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Chapter Forty-Three

The pinnace drifted slowly down the length of the spindle-shaped mountain of alloy. Honor, Nimitz, Andrew LaFollet, Spencer Hawke, Rafael Cardones, and Frances Hirshfield sat gazing out the armorplast viewport as the small craft reached the superdreadnought's after hammerhead and braked to a complete halt, like a tadpole beside a slumbering whale.

Hard-suited construction workers, robotic repair units, and an ungainly webwork of girders and work platforms, all arranged with microgravity's grand contempt for the concept of "up and down," clustered about the ship as she floated against the stars. Powerful work lamps illuminated the frenetic activity of the repair crews and their robotic minions, and Honor frowned thoughtfully as she watched the bustling energy.

"Looks pretty terrible, doesn't it, Your Grace?" Cardones said, and she shrugged.

"I've seen lots worse. Remember the old Fearless after Basilisk?"

"Or the second one after Yeltsin," Cardones agreed. "But it's still like seeing your kid in the emergency room." He shook his head. "I hate seeing her in this shape."

"She looks a lot better than she did, Skipper," Hirshfield pointed out.

"Yes, she does," Cardones acknowledged, glancing at his executive officer. "On the other hand, there was a lot of room for improvement."

"The important thing is that the yard dogs say you can have her back in another six days," Honor said, turning away from the viewport to look at him, "and that's good. Captain Sam-sonov's been perfectly satisfactory, but I want my flag captain back."

"I'm flattered, Your Grace. But even after I get her back, we're going to need some pretty serious exercises to blast the rust off."

"Oh, I've been keeping an eye on you, Rafe," Honor said with a smile. "You and Commander Hirshfield here have kept your people hopping in the simulators the entire time the ship's been down. I'm sure you will need a few days, at least, but I doubt you've let too much rust accumulate."

"We've tried not to," Cardones admitted. "And it's helped that we didn't have to completely shut down. Just being able to keep our people on board helped, and we've been able to drill regularly with the forward weapons mounts, at least."

"I know. I wish I'd been able to stay, myself. Unfortunately—"

Honor shrugged, and Cardones nodded in understanding. Honor could, theoretically, have remained on board Imperator, since the repair techs had been working primarily on exterior sections of the hull and, as Cardones had said, the rest of her crew had never had to leave her. Unfortunately, Imperator had been thoroughly immobilized, and if any emergency had turned up, Honor would have required a flagship capable of moving and fighting.

"Still," she went on, "I'm looking forward to moving back aboard. Mac is looking forward to it, too." She grinned. "Actually, he's got at least half my stuff already packed up!"

"We're ready whenever you are, Ma'am," Cardones told her.

"Unless the yard dogs manage to break something new, I think I'll make the move in about four days," Honor said. "I'll start then, anyway. It's going to take at least a couple of days for Mac to get everything moved and settled back into place, and I need to make another run to Admiralty House this week, anyway. I think I can schedule it to overlap with the move and let Mac get everything arranged while I'm on Manticore."

"That sounds fine to me, Your Grace," Cardones said, and Hirshfield—who, as Imperator's XO, was actually in charge of all such housekeeping details—nodded in agreement.

"Good," Honor turned away from the viewport. "In that case, let's get back over to Yeltsin. We'll just about have time for lunch before the staff meeting if we hurry."

* * *

"We're calling the new operation 'Sanskrit,'" Andrea Jaruwalski told the assembled admirals, commodores, and captains in HMS Second Yeltsin's flag briefing room. "'Cutworm,' unfortunately, got leaked to the newsies, and it's been bandied about quite a bit over the last several weeks. Besides, we're going to be adopting an entirely new operational approach, so a new designation makes sense from a lot of perspectives."

She looked around the big compartment, and Honor reached up to gently rub Nimitz's ears while she listened. The next best thing to eight weeks had passed since Task Force 82 limped back into Trevor's Star, and as she'd feared, Eighth Fleet's reinforcement had taken a heavy hit in the wake of the Zanzibar disaster. Despite the fact that there was nothing left, really, to defend in the Zanzibar System, it had been politically impossible to refuse to station a powerful defensive force to keep an eye on the ruins. And Alizon, in particular, had been vociferous about the need to bolster its defenses. It was fortunate that over forty Andermani superdreadnoughts had finally completed their refits to handle Manticoran missile pods and reported for duty. But even with that reinforcement, finding the sheer number of hulls required had been extraordinarily difficult.

Now, though, things were beginning to look up. An entire division of Invictuses, with all the latest system updates, had arrived just yesterday, and two more superdreadnought divisions, all pod types, were anticipated before the end of the week. If things stayed on schedule, Eighth Fleet would have three entire squadrons of SD(P)s—eighteen ships—on its order of battle within the next two weeks. Additional battlecruisers, including the next five Agamemnons, had also come in, and Admiralty House was promising her three more Saganami-Cs, as well. And while all that had been going on, Alice Truman and Samuel Miklós had been reorganizing their carriers' LAC wings, incorporating twice as many Katanas into their orders of battle.

"This, of course," Jaruwalski continued, "is only a preliminary meeting. Her Grace wants us to be sure we're all thinking in the same direction. At the moment, we're planning on an execute date nineteen days from today. The preliminary operations plan, based on our anticipated units, will be drafted over the next ten days. At the end of that time, we'll conduct a dress rehearsal in the simulators. Any problems that come up will be discussed, and we'll draft a revised ops plan over the next three or four days. At that time we should know definitely what our unit availability will be, and we'll make any adjustments necessary. We'll run the revised plan through the simulator at X minus three days."

One or two of the people sitting at the table looked less than delighted at the timetable's tightness. In fact, Honor sensed several spikes of emotion which verged on consternation, and she couldn't blame the officers who were feeling them.

She looked up at Jaruwalski and made a tiny gesture with her right hand. The operations officer immediately turned to face her, and every other eye followed hers as if by magnetic attraction.

"I realize we're cutting things tight, people," Honor said, when she was sure she had everyone's attention. "That's particularly true for the new ships just joining us. And for those of you who've been with us from the beginning, it seems even more rushed, I'm sure, after our relative inactivity over the last couple of months.

"The problem is that we don't have a lot more time. Intelligence reports indicate the Havenites have been doing a lot of the same things we've been doing. They've been analyzing and considering what happened at Solon and Zanzibar, and they've also been adding new construction to their fleets. Those same reports strongly suggest they're getting ready to uncork a new offensive of their own. It's imperative that we get our punch in first and force them to worry about their rear areas again. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to do any definitive planning of our own because we simply haven't known what we'd have available at the time. And, frankly, because the operational change Captain Jaruwalski has already referred to required a substantial reinforcement of our wall of battle.

"The ships we need are finally becoming available, and the instant I have sufficient hulls to launch Sanskrit, it goes. I want that clearly understood. This operation must proceed as expeditiously as possible. ONI's latest estimate gives the Havenites over five hundred SD(P)s; the Alliance at this moment has less than three hundred. It's quite possible," her brown eyes were very level, "that the fate of the Star Kingdom may depend on our ability to make the Havenites anxious—anxious enough about their rear areas to divert heavy forces to protect them, and anxious enough about our new weapons capabilities to rethink the price they'll pay for any offensives of their own."

The compartment was very quiet, but Honor felt a sense of satisfaction as she tasted her subordinates' emotions. Concern still colored several individual mind-glows, but determination predominated, and she nodded.

"Andrea?" she said.

"Thank you, Your Grace."

Jaruwalski also surveyed the officers around the huge conference table, then keyed a holographic star map. It appeared above the conference table, and she tapped keys on her control pad, dropping a cursor into the map. It singled out a star, and Honor felt a fresh stir of surprise.

"Lovat, Ladies and Gentlemen," Jaruwalski said. "The system Admiral White Haven would have taken if High Ridge hadn't swallowed Saint-Just's bait hook, line, and sinker. We're going back there."

* * *

"You're confident you can do it with just three battle squadrons?" Admiral Caparelli asked.

"As confident as I can be," Honor replied, a bit more calmly than she actually felt.

She sat in a conference room deep inside Admiralty House, at a conference table surrounded by comfortable chairs, most of them empty at the moment. Honor herself was flanked by Mercedes Brigham on her right and Andrea Jaruwalski on her left. Nimitz lay stretched across the back of her chair, and Andrew LaFollet stood directly behind her.

Caparelli faced her across the table, flanked by Captain Dryslar, his chief of staff, and Patricia Givens. Admiral of the Green Sonja Hemphill was also present, along with Commander Coleman Hennessy, her chief of staff, but Hamish Alexander-Harrington was conspicuously absent. Technically, this was a matter for his uniformed subordinates, and he'd been extraordinarily careful ever since becoming First Lord to avoid stepping on those subordinates' toes, but under other circumstances he might have attended, anyway.

"This isn't going to be like Cutworm," Honor continued. "We're going to do to Lovat what Tourville did to Zanzibar. We're going to strike directly at one of the nodes they strengthened heavily post-Buttercup, and we're going to do it in a way which makes a declaration. Were going to tell them that they really, really don't want to screw around with us."

"That sounds like a very good idea, Your Grace," Admiral Givens said. "My only concern is how badly you may get hurt in the process of attempting to pull it off."

"We're not going to 'attempt' anything, Pat," Honor said flatly. "We're going to do it."

"Run through it for us again, please," Caparelli requested.

"A lot of our planning revolves around Admiral Hemphill's newest toys," Honor said, nodding respectfully to the BuWeaps CO. "The rest is predicated on three basic assumptions. First, that the Havenites are likely to believe our scouting destroyers are simply more of the misdirection we've been using to cover up our inability to mount actual operations. The second is that they know we've been forced to divert large numbers of wallers to thicken the defenses of Alizon, Zanzibar, and our other minor allies. And the third is that we established an operational pattern in Cutworm of operating in relatively light strength against relatively lightly defended star systems, and that they won't be surprised if we continue it . . . or appear to..

"Obviously, we can't absolutely rely on any of those premises, but we believe they should all hold true. In particular, although they've got to be concerned about the security of Lovat, we've consistently shied away from hitting targets that hard. That ought to generate at least some sense of false security, no matter how good they are.

"We know from our operations over the last sixty days that they've been reacting vigorously to our scouting operations. It's pretty obvious they've been trying to identify the systems we're likely to hit and stationing forces in hyper to cover them.

"As you know, we planned and executed a feint attack on the Suarez System three weeks ago. We sent in scouting destroyers, then, after a couple of days, sent in Admiral Truman's carrier squadron, escorted by a single squadron of battlecruisers and one of heavy cruisers. Admiral Truman launched half her LACs and sent them in-system, accompanied by a dozen Ghost Rider EW platforms simulating the emissions signatures of battle-cruisers and superdreadnoughts, then translated back out with her hyper-capable units. Given the endurance on the Ghost Rider micro fusion plants, we estimated that they'd be able to continue their deception long enough to draw a response.

"We got one. It was a virtual repeat of what they did to me at Solon. This time, though, we'd expected what we got, and they'd planned their interception based on the maximum acceleration rates of the wallers they thought we'd sent in, not LACs. In addition, three-quarters of our LACs were Katanas, which made them extraordinarily difficult missile targets. Our LACs were able to avoid interception and break back out across the limit before any of the defenders could follow them. Admiral Truman recovered them at the prearranged rendezvous, and translated back out.

"The operation did several things. First, it confirmed that, at that time, at least, they were sticking with a doctrine which had worked. Second, it gave us an opportunity to evaluate how quickly this covering force, as compared to the one we encountered at Solon, responded. Third, we hope it made them even more confident that we've been essentially running a bluff, without the wherewithal—or the will—to mount a serious raid. And, fourth, while they were busy bringing up their defenses, and before they realized we were using drones on them, they activated the same sort of control network they must have used at Solon. We'd hoped they would, and Admiral Truman had sensor arrays deep enough in-system to see them do it, so now we know what to look for in our next op."

She paused and reached for the glass sitting at the corner of her blotter. Andrea Jaruwalski quickly topped it off with ice water from a carafe, and Honor smiled her thanks before she sipped. Then she set the glass down and looked back up at Caparelli, Givens, and Hemphill.

"We ran a few other ops, similar in nature but without the electronic warfare platforms. In two cases, we drew no response at all, which leads us to suspect that in those two cases there were picket forces hiding in hyper which never got called in because they never saw a threat. In most of the others, the arrival of our scout units was the signal for courier boats to translate out, and fairly hefty response forces turned up within anywhere from two to four days. So, it looks like they've adopted a nodal strategy, in addition to staking out the systems they believe we're most likely to attack.

"By picking Lovat, we believe we'll be striking directly at one of those nodal forces. If we can punch it out when we hit, there shouldn't be anything else close enough to be called in on us for at least seventy-two hours, if our analysis of their previous operations is accurate. In addition, since we'll be scouting a heavily defended system, and we've established a pattern of sending diversionary scouts into systems we have no intention of attacking, we believe they'll be skeptical about our intentions. Even if they aren't, there's no reason for them to call in additional reinforcements before we actually hit them.

"And this time around, especially since we know what to look for in their system defense control net, we ought to be able to neutralize it with Mistletoe before they ever get a chance to use it. In which case, it will be our wallers and our LACs against theirs, in a standup fight without the sort of missile launch which hammered us at Solon."

"So you're confident you can neutralize their system defense command and control systems?" Givens asked, but her attention was more than half on Hemphill, and Honor smiled.

"Admiral Hemphill and I haven't always been on the same page," she began, and Hemphill actually chuckled.

"You might say that, Your Grace," she said, "if you're given to understatement. I seem to recall a rather passionate debriefing you gave the Weapons Development Board after that little affair in Basilisk."

"I was younger then, Admiral," Honor said almost demurely. "And I was mildly irritated, at the time."

"And rightly so," Hemphill said with a nod. She shook her head. "I don't believe I've ever had the opportunity to actually tell you this, Your Grace, but I always envisioned Fearless as a testbed. I never expected her to be committed to combat, especially not totally unsupported. The fact that you managed to win was an impressive testimony to your tactical ability. And the fact that you were—'mildly irritated,' I believe you said—was certainly understandable. Besides," she chuckled again, "having watched your track record over the last few years, I'm inclined to doubt you've mellowed all that much since."

"Not mellowed," Honor said with another smile. "Just gained a greater sense of . . . diplomacy."

This time Caparelli and Givens joined Hemphill's laughter, and Caparelli tipped his chair back.

"I believe you are about to respond to Pat's question, Your Grace?" he said.

"Yes, I was," Honor agreed, turning her attention back to Admiral Givens. "What I was about to say, Pat, is that this time around, I'm convinced Admiral Hemphill's new wrinkles will do the job. I'd hoped to keep her new toys tucked away against a rainy day, without letting the Havenites know they exist until we really, really needed them. Unfortunately, 'really, really need them' is a pretty good description of where we are right now. At any rate, we've quietly tested the new hardware in exercises at Trevor's Star, and it's performed to specs. Obviously, that's not the same as using it operationally, but the exercise results look very good. In fact, they look much better than the original projections. We're really still just beginning to appreciate all the tactical possibilities, but even what we've already worked out is going to give whoever gets in our way at Lovat fits."

She smiled again, and this time there was no amusement at all in her expression.

"As a matter of fact," Admiral Lady Dame Honor Alexander-Harrington said softly, "I'm rather looking forward to the opportunity."


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