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Chapter Forty-Nine

"That," Citizen General Chernock said flatly, "is not Dennis Tresca."

He jabbed a savage finger at the face of the man still speaking from the main com screen. His own bridge chair was well outside the field of Citizen Colonel Therret's audio and visual pickups as "Tresca" spoke to the chief of staff, and Citizen Rear Admiral Yearman looked at the citizen general oddly.

"With all due respect, how can you be so certain, Citizen General?" he asked quietly. Chernock glanced at him, and the Navy officer shrugged. "Whoever he is, he's fielded every question we've asked him so far, Sir," he pointed out. "And I don't see any signs of hesitation or that he's being coerced."

"I don't think he is—assuming that it's actually a 'he' at all!" Chernock growled, and one of Yearman's eyebrows rose, almost as if against his will. Chernock saw it and barked a short, hard laugh that did absolutely nothing to still the fury pulsing in his heart. Dennis Tresca was—or had been—his friend. But if that wasn't Tresca on the com, then he could only assume the warden was a prisoner or dead. And from what he knew of Tresca's treatment of enemies of the People, it was highly unlikely any of the elitist scum on Hades had been interested in allowing him to surrender.

"My own guess is that we're looking at an AI," the citizen general went on after a moment. Yearman cocked his head, his expression painfully neutral, and Chernock laughed again, this time almost naturally. "I know it's better than we could probably produce, although some of the work at Public Information's special effects department might surprise you, Citizen Admiral!" Like the imagery of that pain in the ass Harrington's execution, he didn't add. "But there are quite a few recently captured Manty POWs down there, and their cyberneticists have always been better than ours. One of them, or several working together, could have put together something much more sophisticated than we could."

"But in that case, how can you tell it's a fake at all?"

"Because he hasn't asked to speak to me, even though Dennis knows Therret is my chief of staff and wouldn't be here without me. Besides, the word choice isn't quite right," Chernock told him. "I suspect what we're actually seeing is an Al-filtered image of someone else's responses to our transmissions. Someone is sitting down there in Charon Control ad libbing replies to whatever we send, and the AI is translating them into Dennis' voice, adding his mannerisms, and probably dipping into his personnel records and file copies of earlier com conversations for any background information it needs. But good as whoever built the damned thing was, he didn't quite get it perfect. Unlike the real Dennis would have done, it hasn't made the association between Therret's presence and mine. Either that, or whoever's running it is trying to avoid talking to me because he's afraid I'll trip him up. And either the AI's word selection criteria is a little off the money, or else its override filters aren't sensitive enough, because the occasional 'non-Tresca' word choice is leaking through. At any rate, it isn't Dennis. I'll stake my life on that."

"I see." Yearman looked grave, and Chernock smiled in somewhat caustic sympathy. For all his dutiful attention to detail, the citizen general knew, Yearman hadn't truly believed unarmed, dispersed prisoners, with no tech support whatsoever, could somehow make an open-sea crossing and mount a successful amphibious assault on Styx Island. He hadn't said so, and Chernock couldn't possibly have faulted how hard he'd worked at whipping his task group together, but the citizen general had known that deep down inside, the Navy officer had been essentially humoring him.

Now Yearman knew Chernock hadn't been a lunatic, and he was suddenly thinking about all those orbital defenses with absolute seriousness for the first time. The citizen general watched him unobtrusively from the corner of one eye, wondering if the citizen rear admiral would decide to change his tactical approach now that his threat appreciation had just shifted so radically. But Yearman only nodded slowly, then turned and paced towards the master plot. Chernock watched him go, and then turned cold and bitter eyes on the electronic manikin posing as his friend.

They had been in-system for just over three hours now. Let the damned AI and whoever was running it continue to think it had them fooled. They'd made their turnover to decelerate towards Hades three minutes ago. In another hundred and ninety-two minutes, Yearman would turn to open his broadsides and send the bastard a very different sort of message.


Honor Harrington sat in her command chair and listened to the damage and injury reports coming in from all over her ship. She'd known there would be some, no matter how carefully and thoroughly they'd secured for acceleration. Modern warships simply weren't designed for this kind of maneuver. They didn't have proper acceleration couches at every station, and the people who crewed them weren't used to thinking in terms of locking down every piece of gear against a five-gravity acceleration.

But that was precisely what looked like making this work, she thought, and the reports were both less serious and less numerous than she'd feared when she ordered her ships to do something no warship captain had done in over six centuries.

The reports ended, and she smiled wickedly as Nimitz added his own complaints. He'd been remarkably patient about waiting until the official reports were all in, but he hadn't enjoyed the last half-hour a bit. Treecat g tolerances were considerably higher than those of most humans, just as Honor's was, but that didn't mean Nimitz had enjoyed spending thirty-five minutes weighing three-point-seven times his Sphinxian weight. The fact that it had been much worse than that for Honor's human crewmen, and especially the ones who had spent long enough on Hell to fully acclimate to its .94 g gravity, hadn't made him any happier about it, either, and he let her know it in no uncertain terms.

He bleeked indignantly at her smile, and she lifted him in the crook of her arm, cradling him against her breasts while she tried to radiate a sufficiently contrite apology. He looked up at her for a second or two longer, then made a snorting sound, patted her live cheek with a gentle hand, and forgave her.

"Thanks, Stinker," she told him softly, and let him slide back down into her lap as she turned back to her plot.

Most of her captains had thought she was out of her mind when she first proposed using reaction thrusters to generate an intercept vector. It simply wasn't done. The maximum acceleration a ship like Farnese could attain on her auxiliary thrusters, even if she ran them up to maximum emergency power, was on the order of only about a hundred and fifty gravities, which was less than a third of what her impeller wedge could impart. Worse, those thrusters were fuel hogs, drinking up days' worth of reactor mass in minutes. And to add insult to injury, without a wedge, there was no inertial compensator. Warships had much more powerful internal grav plates than shuttles or other small craft, but without the sump of a grav wave for their compensators to work with, the best they could do was reduce the apparent force of a hundred and fifty gravities by a factor of about thirty.

But Honor had insisted it would work, and her subordinates' skepticism had begun to change as she walked them through the numbers. By her calculations, they could sustain a full-powered burn on their main thrusters for thirty-five minutes and still retain sufficient hydrogen in their bunkers to run the battlecruisers' fusion plants at full power for twelve hours and the heavy cruisers' for almost eight. Those were the minimum reserve levels she was wil'ing to contemplate, and they represented the strongest argument against Operation Nelson. Thanks to the huge StateSec tank farm orbiting Hell, they would be able to completely refill the bunkers of every ship afterward, and twelve hours would be more than sufficient to decide any engagement they could possibly hope to win, but none of her ships would have the reactor mass to run for it if the battle fell apart on them.

Well, I told them it worked for Cortez, she thought wryly. Of course, most of them don't have any idea who Cortez was. . . .

As far as her subordinates' other concerns went, a half-hour at five gravities would be punishing but endurable—most humans didn't begin graying out until they hit six or seven g, and heavy-worlders like Honor had even more tolerance than that. And it would take a ship over three million kilometers down-range and impart a velocity of almost thirty-one hundred KPS. That wasn't terribly impressive compared to what an impeller drive could have done in the same length of time, but it offered one huge advantage.

With no impeller signature, a ship might as well be invisible at any sort of extended range.

On the scale to which God built star systems, active sensors had a limited range at the best of times. Officially, most navies normally monitored a million-kilometer bubble with their search radar. In fact, most sensor techs—even in the RMN—didn't bother with active sensors at all at ranges much above a half-million kilometers. There was no real point, since getting a useful return off anything much smaller than a superdreadnought was exceedingly difficult at greater ranges. Worse, virtually all warships incorporated stealth materials into their basic hull matrices. That made them far smaller radar targets than, say, some big, fat merchantman when their drives were down . . . and when their drives were up, there was no reason to look for them on active, anyway, since passive sensors—and especially gravitic sensors—had enormously greater range and resolution. Of course, they couldn't pick up anything that wasn't emitting, but that was seldom a problem. After all, any ship coming in under power would have to have its wedge up, wouldn't it?

Stealth systems could do quite a bit to make an impeller signature harder to spot, but they were even more effective against other sensors, and so, again, gravitics became the most logical first line of defense. They might not be perfect, but they were the best system available, and captains and sensor techs alike had a pronounced tendency to rely solely upon them.

But Honor's ships didn't have impeller signatures. She had waited two and a half hours, watching the Peeps and plotting their vector carefully before she committed to the thruster burn. The acceleration period had been as bad as she had anticipated, but now her ships were slicing through space at a steady thirty-one hundred KPS, and she smiled again—this time with a predator's snarl—as she watched their projected vector reach out across her plot. Assuming her initial estimate of the Peeps' intentions had been accurate (and their flight profile so far suggested that it had been), she would cut across their base course some three minutes before they slowed to zero relative to Hell. She would be somewhere between six hundred and nine hundred thousand kilometers from them at the moment their courses intersected . . . and their bows would be towards her.

The two transports—and that was the only thing those two big, slow ships could be—had dropped back to ride a million and a half kilometers behind the main task group, ready to hand but safely screened against any unpleasant surprises. A single warship—probably a heavy cruiser, and most likely one of the older Sword-class ships, from her impeller signature—had been detached as a close escort for them, but Honor wasn't worried about that. If her maneuver worked, she should be in a position to send enough firepower after them to swat the escort without much difficulty, and all three of those ships were much too far inside the hyper limit for the transports to possibly escape before her cruisers ran them down.

"I see it, but I didn't really think you could pull it off, Ma'am," a quiet voice said, and she looked up to find Warner Caslet standing beside her command chair.

"Between you, me, and the bulkhead, I had a few doubts of my own," she said quietly, and smiled at him.

"You certainly didn't act like it," he told her wryly, then paused and snapped his fingers explosively. Honor blinked as she tasted the bright sunburst of his emotions as he abruptly realized or remembered something.

"What?" she asked, and he looked down at her with a strange expression.

"I just realized something," he said, "and I certainly hope it's a good omen."

"What?" she asked again, a bit more testily, and he gave her an odd smile.

"It's exactly two years and one day since you were captured, Ma'am," he said quietly, and both of Honor's eyebrows flew up. He couldn't be right! Could he? She gawked at him for a moment, then darted a look at the time/date display. He was right!

She sat very still for a moment, then shook herself and grinned crookedly at her.

"You should be a little cautious about surprising your CO that way just before a battle, Warner!" She shook her head. "I'd actually forgotten the date."

"Well, you have been a bit busy for the last couple of years," he pointed out, "and I figure the Committee of Public Safety is going to be more than a little bit put out when it discovers how you've been spending your time. But it does seem appropriate somehow to kick some 'Peep' butt as an anniversary present."

"So it does," she agreed, and he smiled at her again, then turned and headed back for his own station. She watched him go, then gave herself another bemused little shake and looked back at her plot.

You're so right, Warner, she thought. I do owe these people an "anniversary present" . . . and if we can take them intact, and if they're big enough, and have enough life support—

She pushed that thought back into its mental cubbyhole. One thing at a time, girl, she told herself. One thing at a time.


Seth Chernock was a much more experienced interstellar traveler than his colleague Citizen Major General Thornegrave. As a general rule, he rather enjoyed such trips. Unlike many of his fellow StateSec officers, he was a cerebral type, a man who treasured the chance to catch up on his reading, to think and ponder, and he was accustomed to turning what others saw as boredom into profitable— and enjoyable—time in which to do just that.

But there were times he agreed with his colleagues, and this was one of them. Not that he could call the slow, dragging approach to Hades boring, precisely. It was hard to feel bored when the acid of fury and the chill of a fear one couldn't quite suppress, however hard one tried, gnawed at one's stomach lining. Besides, this was a time for action, not thought. Thinking was what had alerted him to the problem and brought him here, but what he wanted now was vengeance.

He checked the time display. Another eleven minutes. And whoever was in control on Hades had begun to figure out what Citizen Rear Admiral Yearman had in mind, he thought with cold, vicious pleasure. They were still trying to bluff, but their "com officers" had grown increasingly nervous, questioning the task group's vector and asking for clarification of its intentions. They'd been doing that for the better part of two hours now, and at first, Yearman had dictated a series of glib responses, each of which had seemed to ease their minds a bit, at least temporarily. But for the last twenty minutes, the citizen rear admiral had simply ignored their transmissions, and the bastards had to be becoming frantic.

Good, he thought coldly. You go right ahead and sweat it, you pricks. You've killed my friend—I'm sure of it now—and for that, I'm going to kill you. So enjoy the minutes you've got left!


"Seven minutes to vector cross, Ma'am," Warner Caslet reported, and Honor nodded. They were right on one-point-three million klicks short of the invisible spot in space she had named "Point Trafalgar," and there was no sign that the enemy had noticed them yet. The capabilities of Peep electronic warfare systems were limited compared to those mounted in Allied ships, but her people were using the ones they had for all they were worth. And given the fact that their sensor hardware, active and passive alike, was identical to that of their opponents, they had a very clear idea of what the Peeps might be in a position to see. So far, the strength of the radar pulses being picked up by their threat receivers remained well below detection values, and unless something changed, they should stay that way until the range had dropped to no more than eight hundred thousand kilometers.

And my estimate of their flight path was just about on the money, too, she reflected. In fact, the intercept she was about to achieve would be a far better one than she'd dared hope for. With only minimal steering burns to adjust her own trajectory, her ships would split the interval between the two Peep forces almost exactly in half: seven hundred and seventy k-klicks from the lead force, and seven hundred and thirty from the trailer. She smiled at the thought, but then her smile faded as she raised her head and looked around her bridge once more.

So far, her plan appeared to be working almost perfectly. That was rare enough to make her automatically suspicious, with the irrational certainty that Murphy's Law had to be waiting to strike and she simply couldn't see it. But even if everything continued to go perfectly, she was very badly outnumbered by the Peeps' firepower, and her people were still hardly what she could call a well-drilled, efficient fighting force.

And most of us don't have skinsuits, either, she thought, then smiled once more, grimly. This seems to be becoming a habit for me. I suppose I'd better see about breaking it.

She snorted at the thought, and Nimitz laughed quietly with her in the back of her mind. Not that it was actually all that humorous. But since there was nothing she could do about it, she might as well laugh. It beat crying over it, at any rate!

The problem was that skinsuits, whether Peep or Allied, were essentially custom built for their intended wearers. They were permanently assigned equipment, and modifying one to fit someone else was a daunting task even for a fully equipped maintenance and service depot. But Hell didn't have an M&S depot for skinsuits, because it had never needed one. Her available techs had done the best they could, but they'd been able to fit no more than thirty-five percent of her crewmen; the remainder wore only their uniforms. If one of the Peep ships took a hit and lost pressure in a compartment, the people in it who survived the initial hit would survive the pressure loss; if one of her ships took a hit and lost pressure, two-thirds of the people in the compartment would die . . . messily.

And frantically though Alistair McKeon, Andrew LaFollet, and Horace Harkness had searched, they had not turned up a single Peep skinsuit designed for a one-armed woman a hundred and eighty-eight centimeters tall.

Despite her friends' anxiety, Honor was almost relieved that they'd failed. It was irrational, no doubt, but she preferred to share the risks of the people under her command, and she would have felt unbearably guilty if she'd been suited and they hadn't. And there was another point, as well—one she had chosen not to look too closely at even in the privacy of her own mind. Nimitz's custom-designed suit had been confiscated by StateSec and lost with Tepes, and he had no emergency life-support module. If pressure was lost, the 'cat would die, and the part of her mind Honor had decided not to examine shied like a frightened animal from the thought of not dying with him.

Nimitz made a small, soft sound, crooning to her as he sensed the darker tide buried deep in her emotions. He might not understand its cause—in fact, she hoped he didn't—but he tasted it in her and snuggled his muzzle more firmly into her tunic while his love flowed into her.


"We'll be coming up on our firing point in five minutes, Sir," Citizen Rear Admiral Yearman reported. "Do you wish to offer them a chance to surrender, or should I simply open fire?"

Chernock cocked his head and smiled at the Navy officer. Yearman had clearly accepted his own conclusions about what had happened on Hades, even if neither of them had the slightest idea of how the prisoners had pulled it off. And he'd become increasingly, if quietly, bloodthirsty as his ships headed in and the people on the ground kept lying to him.

"I believe Citizen Secretary Saint-Just and the Treasury would probably appreciate it if we could talk them into surrendering, Citizen Admiral," the SS general said wryly. "I doubt that they will, though. And if they don't, you can go ahead and blast holes in their defenses to your heart's content, and the Treasury will just have to live with its unhappiness over replacing the destroyed equipment."

"With all due respect, Citizen General, my heart bleeds for the Treasury," Yearman said. It was a daring remark to make to a StateSec general, even for a flag officer, but Chernock only laughed. Then he sobered, and his expression turned grim.

"Between you and me, Citizen Admiral, I agree completely," he said, and his space-black eyes were cold.


"Radar hits from the main body are approaching the detection threshold, Ma'am."

"Understood." The tension on Farnese's bridge was a physical thing now, coiled about them like some hungry beast, and Honor made her voice come out calm, almost gentle, soothing the beast. Her command chair's drive motors whined softly as she turned it, sweeping her gaze across the bridge. With the loss of her left eye, she didn't trust herself to look over her shoulder as she normally would have, and she'd lost some of the peripheral ability to watch the nest of repeater displays wreathed about her chair, as well. But the battle board glowed a reassuring crimson at Tactical—for Farnese's port broadside, at least—and her helmsman sat tautly poised and ready at his station. The impeller board beside him burned the steady amber that indicated nodes at standby, ready to bring up instantly, and Honor inhaled deeply. The oxygen burned in her lungs like fiery wine, and she glanced at Warner Caslet.

"Firing solutions?"

"Locked and updating steadily, Ma'am," he replied, and like Honor herself, there was something profoundly unnatural about how calm he sounded.

She nodded and returned her attention to her plot, watching the icons on it creep steadily closer to one another. Unlike her ships, the Peeps' impeller wedges made them glaring beacons of gravitic energy. Honor's active sensors were off-line—instantly ready, but locked down tight to prevent any betraying emission—but Tactical had run a constantly updated firing plot on passive for over half an hour. The Peeps were dialed in to a fare-thee-well, she thought grimly, and she was about to accomplish something no Manticoran officer had ever managed to pull off. She was about to pass directly between two components of a superior enemy force in a position to rake both of them . . . and do it from within effective energy range.

"Two minutes to course intersect," Caslet said, his voice flat with trained, professional calm.

"Stand by to engage," Honor Harrington said softly.


"What the—?" Citizen Lieutenant Henry DesCours straightened abruptly on PNS Subutai's bridge as a single icon blinked into abrupt existence on his display. Then a second appeared with it. And a third!

"Citizen Captain!"

"What?" Citizen Captain Jayne Preston twisted around in her chair, frowning her disapproval for the undisciplined shout from her tactical section.

"Bogies, Ma'am!" DesCours' fingers flew across his console as he brought the powerful emitters of his electronically-steered fire control radar to bear on the suspect blips. It had a much narrower field of view than his search radar, but it was also much more powerful, and his face went white as more points of light blinked to life on his display. "Three—no, ten of them! Bearing three-five-niner by oh-oh-five, range . . . seven hundred and thirty thousand klicks!"

Raw disbelief twisted his voice as the range numbers blinked up at him, and for just one instant, Jayne Preston's mind froze. Less than a million kilometers? Preposterous! But then the bearing registered, as well, and panic harsh as poison exploded deep inside her. They were in front of her. Whatever the hell they were, they were directly ahead of her! That meant there was no sidewall, and with no sidewall to interdict them, the effective range of modern, grav-lens energy weapons was—! "Helm! Hard skew turn p—"


"Fire!" Honor Harrington snapped.

The main Peep force lay fifty degrees off the starboard bow for most of her units as they crossed its course, but Farnese was inverted relative to the others. The Peeps lay off her port bow, and all down her left side, heavy graser and laser mounts fired with lethal accuracy. Her impellers and sidewalls came up in the same instant, but Honor hardly noticed. Short as the range was by the normal standards of space combat, it was still over two and a half light-seconds. The massive beams lashed out across the kilometers, and they were light-speed weapons. Despite the range, despite the nerve-racking wait for the people who had fired them, the ships they had been fired at never saw them coming. They were already on the way before Jayne Preston even opened her mouth to order a course change . . . and they arrived before she finished giving it.

The range was long, but it had never as much as crossed Paul Yearman's mind that he might actually face mobile units, as well as the fixed defenses. And even if he had, surely they would have been picked up before they could get into energy range! He'd detached Rapier to watch his back, but the decision had been strictly pro forma, taken out of reflex professionalism rather than any genuine sense of danger. And because he'd seen no sign of hostile mobile units, the ships of his command had held an absolutely unswerving course for over six hours . . . and Honor's fire control teams had plotted their positions with excruciating precision. Ninety-three percent of her energy weapons scored direct hits, and there were no sidewalls to deflect them as they slashed straight down the wide-open throats of the Peeps' wedges.

The consequences were unimaginable, even for Honor—or perhaps especially for Honor. She was the one who had planned the maneuver, the one who had conceived it and carried it through, but deep down inside, she'd never quite let herself believe she would get away with it. And surely she wouldn't get her first broadsides in utterly undetected and unopposed!

But she had. It wasn't really Yearman's fault. No one had ever attempted an ambush like it, and so no one had any kind of meterstick to estimate the carnage such an attack might wreak. But the dimensions of the disaster became appallingly clear as Honor's fire smashed over his ships like a Sphinx tidal bore.

The battlecruisers Ivan IV, Subutai, and Yavuz lurched madly as grasers and lasers crashed into their bows. Ivan IV's entire forward impeller ring went down, all of her forward chase armament was destroyed, and the ship staggered bodily sideways as hull plating shattered and the demonic beams ripped straight down her long axis. They could not possibly have come in from a more deadly bearing, and damage alarms shrieked as compartments blew open to space and electronics spiked madly. Molycircs exploded like prespace firecrackers, massive bus bars and superconductor capacitors blew apart like ball lightning, trapped within the hollow confines of a warship, and almost half her crew was killed or wounded in the space of less than four seconds.

But Ivan IV was the lucky one; her forward fusion plants went into emergency shutdown in time. Subutai's and Yavuz's didn't, and the two of them vanished into blinding balls of plasma with every man and woman of their crews.

Nor did they die alone. Their sisters Boyar and Cassander went with them; the heavy cruisers Morrigan, Yama, and Excalibur blew up almost as spectacularly as Subutai; and every surviving ship was savagely damaged. The battlecruisers Modred, Pappenheim, Tammerlane, Roxana, and Cheetah lived through the initial carnage, but like Ivan IV, they were crippled and lamed, and the cruiser Broadsword was at least as badly hurt. Durandel, the only other heavy cruiser of the main force, reeled out of formation, her forward half smashed like a rotten stick while life pods erupted from her hull, and chaos reigned as the crews of maimed and broken ships fought their damage and rescue parties charged into gutted compartments in frantic search for wounded and trapped survivors. Yet chaotic as the shouts and confusion over the internal com systems were, the intership circuits were even worse, for one of ENS Huan-Ti's grasers had scored a direct hit on Tammerlane's flag bridge.

Citizen Rear Admiral Yearman was dead. Citizen General Chernock had died with him, and neither of them had ever even known their task group was under attack. The grasers' light-speed death had claimed both too quickly, and with their deaths, command devolved upon Citizen Captain Isler, in Modred. But the StateSec officer had no idea at all what to do. In fairness, it was unlikely any officer— even a modern day Edward Saganami—would have been able to react effectively to such a devastating surprise. But Isler was no Saganami, and the sharp, high note of panic in his voice as he gabbled incoherent orders over the command net finished any hint of cohesiveness in his shattered force. It came apart at the seams, each surviving captain realizing that his or her only chance of survival lay in independent action.

A few missiles got off, and Pappenheim actually managed to turn and fire her entire surviving starboard broadside at Wallenstein, but it was a pitifully inadequate response to what Honor's ships had done to them. Wallenstein's sidewall shrugged Pappenheim's energy fire aside with contemptuous ease, and despite the short range, point defense crews picked off the handful of Peep missiles which actually launched.

And then Honor's entire squadron fired a second time, and there was no more incoming fire. Five of the enemy hulks remained sufficiently intact that someone might technically describe them as ships; all the rest were spreading patterns of wreckage, dotted here and there with the transponder signals of life pods or a handful of people in skinsuits.

"Cease fire!" she snapped before her gunners could wipe out all of the cripples, as well. And, almost to her surprise, they obeyed. She felt a distant amazement at their compliance, for she knew how dreadfully most of them had hungered for revenge. But perhaps they were as stunned by the sheer magnitude of their success as she was.

She supposed it would go into the history books as the Battle of Cerberus, but it shouldn't. She felt an appalled sense of horror at the totality—as unanticipated on her part as on Paul Yearman's— of what she had accomplished. She had killed more people than this at the Fourth Battle of Yeltsin, but the sheer, blazing speed of it all stunned her. "Massacre of Cerberus" would be more accurate, she thought numbly. It had been like pushing Terran chicks into deep water filled with hungry Sphinx sabrepike. For the first time she could recall, she had fought a battle in which not one single person under her own command had been so much as injured, much less killed!

She glanced at her plot again. The transports had swerved wildly, turning to lumber uselessly towards the hyper limit, but they wouldn't get far. Already Scotty Tremaine was taking Krashnark in pursuit of one of them while Geraldine Metcalf went after the other in Barbarosa. There would be no one to oppose either of them, for the single Peep heavy cruiser had been the target of the port broadsides of every one of her ships except for Farnese herself. The failure of her fusion bottles hadn't blown PNS Rapier apart; they'd simply illuminated the splintered fragments of her hull in the instant that they consumed them along with her entire crew.

Honor sat a moment longer, staring at her plot, and then she shook herself, drew a deep, deep breath, and pressed the stud that connected her to the all-ships circuit.

"Well done, people—all of you. Thank you. You did us proud. Now do us even prouder by rescuing every survivor out there, People's Navy or State Security. I—"

She looked up without closing the circuit as Warner Caslet unlocked his shock frame and climbed out of his own chair. He turned to face her and came to attention, and her eyebrows rose as his hand snapped up in a parade ground salute. She started to say something, but then she saw other people standing, turning away from their consoles, looking at her. The storm of their exultation raged at her as, for the first time, they fully realized what their victory—and the capture of the transports—might mean, and she felt the entire universe hold its breath for just an instant.

Then the instant shattered as her flag bridge exploded in cheers. She tried to speak, tried to hush them, but it was impossible. And then someone opened the ship's intercom, and the thunder of voices redoubled as the cheers echoing through every compartment of her flagship rolled out of the speakers. The same deep, braying triumph came at her over the com from the other ships of the squadron, powerful enough to shake a galaxy, and Lady Dame Honor Harrington sat frozen at its heart while the wild tide of her people's emotions ripped through her with all the binding, cleansing fury of a nova.

They'd done it, the tiny corner of her brain which could still work realized. These were the people who had done the impossible—who had conquered Hell itself for her—and she couldn't think now, could no longer plan or anticipate. And it didn't matter that she'd led them, or that the odds had been unbeatable, or that no one could possibly have done what they had. None of that mattered at all.

She was taking them home, and they were taking her home, and that was all in the universe that mattered.


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