Admiral White Haven sat at his terminal, watching another of the endless, dreary ONI reports which had become all too familiar in the past eight T-months scroll up his terminal. Casualties and damages, ships lost, people killed, millions—billions—of dollars worth of industrial investment blown away...
There had been no more runaway Peep triumphs like the series of attacks with which Esther McQueen had announced the change in the military management of the PRH, for the Allies had not allowed themselves to become that overconfident a second time. But the momentum which had been with the Alliance for so long had disappeared. It hadn't gone entirely to the Peep side of the board, but it was clearly McQueen and Bukato who were pushing the operational pace now. And unlike Citizen Secretary Kline, McQueen understood she had the ships to lose if spending them bought her victories.
He looked up from the terminal, running a weary hand through hair streaked with more white since the Battle of Basilisk, and grimaced as his eye lit on the star map frozen on the mural wall display in his quarters. The Barnett System still burned the spiteful red of the PRH, and Thomas Theisman had not sat still. When no attack had come from Eighth Fleet—which had been busy protecting what was left of Basilisk Station until a proper replacement could be scraped up from somewhere—Theisman had nipped out from Barnett to retake Seabring in an audacious raid. He'd hit that system and the Barnes System both, and then gotten his striking force back to Barnett before Theodosia Kuzak learned of its activities and reacted to its absence. It was unlikely she could have gotten permission to uncover Trevor's Star to move on Barnett anyway, given the shock which had temporarily paralyzed the Alliance's command structure and political leadership, but Theisman had been so quick that she couldn't have hit him even if she'd had permission.
Which, White Haven thought with admiration-tinged bitterness, only reemphasized the danger of allowing an officer of Theisman's caliber time to recover his balance and plan his own shots.
We should be moving on Barnett right now, the Earl thought. Hell, we should've concentrated Eighth Fleet two years ago, as originally planned, and damned well hit Theisman then! But even granted that we lost that chance a long time ago, we're still back at Trevor's Star and concentrated again, and why the hell did the Admiralty and the Joint Chiefs send us back out here if they didn't mean for us to carry out our original orders?
But he hadn't been given permission to reactivate his original attack plan, and despite his need to vent frustration, he knew why. The Alliance was afraid... and this time it had too much to lose.
He snorted savagely at the thought, yet it was true. He suspected that Queen Elizabeth and Protector Benjamin were as determined as he himself was that the initiative had to be regained, and he had complete faith in Sir Thomas Caparelli's fighting spirit. Lack of courage had never been one of the things he'd held against the burly First Space Lord. But even though Elizabeth and Benjamin were, by any measure, the two most important heads of state in the Alliance, they weren't the only ones, and their smaller allies saw what had happened to Zanzibar and Alizon—and Basilisk—and were terrified that the same would happen to them. Nor had the Star Kingdom or the Protectorate of Grayson maintained as unified a front as their rulers must have desired.
The Manticoran Opposition had been as stunned as anyone else for the first few weeks. But then, as the true scope of the disaster became clear, that had changed. Their leaders had stormed into the public eye, plastering the 'faxes and domestic news services with condemnations of the Cromarty Government's "lax and inefficient," "inexcusably overconfident," and "culpably negligent" conduct of the war. Never mind that the Opposition had done its level best in the decades leading up to that self-same war to ensure that the Star Kingdom would never have had the Navy to survive its opening weeks. Or that it had paralyzed the Star Kingdom's government and delayed military operations for months following the Harris Assassination, and so allowed the Committee of Public Safety to get its feet under it. Nothing in the universe had a shorter half-life than a politician's memory for inconvenient facts, and people like Countess New Kiev, Baron High Ridge, Lady Descroix, and their tame military analysts like Reginald Houseman and Jeremiah Crichton had even shorter memories than most. They sensed an opening, an opportunity to blacken Cromarty and his advisers in the eyes of the electorate, and they'd seized it with both hands.
The political fire on Grayson had come from another source... and been leveled upon a different target. A group of dissident steadholders had coalesced under the leadership of Steadholder Meuller, denouncing not the war as such, but rather the fashion in which Grayson's "so-called allies unfairly—and unwisely—dominate the decision-making process." They knew better than to expect the Grayson people to shrink from the dangers of war, but they had hit a responsive nerve in at least some of their people. Centuries of isolation could not be totally forgotten in a few years, and there were those on Grayson who believed Meuller was right when he implied that their world would be better off if it were to go its own way rather than marrying its military power and policy to someone—like the Star Kingdom—who had obviously miscalculated so hideously.
And listening to all that drivel were the voters of the Star Kingdom and the steaders of Grayson. Men and women who had steeled themselves for the perils of war before the shooting began, but who had become increasingly confident as the actual fighting went on. Few of them had been happy about the war's cost, or about the lives which were being lost, or about rising taxes, reduced civilian services, or any of the hundreds of other petty and not so petty inconveniences they'd been forced to endure. But they had been confident in their navies, sure the ultimate victory would be theirs.
Now they were confident no longer. Esther McQueen had accomplished that much, at least, and the repercussions had been severe. Now all too many voters demanded that the Navy hold all it had taken, as a glacis against additional Peep attacks. They had gotten out of the habit of thinking in the stark terms of victory or slavery, and with the loss of that habit, they had also lost the one of accepting that risks had to be run. That an outnumbered Navy had to take chances to seize and control the initiative. Indeed, they no longer even thought of themselves as outnumbered, for how could an overmatched fleet have accomplished all theirs had? That was why the shock of McQueen's offensives had cut so deep... and why the critics vociferously demanded that "the incumbent incompetents be replaced by new, better informed leaders who will let our incomparable Navy safeguard our star systems and our worlds!"
Which came down in the end to calling the Navy home to "stand shoulder to shoulder" in defense of the inner perimeter... which was the worst possible thing they could do.
White Haven scrubbed a hand over his face and took himself sternly to task. Yes, things were worse now than he remembered their ever having been before. And, yes, the Opposition was making inroads into Alien Summervale's authority and popular support. But the Manticoran electorate was not composed solely of credulous fools. In the long run, he estimated, the damage popular trust in the Cromarty Government had suffered might take years to completely heal, but it would be healed in the end. And quite possibly faster than White Haven might believe at this moment that it could be, given the Queen's unwavering, iron support for her embattled prime minister and his cabinet. As for Grayson... White Haven snorted a laugh. Samuel Meuller might have assembled a coterie of vocal supporters, but they were a definite minority, and Hamish Alexander knew he wouldn't care to be the one who challenged Benjamin Mayhew's strength of will!
Nor was the military front hopeless. Despite heavy losses, Alice Truman, Minotaur, and the carrier's LAC wing had proved the new LAC concept brilliantly at Hancock, and ONI's best estimate was that the Peeps still hadn't figured out exactly what had hit them, though they must obviously have some suspicions. In the meantime, the new construction programs were going full blast. Within another few months, the first of an entire wave of LAC-carriers would be joining the Fleet, and the new Medusa-class—
No, he corrected himself. Not the Medusa-class. For the first time in its history, the Royal Manticoran Navy had followed the lead of a foreign fleet, and the Medusa-class missile pod superdreadnoughts—the wisdom of whose construction no one doubted any longer—had been redesignated as the Harrington-class.
White Haven felt a familiar bittersweet loss as he contemplated the change, but the pain had become less. It would never go completely away. He knew that now. But it had become something he could cope with because he had accepted the nature and depth of his feelings for her. And she would have been proud of the way her namesake had performed at the Battle of Basilisk. Almost as proud as she would have been of how furiously her adopted navy had fought not just at Basilisk but in half a dozen engagements since. The GSN was young, but it continued to expand explosively, and the RMN was beginning to realize its true quality. Manticoran officers had begun to pay it the supreme compliment: they truly were as confident going into battle with GSN units in support as they were with fellow Manticorans.
The Alliance was regaining its balance. It had been knocked back on its heels, but it was still a long way from on the ropes, and while people like Hamish Alexander sparred for time, the massive construction programs behind them were churning out the ships which would take the war to the Peeps again someday much sooner than most people would have believed possible, and—
The chirp of his com interrupted his thoughts, and he hit the acceptance key. Lieutenant Robards' face appeared on it, but White Haven had never seen his aide with an expression like the one he wore. His eyes were huge, and he looked as stunned as if someone had used his head for target practice with a blunt object.
"Nathan? What is it?" the admiral asked quickly, and Robards cleared his throat.
"Sir, I think—" He stopped, with an air of helpless confusion which would have been almost comical if it had been even a trace less deep.
"Go on," White Haven encouraged.
"Admiral, System Surveillance picked up a cluster of unidentified hyper footprints about twelve minutes ago," the Grayson lieutenant said.
"And?" White Haven prompted when he paused once more.
"Sir, they made transit quite close to one of the FTL platforms and were identified almost immediately as Peeps."
"Peeps?" White Haven sat suddenly straighter in his chair, and Robards nodded.
"Yes, Sir." He glanced down at something White Haven presumed was a memo pad display, cleared his throat once more, and read aloud. "Tracking made it five battlecruisers, four heavy cruisers, a light cruiser, and two of their Roughneck-class assault transports."
"What?" White Haven blinked. He couldn't possibly have heard right. That was a decent enough squadron for something like a commerce raid, or possibly even a strike at some lightly picketed rear system, but twelve ships, without even one of the wall among them, wouldn't stand a snowflake's chance in hell against the firepower stationed here at Trevor's Star. And what in the name of sanity would a pair of transports be doing here? They'd be dead meat for any decent warship—even one of the old-fashioned, pre-Shrike LACs—if they moved inside the hyper limit.
"I assume they hypered back out immediately?" he heard himself say. The only logical explanation was that someone on the other side had made a mistake. Perhaps the Peeps were planning a major attack on Trevor's Star and the transport echelon had simply arrived too soon... or the main attack force was late. In either case, the sensible thing for the Peep CO to do would be to flee back into hyper-space—at once.
"No, Sir," Robards said, and drew a deep breath. "They didn't do anything at all, Sir. Except sit there and transmit a message to System Command HQ."
"What sort of message?" White Haven was beginning to be irritated. Whatever ailed his flag lieutenant, prying the facts out of him one by one was like pulling teeth. What in God's name could have someone normally as levelheaded as young Robards so off-balance and hesitant?
"They said— But, of course it can't be, only— I mean, she's—" Robards broke off again and shrugged helplessly. "Sir, I think you'd better see the message for yourself," he said, and disappeared from White Haven's terminal before the earl could agree or disagree.
The admiral frowned ferociously. He and Nathan were going to have to have a little talk about the courtesy due a flag officer, he thought thunderously, and after that they'd—
His thoughts chopped off in a harsh, strangled gasp as another face appeared on his display. Other people might not have recognized it with the hair which framed it reduced to a short, feathery mass of curls and one side paralyzed, but Hamish Alexander had seen that same face in exactly that same condition once before, and his heart seemed to stop beating.
It can't be, he thought numbly. It can't be! She's dead! She's—
His thoughts disintegrated into chaos and incoherence as the shock roared through him, and then the woman on his display spoke.
"Trevor System Command, this is Admiral Honor Harrington." Her voice sounded calm and absolutely professional—or would have, to someone who didn't know her. But White Haven saw the emotion burning in her good eye, heard it hovering in the slurred soprano. "I'm sure no one in the Alliance expected to see me again, but I assure you that the rumors of my recent death have been exaggerated. I am accompanied by approximately one hundred and six thousand liberated inmates of the prison planet Hades, and I expect the arrival of another quarter million or so within the next eleven days—our transports have military hyper generators and we made a faster passage than they will. I regret any confusion or alarm we may have caused by turning up in Peep ships, but they were the only ones we could... appropriate for the voyage."
The right side of her mouth smiled from the display, but her voice went husky and wavered for a moment, and she stopped to clear her throat. White Haven reached out, his fingers trembling, and touched her face on the com as gently as he might have touched a terrified bird, yet the terror was his, and he knew it.
"We will remain where we are, with our drives, sidewalls, weapons, and active sensors down until you've had time to check us out and establish our bona fides," she went on after a moment, struggling to maintain her professional tone, "but I'd appreciate it if you could expedite. We were forced to pack these ships to the deckheads to get all our people aboard, and our life support could be in better shape. We—"
She broke off, blinking hard, and Hamish Alexander's heart was an impossible weight in his chest—heavy as a neutron star and yet soaring and thundering with emotions so powerful they terrified him—as he stared at her face. He was afraid to so much as breathe lest the oxygen wake him and destroy this impossible dream, and he realized he was weeping only when his display shimmered. And then she spoke again, and this time everyone heard the catch in her breath, the proud tears she refused to shed hanging in her soft voice.
"We're home, System Command," she said. "It took us a while, but we're home."