacted.

Whatever he thought he was doing, it was the last mistake he ever made. Attila hadn't even moved yet. Her emergency reaction thrusters flared wildly, and her impeller strength shot upward, spinning towards full power, and Charon's sensors must have seen it the instant it began to change. The wedge was only beginning to form, still far too nebulous to interdict incoming fire, when eight remote graser platforms opened fire simultaneously. All eight scored direct hits, and beams that could have ripped through unprotected battle steel at three-quarters of a million kilometers smashed into her from less than two thousand. They punched straight through her hull like battering rams, shattering plating, tearing anyone and anything in their paths to splinters, and the battlecruiser's emissions signature spiked madly as the grasers shed energy into her. Her thrusters were still firing, turning her on her long axis, and the energy fire gutted her like a gaffed shark. And then, with shocking suddenness, her fusion plants let go.

Yang's visual display blanked as the dreadful, white-hot boil of fury overpowered the filters. Attila was less than six hundred kilometers from Farnese when she went, and the flagship's hull fluoresced wildly as the stripped atoms of her eviscerated sister slashed across her. Only her standard, station-keeping particle screens were up, and those were intended mainly to keep dust from accumulating on her hull. They had never been intended to deal with something like this, and threat receivers and warning signals wailed.

It was only later that Yang realized that only one of Attila's plants had actually let go. The fail-safes on the other two must have functioned as designed. If they hadn't, Attila would have taken Farnese and probably Wallenstein, as well, with her. As it was, the flagship's damage was incredibly light. Her starboard sensors, communications arrays, and point defense laser clusters were stripped away, half her weapon bay hatches were warped and jammed, up to a half meter of her armor was planed away in some places, and she lost two beta nodes out of her forward ring and three more out of her after ring, but her port side was untouched, and the sensors and com lasers on the roof and floor of her hull survived more or less unscathed. Had she dared contemplate resistance, she would actually have remained a fighting force. . . until the grasers which had killed Attila got around to her, at any rate.

Wallenstein was further away . . . and partially shielded by the heavy cruiser Hachiman. The big Mars-class cruiser took a savage beating from the explosion. She was much closer than Farnese had been, and the shock front smashed over her on the heels of the energy spike. The fact that any of her hull survived even remotely intact was an enormous testimonial to her designers and builders, but she was turned into a dead hulk, blasted and broken, and none of her people had been in skinsuits or expecting trouble of any sort. Two-thirds of them died almost instantly; of those who survived the initial blast, half took lethal radiation doses not even modern medicine could do a thing about.

But her sacrifice saved Wallenstein from Farnese's fate. She came through with only minor damage, and Kutuzov, MacAnhur, and Barbarosa, Yang's other battlecruisers, were far enough out to escape without significant injury. Best of all, all of her other ships' skippers— thank God!—had the sense to do absolutely nothing to draw the defenses' ire down on them.

The rest of the convoy was outside lethal radius of the explosion, and Yang felt a bitter, ungrudging moment of admiration as she realized why "Charon Control" had been so careful to steer the warships and transports into different orbits. The Longstops would have been turned inside out by a fraction of the damage Farnese had survived, but their positions meant they got little more than a moderate shaking from the explosion. The light cruiser Sabine was almost as fortunate; her sister ship Seahorse was not. The second light cruiser remained more or less intact, but most of her weapons and virtually all of her sensors were reduced to scrap, her after hammerhead was smashed in and twisted, and half her after impeller ring—including two alpha nodes—was destroyed outright.

It took several minutes for the explosion's interference to fade enough for Charon to punch a fresh com laser through to Farnese, and a white-faced Prestwick Thornegrave stared in horror at the face of the woman who had just killed four thousand of his personnel.

"I regret the necessity of that action," she said flatly, "but if any of your surviving vessels fail to comply instantly and completely with any instructions they receive, I will repeat it. And I will repeat it as many times as I must, Citizen General. Is that understood?"

Thornegrave stared at her, and his mouth worked, but no words came. Her expression hardened, and a small tic developed at the corner of her mouth as he gaped at her like a beached fish. He tried frantically, but he couldn't get a single word out, however desperate his effort, and Rachel Yang shot one look at him, then punched buttons at her own com station. Thornegrave's face vanished from the transmission to Charon, and hers replaced it.

"This is Citizen Commodore Rachel Yang," she said flatly. "Your instructions have been received and will be obeyed, Admiral Harrington. Our communications are badly disorganized up here at the moment, however. Please give us a little time to get our net back up so that I can pass the appropriate orders to the other units of the convoy."

"Very well, Citizen Commodore," Harrington replied. "You have five minutes to instruct your vessels to stand by to be boarded. My people will come aboard in battle armor and with heavy weapons. Any resistance—any resistance at all, Citizen Commander—will be met with lethal and overwhelming force."

"Understood," Yang got out through gritted teeth.

"Be very sure that it is, Citizen Commodore, because most of my people have been on Hell for years, even decades. They won't hesitate for a moment to kill anyone who resists. In fact, they're probably looking forward to it."

"Understood," Yang repeated.

"Good." The right side of Harrington's mouth curled to bare her teeth in what might conceivably have been described—by someone other than Rachel Yang—as a smile. "Then there's just one more thing, Citizen Commodore. You will inform your captains that any effort to abandon ship, scuttle their vessels, or wreck their computer nets will also be considered justification for the use of lethal force. Your ships are our prizes, and they are StateSec vessels. As such, and in light of what State Security has done to the prisoners on this planet, neither they nor your personnel are protected in our eyes by the Deneb Accords. They would be wise to remember that."

She never raised her voice. It remained conversational, almost normal, but liquid helium lurked in its depths, and Rachel Yang felt something shudder deep down inside her as she nodded in silent submission.


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