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Chapter Forty-Seven

"Preparations complete, Milady," Captain Gonsalves said formally from the com display, and Honor nodded back gravely. For forty-seven hours, every available hand had labored frantically. Now it was time.

"Very well, Captain Gonsalves," she said just as formally. "You're cleared to depart." Then her voice softened. "Godspeed, Cynthia," she finished quietly.

"Thank you." Gonsalves managed a smile. "We'll see you at Trevor's Star, Ma'am. Don't be late!"

She cut the circuit, and Honor turned to the display on her new flag deck and watched the transports accelerate ponderously out of Hades orbit towards the hyper limit with their single escort. They'd managed to cram just over two hundred and eighty-six thousand people—her people now, however they'd become that—aboard those ships. That was a little better even than Montoya had estimated, and the troop decks were packed claustrophobically full. But crowded as they were, their life support—buttressed by the scores of small craft which had been added to their systems—should suffice to see their passengers safely home.

Even now, Honor could hardly believe they'd actually managed to get this far, and she felt a fierce pride as the Longstops headed outward.

She deeply regretted the spectacular destruction of Attila and (for all intents and purposes) Hachiman and Seahorse, and not simply because of the loss of life. The explosion had cost her ships she'd needed badly, and it would have been entirely avoidable if that idiot Thornegrave had taken the opportunity she'd given him to surrender without violence. But he hadn't, and she hadn't dared give him more time. For all she'd known, he'd simply been stalling while he used untappable whisker lasers of his own to send messages to the other convoy escorts. It had been unlikely that he could have accomplished anything through active resistance, but he might have made the attempt anyway, in which case she could have been forced to destroy all of his ships. A more likely, and almost equally devastating ploy, would have been for him to have ordered his units to purge their computers before she ordered them not to. In that case she would have taken them intact but lobotomized, which would have made the battlecruisers useless to her as warships. She could have copied the basic astrogation and ship service files and AIs over to them from Krashnark's master data banks, but for all her size and firepower, Krashnark was simply too small to require all the computer support a Warlord-class battlecruiser needed. She could have stripped them down and used them as transports, but she could never have used them in combat.

All of that was true, yet a tiny part of her insisted upon wondering whether she'd really thought all that through before she fired or whether she'd acted before she had to, striking out to exact a horrible vengeance she need not have taken. She supposed she would never know, and the truth was that it didn't really matter. What mattered in the cold, cruel calculus of war was the outcome, and that had been to so terrify the personnel of the surviving ships that they'd almost begged the boarding parties to take them into custody and get them planetside before Honor decided to kill them, as well.

But helpful as it might have been in that regard, there was no way the damage to Farnese could be seen as anything other than a serious setback. Her port broadside was intact and fully operational, and Honor's people had managed to clear the hatches on about two-thirds of her starboard weapons (mostly by cutting the jammed hatch covers loose and jettisoning them), but Cerberus simply didn't have the facilities for the repairs she needed. Her starboard sensors were useless and her starboard sidewall would be available at no more than fifteen percent of designed strength. For all practical purposes, she could fight only one of her broadsides, and if anyone got a clear shot at her crippled flank . . .

Still, damaged or not she was a battlecruiser, and with her sisters Wallenstein, MacArthur, Barbarosa, and Kutuzov, she brought Honor's strength in that class up to five. In addition, she had the heavy cruisers Krashnark, Huan-Ti, Ares, and Ishtar, and she'd hung onto Bacchante, as well. The damaged Sabine had been sent off with a skeleton crew as Cynthia Gonsalves' flagship and to play scout for the Longstops, but even without her, Ramirez's "Elysian Space Navy" was assuming formidable proportions. Indeed, Honor had been hard-pressed to find crews for all of them.

To be completely honest, she mused, still watching the transports and their single escort accelerate away, I don't suppose I really did find crews for all of them.

She smiled crookedly at the thought. Given the fact that half of Farnese's weapons were useless anyway, she'd reduced the battlecruiser's new company from Caslet's estimated requirement of thirteen hundred to just seven hundred, which had given her (barely) the trained and retrained personnel to man all of the heavy cruisers and put the required thirteen hundred each aboard the other battlecruisers. They'd managed it only by stripping Charon down to naked bone—Charon Control had only a single full-strength watch crew, with just enough other people to make sure there was always a sensor and com watch—and accepting a rather flexible definition of "trained." But none of her subordinates had argued about any of those decisions; they'd reserved their protests for her decision to choose Farnese as her flagship.

McKeon had been the first to weigh in, but only because Andrew LaFollet had been a bit slower to realize what she intended. Neither of them wanted her in space at all if it came to a mobile battle, much less on a half-crippled ship! But she'd overridden them both— and also Ramirez, Benson, and Simmons—and despite LaFollet's dark suspicions, it wasn't because of any death wish on her part.

The problem was experience. Harriet Benson's command and tactical skills had come back to her with amazing speed, but she was the only one of Hell's long-term prisoners Honor could really regard as up to commanding a starship in action. Several others were fit, in her opinion, to serve as department heads, stand their watches, and carry out a CO's orders, but they simply hadn't had time to develop the confidence and polish a warship's captain required. Nor had she been able to come up with the required skippers out of more recently captured Allied personnel. With the exceptions of Commander Ainspan and Lieutenant Commander Roberta Ellis, none of them had command experience with anything heavier than a LAC. Ainspan had captained the light cruiser HMS Adonai and Ellis had at least captained HMS Plain Song, a destroyer, so Honor had assigned Ainspan to Ares and tapped Ellis to take over Bacchante from Benson.

But that had still left her with eight heavy units, each in need of the best captain she could find. She'd done the best she could by assigning Alistair McKeon to command Wallenstein, Benson to command in Kutuzov, Solomon Marchant to command MacArthur, and Geraldine Metcalf to command Barbarosa. That had taken care of the undamaged battlecruisers, and she'd picked Sarah DuChene to command Ishtar, Anson Lethridge to command Huan-Ti, and Scotty Tremaine to take over Krashnark from McKeon. She'd really wanted to give one of the heavy cruisers to Warner Caslet. By any conceivable measure, he would have been the most experienced CO she could have picked for a Peep-built ship, but too many of the liberated POWs still nursed reservations about serving under an ex-Peep, no matter who vouched for him. So she'd made him her XO aboard Farnese instead, on the theory that her lamed flagship would need the best command team it could get, and then played mix-and-match in an effort to build something like solid teams for all of her other ships. Jesus Ramirez would be her liberated squadron's second-in-command from aboard Wallenstein, but he simply hadn't been able to bring his tactical and shiphandling skills up to the point of handling a warship in a close engagement, and he knew it. In the meantime, Commander Phillips would run Charon Control, and Gaston Simmons would have overall command of Hell.

It was, by any imaginable standard, a ramshackle and jury-rigged command structure from the perspective of current skills levels. But most of the people in it had been given almost a full T-year to get to know one another, and Honor expected their trust and cohesion to overcome a lot of their rough edges.

It had better, anyway, she thought, and turned away from the display at last. Any more Peeps who just happened to drop by Cerberus would almost certainly come in fat, dumb, and happy, just as Thornegrave had. She expected that condition to last for perhaps another two to three months—long enough for Thornegrave and his intervention battalions to be reported as overdue at Seabring— and she intended to use those months to drill her new crews mercilessly.

Unfortunately, if the last T-year had been any indication, there wouldn't be many casual visitors in a period that short. Which meant she wouldn't be able to grab off any more handy transports like the Longstops. Which meant that in all probability there would still be better than a hundred thousand liberated prisoners trapped on Hell when the Peeps noticed Thornegrave's nonarrival and sent someone to find out where he was.

She didn't know who or what that someone would be. The logical thing for the Peeps to do would be to send a courier boat to check in with Camp Charon to determine that Thornegrave had arrived and departed. If that happened, she would still have a chance to bluff her way through and convince them he had—that whatever had happened to him and his ships had happened somewhere between Cerberus and Seabring. But even if she managed it, she would be on a short time count from that moment on, because even StateSec was bound to notice eventually that Cerberus had turned into a black hole for anything larger than a courier.

No, time was closing in on her, and she knew it. She would be fortunate to get just the three months she was counting on—or praying for, at least—and every additional day would represent its own individual miracle. Somehow, in whatever time she had left, she had to find a way to grab the shipping she needed to get all of her people off Hell.

And she would, she thought grimly. One way or another, she would.


"All right, people. Let's get to it." Citizen Rear Admiral Paul Yearman looked around the table in his briefing room and smiled a wintry smile as the side conversations died and all eyes turned to the head of the table. He waited another moment, then glanced at the man sitting beside him. "Would you care to begin, Citizen General?" he invited politely.

"Thank you, Citizen Admiral," Seth Chernock acknowledged, then paused a moment for effect, letting his frigid eyes sweep over the ship commanders gathered around the table. They were a very mixed lot: four in StateSec's crimson and black, and fourteen, counting the two transports' skippers, in the People's Navy's gray-and-green. His senior ground commanders were also present, for it was important for everyone to understand what was planned, and they were an equally motley mix. Citizen Major General Claude Gisborne was SS, but almost half the total ground force—and two-thirds of its senior officers—were Marines.

It was not, Chernock thought grimly, the most cohesive command team imaginable. Unfortunately, it was the only one he'd been able to scrape together, and it had taken him nine standard days to assemble all his expeditionary force's bits and pieces and get it underway. The good news was that he'd managed to put together an escort of no less than ten battlecruisers (although one of them was one of the old Lion-class) and six heavy cruisers, and the People's Marines had been able to provide two of their Roughneck-class fast attack transports. The bad news was that he'd been able to come up with less than twenty-seven thousand troops to put aboard those transports. Of course, if his warships could secure control of the high orbitals, that should be plenty of ground-based firepower. The prisoners on Hades might outnumber his troops by better than twenty-to-one, but a few kinetic interdiction strikes would take care of that nicely. Perhaps even more to the point, Gisborne was an ex-Marine himself, and he'd gone out of his way to establish a sense of rapport among his subordinates, StateSec and Marine alike. All things considered, Chernock was extremely pleased with the way his ground force command team was shaping up.

He was less enthusiastic about the naval side of things, although that certainly wasn't Yearman's fault. Chernock had drafted the Citizen Rear Admiral because he knew his own limitations. He was primarily an administrator and a planner, and what limited "combat" experience he had consisted of a dozen or so large-scale intervention efforts. That didn't even come close to qualifying him to command a joint space-ground campaign in his own right, so he'd grabbed Yearman as his official second-in-command and de facto naval commander.

And from all he'd so far seen, Yearman had been an excellent choice. He didn't appear to be an inspired strategist, but he had a firm grasp of the tactical realities, and he'd immediately set out to hammer his mismatched squadron into something like a coherent fighting force.

Nine days, unfortunately, wasn't very long. Chernock suspected that an all-Navy task group could have gotten itself sorted out and drilled to an acceptable standard in that much time, but three of Yearman's battlecruisers—Ivan IV, Cassander, and Modred—were commanded by StateSec officers, and so was Morrigan, one of his two Mars-class heavy cruisers. Those officers, and especially Citizen Captain Isler, Modred's skipper, deeply resented being placed under effective Navy command, even at Chernock's direct orders. Citizen Captain Sorrenson, Morrigan's CO, was probably as resentful as Isler, if less inclined to show it, and it hadn't helped that Yearman's drills had made it painfully obvious that all four SS ships had been trained to a much lower standard than their Navy counterparts. The discovery of their operational inferiority had only honed the StateSec officers' resentment . . . and probably inspired a certain carefully concealed contempt among Yearman's fellow regulars.

Personally, Chernock was glad to have the training differential made clear. As far as he knew, this was the first joint Navy—State Security operation to be mounted, and he had taken careful note of his own service's inadequacies. He already knew his post-mission report was going to be scathing, and he intended to send it directly to Citizen Secretary Saint-Just's personal attention. If, in fact, it became necessary for SS units to deal with rebellious ships of the regular Navy, they were going to need either an enormous preponderance in firepower or far better training, and it was his duty to point that out to StateSec's commander.

In the meantime, however, Yearman had to get his mismatched command team into some sort of fighting trim, and he had driven them mercilessly while the ground force was assembled in Danak. He'd made considerable progress, although Chernock knew he was still far from satisfied, and he'd gone on drilling them on the voyage to Cerberus. Unfortunately, that trip was only forty-five light-years long, and the Roughnecks were fast ships for transports. The entire voyage required only eight days base-time, which gave Yearman less than six and a half subjective to get them whipped into shape. After five days of nonstop exercises and tactical problems, even his regulars were heartily sick and tired of it, and the StateSec officers hovered on the brink of rebellion. Yet even Citizen Captain Isler must realize how much they had improved, and Chernock's presence was enough to enforce at least a surface civility.

"I'll keep this brief," he said finally, his voice very level. "We represent a hastily assembled force many of whose personnel have never previously worked together. I realize that the intense efforts which have been made to overcome our lack of familiarity with one another's methods have been hard, exhausting, and often irritating. I know there are short tempers around this table, and I understand the reasons for that. Nonetheless, I ... will . . . not . . . tolerate any display of anger, any hesitation in obeying the orders of a senior officer—regardless of the uniform he or she wears—or any species of insubordination or rivalry. Does anyone require a clearer statement on this issue?"

Several stormy expressions had gone blank as their owners digested the cold, flat, dangerous tone in which he delivered his spaced out warning. He waited several seconds, but no one spoke, and he smiled thinly.

"I hoped that would be the case, citizens, and I am gratified to see my hope was not in vain. And now, Citizen Admiral Yearman, if you please?"

"Yes, Sir. Thank you." Yearman cleared his throat, looking both pleased and a little nervous at the unequivocal firmness of Chernock's support. He must, the citizen general reflected, be as uncomfortable with this mixed command structure as anyone else, but at least no sign of that showed in his voice.

"Our exercises to date have given me cause to feel some degree of optimism," he began. "Our coordination still leaves much to be desired, and I'd be nervous at the thought of going into a conventional engagement without longer to polish our rough edges, but I believe we can handle the current mission. I remind all of you, however, that overconfidence is one of the most deadly enemies known to man."

He paused to sweep his eyes around the table, and Chernock raised his hand and rubbed his upper lip to hide an involuntary smile as those eyes lingered just a moment longer on Isler than on anyone else.

"The parameters of our problem are relatively straightforward," Yearman resumed. "We've all studied the data Citizen General Chernock has been able to provide on the orbital defenses, and I'm sure all of us are aware of the fundamental weakness inherent in their design. Aside from the ground bases on Tartarus, Sheol, and Niflheim, all of their weapons platforms are unprotected by any passive defenses and effectively incapable of movement. In addition, their missile defense capability is much more limited than their offensive firepower. They're short on counter-missile launchers, and they have barely a third of the missile-killer laser platforms I would have built into the defense grid. As such, their weapon systems are extremely vulnerable to proximity soft kills, and we can almost certainly penetrate their defenses without resorting to cee-fractional strikes. We may have to take our lumps from the ground bases, but their ammunition is limited, and we should be able to blow a massive hole in the orbital defenses before we have to enter the ground bases' range.

"Blowing away the defenses is, however, a worst-case scenario. I'm sure all of us hope Citizen General Chernock's worst suspicions are unfounded." The citizen rear admiral glanced at Chernock as he spoke, and the citizen general nodded. He was a little surprised Yearman had had the guts to say such a thing openly, but he couldn't fault the Navy officer's sentiments. Not that he believed for a moment that his fears were baseless.

"In that happy event," Yearman went on, "no attack will be necessary and our force can return to Danak or disperse to other duties. Even if the prisoners have succeeded in taking over Camp Charon and securing control of its com systems, it is still possible that the garrison had time to permanently disable the ground control stations before the prisoners could seize control of the defenses. The odds of that, however, are not great, which is the reason we are all out here.

"Our job, citizens, is to get Citizen General Gisborne and his people safely down to secure control of Styx Island. To this end, I intend to advance with the entire escort, less Citizen Captain Harken's Rapier." He nodded to the dark-haired Navy officer. "Citizen Captain Harken will employ her ship as an escort and control vessel for the transports, which will remain at least one million kilometers astern of the main body at all times."

"Is that really necessary, Citizen Admiral?" It was Citizen Captain Fuhrman, CO of the battlecruiser Yavuz and one of the regulars, Chernock observed. Yearman raised an eyebrow at him, and Fuhrman shrugged. "Nothing in my download suggested the need for an n-space, in-system escort, Citizen Admiral."

"No, it didn't," Yearman agreed, "and I may be paranoid. Nonetheless, I want someone watching over the transports—and our backs—if we're going to be pegging missiles at defenses as dense as the ones around Hades. I have no desire to see anyone, even a hijacked destroyer, creeping up behind me while I concentrate on the job in hand, and I think we can spare a single heavy cruiser to keep an eye on the back door. Do you disagree?"

"No, Citizen Admiral," Fuhrman said after a moment. "You're certainly right that we can spare a Sword-class's firepower—no offense, Helen—" he grinned at Harken "—and it can't possibly hurt anything to watch our rear. I only wondered if there was something in the download that I'd missed."

"I don't believe there was," Yearman replied. "The problem, of course, is that downloads sometimes don't contain all relevant data, no matter how hard the people who prepared them worked at it. So let's spend a little extra effort to make me feel comfortable, shall we?"

One or two people chuckled. Several more smiled, and Yearman smiled back at them. Then he cleared his throat.

"After detaching Rapier, I intend to form all of our other units into a single striking force. Citizen Captain Isler, you will be my second-in-command, and Modred will take over if something happens to Tammerlane. Citizen Captain Rutgers will back you up in turn in Pappenheim."

Yearman paused once more, looking at Isler. The SS officer seemed surprised by the announcement, and he glanced at Chernock, as if wondering if the citizen general was behind the decision. But Chernock hadn't had a thing to do with it, and he was as surprised as anyone else. At least two of Yearman's regulars were senior to Isler, and Chernock hadn't anticipated that the citizen rear admiral might be sensitive enough to the rivalries to formally name his most resentful subordinate as his executive officer.

"I understand, Citizen Admiral," Isler said after a moment, and Yearman nodded, then looked back around the table once more.

"If we have to shoot our way in, I anticipate that the heavy cruisers will sit more or less on the sidelines, at least initially, aside from thickening our anti-missile defenses. We'll be going in without pods, which I regret, but we can't always have everything we'd like to have."

Which was especially true, Chernock reflected, when you organized an operation like this with such haste. Neither of the Roughnecks were configured to carry the bulky missile pods, and the only interstellar bulk carriers in the system had been two enormous and ridiculously slow old tubs which would have more than doubled their transit time to Cerberus.

"The battlecruisers have the most magazine capacity and the most powerful missiles," Yearman continued. "I intend to take advantage of that capacity and range and hold the lighter ships for the cleanup work after we open the main breach. My staff will coordinate fire distribution from Tammerlane, but I want all of you to watch your plots carefully. We've got the capability to tear the defenses apart if we have to, but in the absence of any missile resupply we can't afford to waste what we brought with us, and there's going to be a hell of a lot of confusion when warheads start going off inside a densely packed shell of platforms like the one around Hades. It's entirely possible that you, or one of your tac officers, will see some problem—or potential opening—that we're missing from Tammerlane. If that happens, I want to hear about it in time to adjust our fire, not from your after-action reports. Understood?"

Heads nodded around the table, and he nodded back.

"Those are the high points of my intentions," he said. "My staff has put together a more formal briefing, and we'll get to that in a moment. Before that, however, I want to say just one more thing.

"We're a scratch-built task group, people. Some might go further than that and call us jury-rigged, and we all know where our problems lie. I've worked you hard in an effort to overcome them, and I just want you to know that I'm pleased with how well you've responded. I feel confident that we can carry out our mission to Citizen General Chernock's satisfaction, and I want you to pass that expression of my confidence along to your crews, as well. They've worked just as hard as you and I have, and if we are called to action, they're the ones who will make it all come together in the end. Please be certain they all know I realize that."

He looked around one more time, making eye contact with each of them in turn, then glanced at his chief of staff.

"And now, Citizen Commander Caine, why don't you get down to the details for us?"


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