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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 peopleher people now, however they'd become thataboard 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 supportbuttressed by the scores of small craft which had been added to their systemsshould 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 boneCharon Control had only a single full-strength watch crew, with just enough other people to make sure there was always a sensor and com watchand 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 Simmonsand 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 monthslong 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 hadthat 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 onor praying for, at leastand 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.

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