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Chapter Thirty-One

"Here we are... at last."

Earl White Haven knew the words sounded almost petulant, but he couldn't help himself. Admiral Caparelli's two-month delivery time for Eighth Fleet's Manticoran superdreadnoughts had turned into five, which meant White Haven was almost exactly fifteen months late assembling his assigned striking force. Or would be, when the last two RMN SDs actually arrived the day after tomorrow.

And I wouldn't be up to strength now if the GSN hadn't anted up three more of its SDs to replace Manticoran ships which won't be arriving at all, he thought, looking at the staffers assembled around the briefing room table. Well, I suppose I should be grateful for small favors. At least it means I got the Harrington and one of her sisters.

He glanced at the plot of his assembled fleet displayed on his terminal, eyes automatically seeking out the icons of the Grayson contingent. The GSN had worked like demons to get the Harrington ready to christen on schedule. There had been a delay in the fabrication of her beta nodes, and they'd had to divert half a dozen from one of her sisters to meet their deadline, but they'd met it... and a noticeably pregnant Allison Harrington had pressed the button that detonated the champagne bottle affixed to the ship's prow on the first anniversary, to the minute, of Grayson's receipt of INS's broadcast of Honor Harrington's execution.

I doubt the symbolism was lost on anyone, White Haven reflected with an edge of grimness. It certainly wasn't lost on me, at any rate, or on Judah Yanakov when he chose the Harrington as his flagship. But I'm delighted to have her. And I might as well admit I'm eager to see how the concept actually works out in action.

The corners of his mouth quirked wryly at the last thought, but he banished any hint of a smile instantly. Not that any of his staff would have noticed. They were all still busy looking down at the table rather than meet his eyes.

Hmm... maybe I let myself sound just a bit too petulant there. Or could it be that I've been acting just a little more like a hexapuma with a sore tooth than I thought I had? Possible. Entirely possible. Even probable.

"All right, ladies and gentlemen," he said in a much lighter tone. "They say late is better than never, so let's just see if we can't put some teeth into that old cliche. Jenny, what's the status of Barnett?"

"Our last scouting report is a week old, Sir, but the numbers hadn't changed since the probe before it."

Jennifer O'Brien, White Haven's intelligence officer, was a red-haired, blue-eyed native of Manticore. She was also only a senior-grade lieutenant and a third-generation prolong recipient. At thirty-one, the slender lieutenant looked like a pre-prolong seventeen-year-old, but despite her youth and junior rank, White Haven had specifically requested her for his staff. Just before the First Battle of Seabring, then Ensign O'Brien had strongly dissented from the enemy forces appreciation of the full commander who'd been White Haven's intelligence officer at the time. As it happened, she'd been right and the commander had been wrong... and Thomas Theisman had inflicted enough damage on the task force White Haven had sent to take Seabring to force its humiliating retreat. White Haven hadn't blamed his intelligence officerhe'd seen the same reports and drawn the same conclusionsbut neither had he forgotten that O'Brien had been right when both of them had been wrong. And that she'd had the nerve to disagree with both her own immediate superior and the commander of an entire fleet.

"Run back over it for us again, please," he requested now, and O'Brien keyed her terminal.

"Our current strength estimate gives him twenty-six of the wall, twenty-eight battleships, twenty battlecruisers, thirty to forty heavy cruisers, thirty-five to forty light cruisers, and at least forty destroyers. We don't know how many LACs he may have, but Enki and DuQuesne Base were very heavily fortified prior to the war, and we have to assume they'll use missile pods to thicken their orbital launch capability. Call it a hundred and ninety hyper-capable units and six or seven times that amount of firepower in fixed defenses and/or LACs." She made a small face. "I'm sorry we can't be any closer to precise on that latter figure, Sir, but we simply don't know the present condition of their fortifications. We know they've had their own maintenance problems, and it's always possible a goodly percentage of their fixed weapons are down, but I wouldn't count on it. My own view is that if they were willing to reinforce him this heavily in mobile units, they would also have made every effort to put his permanent defenses on-line, and they've got the techs for that if they're willing to take them away from other, less important systems."

"Um." White Haven turned that over in his mind. He was inclined to agree with her, but he looked at his chief of staff. "Alyson?"

"I agree with Jenny," Captain (Junior Grade) Lady Alyson Granston-Henley said firmly. "All our sources confirm that McQueen has been sweeping with a new broom ever since she took over their war office, and she has to know Theisman is one of her best fleet commanders. Whatever Kline might have done, there's no way McQueen will stick him out at the end of a limb and saw it off behind him. She has to have made a major push to put his forts on-line. If she hadn't, she certainly would have sent him more mobile unitsand heavier onesto make up the difference. Either that, or reduced his strength still further to make it hurt less when we punch the system out."

White Haven nodded slowly and glanced around the table, seeing agreement on most of his other officers' faces. Commander Yerensky, his RMN astrogator, seemed a little doubtful, and Commander Yanakov, his Grayson logistics officer, appeared to share Yerensky's reservations.

"What's your feeling, Trev?" he asked his operations officer, Commander Trevor Haggerston of the Erewhon Navy. The heavyset commander scratched an eyebrow for a moment, then shrugged and grinned crookedly.

"I think Jenny and Captain G are both right," he said. "God knows we've taken long enough to assemble Eighth Fleet, and McQueen can't be certain we're not planning on diverting additional units to it from Third Fleet before we move on Barnett. And while Theisman has fifty-four capital ships to our forty-nine, twenty-eight of his are only battleships. We've got a fifteen-percent tonnage edge in capital shipsexclusive of battlecruisersand a forty-seven-percent edge in genuine ships of the wall. We could just about double those numbers with diversions from Third Fleet, and he and McQueen must know it. Under the circumstances, someone as cagey as McQueen would have been pulling ships out of Barnett before we killed themor at least replacing SDs and dreadnoughts with battleships she could better afford to loseunless she figured his fixed defenses were good enough to even the odds."

"With all due respect, Admiral, that assumes McQueen is in a position to act on her judgment," Commander Yanakov put in. The sandy-haired Grayson officer was thirty-one, young enough that he'd received the first-generation prolong treatments shortly after Grayson joined the Alliance. He was a third cousin of Admiral Yanakov's, and he also had remarkably handsome features and intriguing, gold-flecked brown eyes which had cut a devastating swath through the female Allied officers who'd crossed his path.

"I think we have to assume she is, Commander," O'Brien said quietly. She, at least, seemed impervious to his looks and undeniable charm, although, to do the Grayson officer credit, he himself seemed unaware of his attractiveness.

"I realize all the analyses point that way," Yanakov said calmly, "and they may very well be accurate. In fact, I think they are. But we have to remain open to the possibility that they aren't. Giving her the authority to call the shots without civilian interference represents a major departure from the Peeps' established policies. I believe we ought to allow for the chance that they haven't changed directions as completely as we believe. At the very least, we have to be cautious about making operational assumptions based on an unquestioning belief that they have."

"Your point's well taken, Zack," White Haven agreed. "However, I believe ONI and SIS are correct about the extent of McQueen's authority."

"As I said, Sir, I'm inclined to think that myself," Yanakov said with deferential stubbornness. "But assuming she is in charge of their deployments, why hasn't she reinforced Theisman even more heavily? ONI's lost track of at least three squadrons of their SDs, not to mention all those other battleships. If I were McQueen and I was serious about holding Barnett, some of those missing ships would have turned up down here months ago. They haven't."

He shrugged and held out his hands, palm uppermost.

"The Commander has a point, Sir," Lieutenant O'Brien admitted. "I've asked myself that question. As you know, I've also asked Captain Leahy" Leahy was Third Fleet's senior intelligence officer "and both Grayson and Manticoran naval intelligence for their views. Unfortunately, the only answer they've been able to give me is that they don't know." It was her turn to shrug unhappily. "The only thing we know so far is that they haven't turned up anywhere else, either, and ONI's best estimate is that the SDs have probably been recalled for refit. Given the fact that Solarian League technology seems to be continuing to leak through the embargo to them, it would make sense for them to upgrade their ships of the wall in rotation to take advantage of whatever they've gotten. And, frankly, we've been so busy consolidating our own positions for the last eighteen months or so that we've given them the opportunity to do just that."

"I know, Jenny." White Haven rubbed his chin and glanced at the hologram floating above the briefing room table. It was a split image: a chart of the Trevor's Star System juxtaposed to an actual repeat of the flag bridge's main visual display, and the visual was even more impressive, in some ways, than the plot on his terminal.

Eighth Fleet floated before himtwo hundred ships in all, headed by thirty-seven Manticoran and Grayson SDs and twelve Erewhonese dreadnoughtsmaintaining station forty-five light-seconds off the Trevor's Star terminus of the Manticore Junction while White Haven awaited the arrival of the last of his superdreadnoughts via the Junction. The massed, massive firepower of the fleet gleamed in the display like tiny, fiery sparks of reflected sunlight, nuzzling relatively close (in deep-space terms) to the terminus, but the star chart showed what else they shared the system with. Third Fleet's fifty-five SDs hung in San Martin orbit, permanently on guard to protect the system and the thick clutch of half-complete deep-space fortresses being assembled under their watchful eye. Eventually, half those forts would be left to cover San Martin while the other half were towed out to cover the terminus directly. They could have been finished long ago if the Peeps had done even a tiny bit less effective job of destroying San Martin's orbital industry before they gave up the system. As it was, the Alliance had been forced to ship in the equipment to build the facilities needed to assemble the prefabricated components of the bases. It was taking far longer than it should have, but current projections called for the first group of forts to be finished within six or seven T-monthsat which point everyone would no doubt heave a sigh of profound relief. But for now the solid ranks of capital units held their watchful orbit, proudly protecting what had been won at such terrible cost in lives and ships, and White Haven let his eyes rest upon their icons.

He hated the sight. Not that he didn't feel a deep sense of pride whenever he saw them and remembered the savage fighting which had finally taken the system. Nor did he have anything but respect for Theodosia Kuzak, who had replaced him as CO 3 FLT on the new Trevor's Star Station. No, what he hated was the way the terminus acted as an anchor on Third Fleet. The idea had been for the conquest of Trevor's Star to free up fighting power, not glue it in place, but until the forts were ready, the Admiralty refused to reduce Third Fleet in any way.

No, that's not fair, he reminded himself. In fact, Kuzak's command had already been reduced by over twenty ships of the wall, but those units had all been returned to the RMN's central dockyards for desperately needed maintenance. None had been released for operations elsewhere... and none of Theodosia's remaining units would be detached to Eighth Fleet, either. Trevor's Star was the prize for which the RMN had fought for over three years, and no risk of surrendering it back to the Peeps could even be contemplated.

It'll be all right, he told himself. We're about to take the offensive again, and whatever McQueen and Theisman are thinking about, they've waited too long. Theisman doesn't have the mobile firepower to stop usnot with our advantages in EW and missiles, even if he does have their own version of the pods. Once we punch out Barnett, anything else they may be thinking about will have to be rethought in reaction to Eighth Fleet's operations. We've taken far too long about it, but it looks like we've preempted them after all.

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