Back | Next

Chapter Thirty-Eight

The communicator on her desk buzzed, and she looked up from the report and pressed the acceptance key.


"Your Grace," Harper Brantley's voice said, "you have a message."

"What is it?"

"We've just been informed that the First Lord and First Space Lord are aboard the midday shuttle flight, Your Grace. Their pinnace will dock with Imperator in thirty-seven minutes."

"Thank you, Harper."

Honor's courteous voice was calm enough to fool anyone who didn't know her very well indeed. Harper Brantley was one of those who did.

"You're welcome, Your Grace," he said quietly, and cut the circuit.

Honor sat back in her float chair, and Nimitz crooned comfortingly from his perch. She looked up and smiled, acknowledging both his love and his effort to cheer her, but they both knew he hadn't succeeded.

She looked back at her terminal, and the latest in the merciless progression of reports floating in its display. There was never an end to any Queen's officer's paperwork, and she'd found that was even truer after a resounding defeat than it was after a victory. In many ways, she was grateful. It gave her something to do besides sitting in the stillness of her quarters, listening to her ghosts.

Nimitz hopped down onto the desk and rose on his haunches, leaning forward to rest his true-hands on her shoulders while the tip of his nose just touched hers. He stared into her eyes, his own grass-green gaze as deep as the oceans of Sphinx they had sailed together in her childhood, and she felt him deep inside her. Felt his concern, and his scolding love as they both grappled with her sense of guilt and loss.

She reached out and folded her arms about him, holding him to her breasts while she buried her face in his soft, soft fur, and his croon sang gently, gently through her.

* * *

Honor stood in Imperator's boat bay, Andrew LaFollet at her shoulder, as the pinnace settled into the docking arms. The green light glowed, the inner end of the personnel tube opened, and the bosun's pipes shrilled as Major Lorenzetti's Marine side party snapped to attention.

"First Lord, arriving!" the intercom announced, and Hamish Alexander, Samantha on his shoulder, swung himself through the tube first, as befitted his seniority as Sir Thomas Caparelli's civilian superior.

"Permission to come aboard, Captain?" he asked, as Rafe Cardones saluted.

"Permission granted, My Lord."

"Thank you." Hamish nodded and shook Cardones' proffered hand. Then he stepped past the captain and his eyes met Honor's for just a moment before he held out his hand to her. She shook it without speaking, her empathic sense clinging to the concern and love in his mind-glow, acutely aware of all the other, watching eyes, as the bay speakers spoke again.

"First Space Lord, arriving!"

"Permission to come aboard, Captain?" Sir Thomas Caparelli asked in the ancient ritual.

"Permission granted, Sir," Cardones gave the equally ritualistic response, and Caparelli stepped across the painted line on the deck.

"My Lord, Sir Thomas," Honor said in formal greeting as she released Hamish's hand to shake Caparelli's in turn.

"Your Grace," Caparelli replied for both of them, and Honor tasted his emotions, as well. The anger she'd half dreaded and yet half desired was absent. Instead, she tasted sympathy, concern, and something very like compassion. Part of her was glad, but another part—the wounded part—was almost angry, as if he were betraying her dead by not blaming her for their deaths. It was illogical and unreasonable, and she knew it. And it didn't change her emotions one bit.

"Would you and Earl White Haven care to join me in my quarters?"

"I think that's an excellent idea, Your Grace," Caparelli said after only the briefest glance at Hamish.

"In that case, My Lords," Honor said, and waved her right hand at the waiting lifts.

* * *

The short journey to Honor's quarters was silent, without the casual small talk which would normally have filled it. LaFollet peeled off outside the day cabin hatch, and Honor waved her visitors through it.

She followed them, and the hatch slid shut behind her.

"Welcome to Imperator, My Lords," she began, then chopped off in astonishment as Hamish turned and enfolded her in a fierce embrace. For just a moment, conscious of Caparelli's presence, she started to resist. But then she realized she tasted absolutely no surprise from the First Space Lord, and she abandoned herself—briefly, at least—to the incredible comfort of her husband's arms.

The embrace lasted several seconds, and then Hamish stood back, his left hand on her right shoulder, while his feather-gentle right hand brushed an errant strand of hair from her forehead.

"It's . . . good to see you, love," he said softly.

"And you." Honor felt her lower lip try to quiver and called it sternly to order. Then she looked past Hamish to Caparelli and managed a wry smile. "And it's good to see you, too, Sir Thomas."

"Although not, perhaps, quite as good, eh, Admiral Alexander-Harrington?"

"Oh, dear." Honor inhaled and looked back and forth between the two men. "Have we gone public while I was away, Hamish?"

"I wouldn't put it quite that way," he replied. "A few people have either figured it out or been informed because it's just so much simpler that way. Thomas here falls into both categories. I informed him . . . and he'd already figured it out. Essentially, at least."

"Your Grace—Honor," Caparelli said with a crooked smile, "your relationship with Hamish has to be one of the worst kept secrets in the history of the Royal Manticoran Navy." Alarm flickered in her eyes, but he only chuckled. "I might add, however, that I doubt very much that any Queen's officer would breathe a word about it. If nothing else, he'd be terrified of what the rest of us would do to him when we found out."

"Sir Thomas," she began, "I—"

"You don't have to explain anything to me, Honor," Caparelli cut her off. "First, because I think Hamish is probably right where the Articles of War are concerned. Second, because I've never seen any indication of your allowing personal feelings to influence your actions. Third, because you've made it crystal clear throughout your career that you have absolutely no interest in playing the patronage game and relying on 'interest' to further that career. And, fourth, and probably most importantly of all, the two of you—the three of you—have damned well earned it."

Honor closed her mouth, tasting the rock-ribbed sincerity behind his words. It was an enormous relief, but she made herself bite off any thanks. Instead, she simply waved for the two of them to be seated on the couch, then seated herself in one of the facing armchairs.

Hamish smiled faintly but said nothing as she deliberately separated the two of them from one another. Samantha hopped down from his shoulder, and she and Nimitz leapt up into the other armchair, curling down beside one another and purring happily.

"I imagine," Honor said after a moment, her mood darkening once more, "that you've come out to discuss my fiasco."

Hamish's expression never wavered, but she felt his internal wince at her choice of noun.

"I suppose that's one way to describe it," Caparelli said. "It's not the one I would've chosen, however."

"I don't see a better one." Honor knew she sounded bitter, but she couldn't quite help it. "I lost half my superdreadnoughts, sixty percent of my battlecruisers, half my heavy cruisers, thirty-eight percent of my light cruisers, and over forty percent of my LACs. In return for which I managed to destroy two minelayers and damage two superdreadnoughts, one of them a pre-pod relic. And to inflict absolutely no damage on the system's infrastructure which was my original objective." She smiled without a trace of humor. "That sounds like the dictionary definition of a 'fiasco' to me."

"I'm sure it does," Caparelli said calmly. "What struck me most strongly, however, was how light your losses were, given what you sailed into."

His raised hand stopped her protest, and his eyes met hers levelly.

"I know exactly what I'm talking about, Honor, so don't tell me I don't. You walked into a carefully prepared ambush. I've reviewed your reports, and those of your surviving captains, and the log recordings from your flag bridge and from Imperator's tactical section. I reviewed them very carefully, and whether you want to believe this or not, I also reviewed them very critically. And, on the basis of what you knew, when you knew it, I can't see a single thing you did wrong."

"What about sailing directly into that last missile launch?" Honor challenged. "If anyone should have seen that coming, I should have!"

"The fact that you and Mark Sarnow used similar tactics at Hancock Station sixteen T-years ago doesn't make you clairvoyant," Caparelli replied. "You did realize they were coming in out of hyper behind you, and I doubt very much most flag officers would have figured it out as quickly. And without knowing the size of the salvos Bogey One could throw, your decision to stay away from a force which outnumbered you three-to-one in ships of the wall was the only reasonable one you could have made."

"And what about abandoning Ajax?" Honor's voice was so low it was almost a whisper.

"That, too, was the proper decision, Your Grace," Caparelli said quietly. Honor looked up, meeting his eyes once more, tasting his sincerity. "It was hard. I know that. I know how close you and Admiral Henke were. But your overriding responsibility was to the ships you could still get out, and with the damage you'd already suffered, slowing to cover Ajax would have made that impossible. If you'd been able to evacuate her personnel, that might have been one thing. But you couldn't."

"But—" Honor began, eyes burning, and Caparelli shook his head.

"Don't. I've been there, too, and I know leaving people behind, however correct the tactical decision may have been, always hurts. You always ask yourself if there wasn't some way you could've gotten everyone out, and curse yourself at night for not having found one. The fact that you and Countess Gold Peak were so close, for so long, has to make that still worse, but I've come to know you. Whether Michelle Henke had been aboard that ship or not, you'd still feel what you're feeling right now."

Honor blinked, then looked away for just a moment. He was right, and she knew it. And yet, remembering Mike—

She closed her eyes, her memory replaying the last she'd seen—the last she would ever see—of Michelle Henke. She and her other survivors had gotten across the hyper limit, with Bogey Two and Bogey Three in hot pursuit. Rifleman had performed her part of Omega One by translating up into hyper to rejoin Samuel Miklós' CLACs at the designated rendezvous once the task force's other survivors were across the limit. And Miklós' squadron had executed a flawless micro-jump to rendezvous with Honor's survivors, in turn. They'd gotten the surviving LACs aboard the carriers and translated out less than fifteen minutes before Bogey Three crossed the hyper limit after them, but that hadn't been soon enough to prevent her from knowing what happened.

She wished there'd been time for at least one last personal message, but Ajax's communications section had taken massive damage in the first salvo Bogey Two had fired into Henke's lamed flagship. There'd been no way to communicate—even the remote sensor arrays had been too far away to see it clearly—but from the sensor recordings, it looked as if Ajax had taken at least one battlecruiser with her. The explosion when her own fusion plants let go, however, had been far clearer.

"I left her," she said softly. "I left her behind to die."

"Because her drive was damaged," Caparelli said, deliberately misinterpreting the pronoun's antecedent. "Because you had no choice. Because you were a fleet commander, with a responsibility for the survival of the other ships under your command. It was the right decision."


Honor looked back at him, and the First Space Lord cocked his head. She could taste him accepting that that "maybe" was as close as she could yet come to agreeing with him, and her mouth moved in an almost-smile.

"But whether it was the right decision or not, I still got my backside kicked right up between my ears and didn't take out my objective. Exactly what Eighth Fleet wasn't supposed to have happen to it."

"It's not given to us to simply command victory," Caparelli told her. "The other side has an interest in winning, as well, you know. And when you're consistently given the most difficult jobs to do, the chances of running into something like you ran into at Solon go up rather steeply.

"As for your failure to hit your objectives, yes, you did. Admiral Truman, on the other hand, operating according to your plan, blew the Lorn shipyard, every bit of its supporting industry, and every mobile unit in the system into scrap for the loss of six LACs."

"I know she did," Honor conceded. "And I also know our primary objective was to force the Republic to redeploy, which—on the evidence of Solon—they've certainly done. But I feel depressingly confident that the way this story is going to be spun for their civilian population will dwell on how hard they hit my task force, not how well Alice's did."

"I think we can all safely depend upon that," Caparelli agreed. "Especially since you've been the one blacking their eyes up until now. The defeat of 'the Salamander'—and I agree that, however well you did to salvage what you did, it was a defeat—is going to be page-one news in every Peep 'fax. They're going to play it up to the max, exactly the way our own 'faxes have been playing up Eighth Fleet's successes.

"Nor, I'm afraid," he said, much more bleakly, his emotions suddenly far darker, "is that the only thing they're going to have to play up."

"I beg your pardon?"

Honor looked at him, and he shrugged heavily.

"The initial report came in this morning. Their Admiral Tourville is apparently back from Marsh, and they've given him a new fleet to replace the one you trashed. Units under his command hit Zanzibar about the same time you were attacking Lorn and Solon."

Honor inhaled sharply, looking back and forth between Caparelli and Hamish.

"How bad was it?"

"About as bad as it could have been," Hamish replied. She looked at him, and he sighed. "He came in with four full battle squadrons of pod-layers, and their battle squadrons are still eight ships strong. He also had a couple of divisions of carriers and at least two battlecruiser squadrons to support them, and although we'd reinforced heavily after Admiral al-Bakr's fiasco—and I use the word deliberately," he added bitterly "—it wasn't heavily enough. He hit the defenses like a hammer, and he started right out by sweeping the asteroid belt with remote arrays of his own, followed by LAC strikes on our predeployed pods. Not only that, he'd brought along fast colliers stuffed with additional missile pods. He left them tucked away in hyper, came in just far enough to draw our mobile units away from their own support bases, and engaged them at long range until both sides had burned most of their ammo. Then he pulled back across the limit, reammunitioned, and came right back in before we could replace the expended defense pods or get our own pod-layers back in-system to rearm. It was a massacre."

"How bad?" she repeated.

"Eleven SD(P)s and seven older superdreadnoughts," Caparelli said grimly. "Plus seven hundred LACs, six battlecruisers, and two heavy cruisers. Those were our losses. Most of the Zanzibaran Navy went with them. Not to mention," the First Space Lord added harshly, "the near total destruction of Zanzibar's deep-space industry. For the second time."

Honor paled. Those losses made her own seem almost trivial.

"I think we can all safely agree," Caparelli continued, "that as things stand right this instant, it's going to be relatively easy for the Peeps to convince their public—and possibly even our own—that the momentum's just shifted. Which makes it even more imperative for us to convince them they're wrong."

"What do you have in mind, Sir Thomas?" Honor asked, watching his face closely.

"You know exactly what I have in mind, Honor," he told her. "That's one reason I came out here with Hamish. I know you're hurting, and I know your people have to be shocked by what happened at Solon. And I also know it's going to take at least several weeks for you to be in any position to plan and mount another op. But we need you—and your people—back in the saddle, and we need you there quickly. We'll do what we can to reinforce you and replace your losses, but it's essential, absolutely essential, that Eighth Fleet resume offensive operations at the earliest possible moment. We simply cannot afford to allow the enemy, or ourselves, to believe the initiative has passed into his hands."


Back | Next