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"Good morning, Admiral," Harriet Benson said formally as Honor walked into the Styx command center. Honor glanced at the time and date display and grinned wryly.

"I guess it is," she agreed, and Benson chuckled.

The blond captain did a lot more of that since they'd taken Styx... and even more since the courts-martial, Honor thought, trying not to feel bitter about it. It was hard, sometimes, and she knew she'd made it harder by establishing from the outset that she personally would review and confirm every sentence handed down by the tribunal. It had never been easy for her to accept responsibility for death, yet confirming those verdicts was her responsibility. She could have avoided it legally, but not if she'd wanted to live with herself afterwards. Which was perverse of her, she thought mordantly. Surely she'd assumed "responsibility" for deaths enough by now! Yet it sometimes seemed to her that she would never escape that crushing weightthat her life had made her the very Angel of Death. Wherever she went, it followed, among her own people as well as the enemy, and there were times the memory of all her dead ambushed her with crushing force in her dreams.

And yet she couldn't walk away. It was the paradox of her own nature that the one thing she found even more impossible to face than the blood upon her hands was what would happen if she refused to shed it. She knew that, but she also knew it stemmed from more than a simple, stubborn inability to shove her duty off onto another or turn her back on those who depended upon her. Whatever she wanted, whatever she thought she wanted, she was a killer because she was... good at it. She had the giftthe tactician's eye and the strategist's mind and the talent no one could quite define. In some strange way, that gift had required her to become a killer. Duty. Honor. Loyalty. Patriotism. She might call it by any name she chose, but in the dark hours of the night she knew she had become what she was not simply because someone had to but because she did it so much better than most.

She knew her own weaknesses: the temper which had once almost ended her career, the inability to stop or relent that sometimes verged all too closely upon obsession, and the aptitude for violence that, in an even slightly different personality, would have created a monster.

She wasn't a... safe person, and she knew it, so she had found a way to turn that dangerousness into a virtue by dedicating her life to defending the people and beliefs she held dear.

The majority of people were decent enough human beings. Not saints most of them, no, but not monsters either. If anyone in the universe knew that, she did, for her link to Nimitz gave her an insight and a sensitivity no other human had ever possessed. But she also knew that the two-legged animals who had raped and tortured and murdered here on Hell for StateSec were not unique... and that as someone had said long, long ago on Old Earth, all that was necessary for evil to triumph was for good menand womento do nothing.

Honor Harrington could not be one of those who "did nothing." That was the dreadful, simple and inexorable center of her life, the source of all the paradoxes. Someone had to resist the State Securities and Committees of Public Safety and the Pavel Youngs and William Fitzclarences, and whatever made her who and what she was forced her to be that someone. And when her dead came to her in her dreams, she could face themnot without sorrow and guilt, but without allowing those things to conquer herbecause she'd had no choice but to try. And because if she'd attempted to evade her duty, tried to divert it to someone who lacked her killer's gift, she would have broken faith with the superiors who had trusted her to honor her oath as a Queen's officer and with the subordinates who'd trusted her to keep them alive... or at least make their deaths mean something.

That was the reason she had made herself review those sentences, despite how dreadfully she'd longed to evade the task. Because it was her job. Because she was the one who'd seen no option but to order those trials held, and she would not shuffle the weight of that decision off onto Alistair McKeon or any of her other subordinates. And because she had to be certain the sentences she confirmed were justice, not mere vengeance. It was another of those things she had no choice but to do, whatever the rest of the universe might think, and so she'd done it. But the burden of still more deathand the courts-martial had hanged fifty-eight StateSec troopers over the last six monthswas the reason a small corner of her mind, raw and wounded, felt bitter at Harriet Benson's laughter. The captain wasn't gloating over the destruction of her enemies; she was simply a human being who could not avoid a deep sense of satisfaction that those who had thought themselves above all laws, immunized against any day of reckoning, had discovered they were wrong.

Nimitz made a soft, scolding sound, and she blinked, then gave herself a mental shake and sent him a silent apology. It was getting up in the middle of the night, she told herself. The darkness outside the command center made her more vulnerable than usual to the other darkness brooding within her, but Nimitz's soft touch in her mind was like a bright light, chasing shadows from the corners of her soul. Unbiased he certainly was not, but he knew her far better than anyone else did. Indeed, he knew her better than she did, and his uncomplicated love echoed his verbal scold as he took her to task for being so hard on herself.

"Honor?" She looked up and saw Benson regarding her with a slightly worried frown.

"Sorry," she said, and smiled almost naturally. "Nimitz and I had just dropped off when you had Commander Phillips screen me. I'm afraid we're not quite fully awake yet, and I wandered off into a mental blind alley."

"You're not old enough to be doing that sort of thing yet, Admiral," Benson told her severely, and grinned at Honor's chuckle. "Better!" Benson approved, and laughed when Honor gave her a mock serious glare.

That laugh snuffed Honor's petty bitterness like a stiff breeze, and she was glad. It was utterly unfair of her to resent the fact that Harriet had become more relaxed, less driven and less haunted by her own demons. Besides, Honor suspected that at least as much of the change in the captain came from Fritz Montoya's activities as from the executions. The doctor had run an entire battery of tests on her and Henri Dessouixand the others from their original camp who had been affected by eating "false-potatoes"and managed to isolate the neurotoxin which had affected their speech centers. He'd found it in several other places in their nervous system, as well, and some of its other potential effects concerned him far more than slurred speech did. He was still figuring out exactly what it was, but he'd been able to use the SS hospital's facilities to design a special nanny to go in after it. The molycirc machines had been scavenging it out of Benson's brain for a full month now, and her speech was far clearer than it had been.

In fact, Honor thought wryly, it's at least as clear as mine is now, but I don't suppose Fritz can be expected to do a lot about destroyed nerves with such primitive facilities.

"What's our situation?" she asked, and Benson nodded to the oversized holo sphere of the system.

Honor glanced at it and cocked her head as she absorbed its contents.

The display was centered on Cerberus-B, Hell's G3 primary, rather than on Cerberus-A, the F4 primary component of the trinary system. Cerberus-B orbited its more massive companion at an average distance of six hundred and eighty light-minutes, with an orbital eccentricity of twelve percent. At the moment, it was just past apastron, which meant Cerberus-A was almost exactly ten light-hours away. Cerberus-Ca cool, barren, planetless M9had a much more eccentric orbit, but its average orbital radius was approximately forty-eight light-hours, and it never approached within less than thirty-three and a half light-hours of Cerberus-A. Which meant, of course, that it occasionally passed considerably closer than that to Hell, although such near approaches were centuries apart. And, Honor reflected, she was just as glad that her own stay would be far too short (one way or the other) for her to get a firsthand look at the next one.

But at the moment, local astrography was less important than the bright red icon blinking in the display to indicate a hostile impeller signature, and she watched the red bead tracking down the white vector projection that intersected Hell's orbit.

"So far, everything seems to be just where it ought to be," Benson said while Honor absorbed the plot's details. "They've been in-system for twenty-one minutes now, and their arrival message crossed our challengewe received it... nine minutes and twenty-one seconds ago," she said, checking the time chop on a hardcopy message slip. "They should have received ours fifteen seconds after that, and they're still following straight down the least-time profile for a zero/zero intercept. Assuming they continue to do so, they'll make turnover in another hundred and thirteen minutes."

"Good," Honor murmured. She gazed at the plot a moment longer, then turned and walked over to stand behind Commander Phillips and Scotty Tremaine at the main com console. Horace Harkness sat to one side with two other electronics techs to assist him. Harkness himself was watching two displays simultaneously, and he spoke to Tremaine without looking away.

"I think we can lighten up on 'Citizen Commander Ragman's' mood in the next transmission, Sir," he said, forgetting his normal "lower deck" dialect as he concentrated.

"Sounds good to me, Chief," Tremaine replied, and Harkness grunted. He watched the display a moment later, then glanced at one of his assistants.

"See if this lousy excuse for an AI can get her to smile just a little, but don't get carried away. Throw her up on Three here for me to look at ASAP."

"I'm on it, Senior Chief," the assistant said, and Honor looked at Benson again.

"What is she?" she asked.

"According to her initial transmission, she's a StateSec heavy cruiserthe Krashnark headed in with a fresh shipment of prisoners," Benson replied, looking down at the hardcopy. "I didn't recognize the name, but I found it in their Ship List data base. Krashnark is one of their new Mars-class CAs. From what I could find on their capabilities, they look like nasty customers."

"They are that," Honor agreed softly, remembering a deadly ambush, and the right corner of her mouth smiled slightly. She was going to enjoy getting a little of her own back from a Mars-class... and the fact that this ship belonged to the SS would only make it sweeter.

But slowly, she reminded herself. Let's not get cocky and blow this, Honor.

"Commander Phillips, has Krashnark ever visited Hell before?" she asked.

"No, Ma'am," Phillips answered promptly. "I ran a data search as soon as we had the name. Neither she, nor her captaina Citizen Captain Pangbornnor her com officer have ever been to Cerberus before this visit. I can't vouch for her other officers, but everyone who's been identified in their com traffic is a first-timer."

"Excellent," Honor murmured. "And very promptly done. Thank you, Commander."

"You're welcome, Admiral," Phillips replied without a trace of her earlier resentment, and Honor smiled down at her before she looked back at Benson.

"If they're all newcomers, we don't need 'Commander Ragman's' familiar face, so let's get Harkness' artificial person out of there and replace it with a live human being," she said. "Who do we have who sounds like a Peep?"

"You've got me, Dame Honor," another voice said quietly, and Honor turned towards it in surprise. Warner Caslet smiled crookedly and walked towards her from where he'd stood unobtrusively against one wall.

"Are you sure about that, Warner?" She spoke even more quietly than he had and felt a dozen other people fighting the urge to turn and look at the two of them.

"Yes, Ma'am." He met her single working eye levelly, and she and Nimitz tasted the sincerity and certainty at his core. He was hardly what she would call calm, but for the first time since their arrival on Hell, she felt no doubt at all in him, and the 'cat sat straighter in the bend of her elbow to consider the Citizen Commander with bright green eyes.

"May I ask why?" she inquired gently, and he smiled again, more crookedly than ever.

"Admiral Parnell is right, Ma'am," he said simply. "I can't go home because the butchers running my country won't let me. Which means the only thing I can do for the Republic is fight it from the outside. Didn't someone once say that we always hurt the one we love?"

The tone was humorous; the emotions behind it were not, and Honor wanted to weep for him.

"And if the Committee and State Security are overthrown?" she asked. "You're starting down a dangerous slope, Warner. Even if the 'butchers' are thrown out of office, the people who replace them will probably never trust you again. Might even consider you a traitor."

"I've thought about that," he agreed. "And you're right. If I cross the line to active collaboration with you, I'll never be able to go home. But if I don't cross it, all that's left for me would be to stand around doing nothing, and I've discovered I can't do that." Honor felt a stab of surprise as he echoed her own thoughts of only moments before, but he didn't seem to notice.

"That's the downside of the freedom of choice Admiral Parnell was talking about," he went on. "Once you've got it, you can't live with yourself very comfortably if you refuse to exercise it." He drew a deep breath, and his smile turned almost natural. "Besides, I've heard a lot about Captain Yu from Admiral Parnell in the last few weeks. If he could have the guts to not only take service with the Allies but actually go back to Grayson to do it, then so can I, by God! If you'll let me, of course."

Honor gazed at him for several seconds while silence hovered in the control room. She felt the emotions of the watch personnel beating in on her, and at least a third of them were convinced she'd have to be out of her mind even to contemplate trusting him so deeply. But Benson, Tremaine, and Harknessthe three people present, besides Honor, who knew Caslet bestwere almost completely calm about the possibility. And Honor herself hesitated not because she distrusted Caslet in any way, but because she sensed at least a little of what this decision would cost him.

But he had the right to make up his own mind about the price his conscience required him to pay, she thought sadly, and nodded.

"Fine, Warner," she said, and looked at Harkness. "Can you put Cit" She paused. "Can your little box of tricks put Commander Caslet in SS uniform for Krashnark's edification, Senior Chief?"

"In a skinny minute, Ma'am," Harkness confirmed with a grin.

"Then sit down, Warner." She pointed to the chair in front of the main com console. "You know the script."

Chapter Forty | Echoes Of Honor | Chapter Forty-One