On basilisk station by David Weber



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CHAPTER TWO


Honor Harrington sighed, leaned back from the terminal, and pinched the bridge of her nose. No wonder Admiral Courvosier had been so vague about the refit. Her old mentor knew her entirely too well. He'd known exactly how she would have reacted if he'd told her the truth, and he wasn't about to let her blow her first cruiser command in a fit of temper.

She shook herself and rose to stretch, and Nimitz roused to look her way. He started to slither down from the padded rest her new steward had rigged at her request, but she waved him back with the soft sound which told him she had to think. He cocked his head a moment, then "bleeked" quietly at her and settled back down.

She took a quick turn about her cabin. That was one nice thing about Fearless; at less than ninety thousand tons, she might be small by modern standards, but the captain's quarters were downright spacious compared to Hawkwing's. Still small and cramped in planet-side eyes, perhaps, but Honor hadn't applied planetary standards to her living space in years. She even had her own dining compartment, large enough to seat all of her officers for formal occasions, and that was luxury, indeed, aboard a warship.

Not that spaciousness made her feel any better about the ghastly mutilation Hephaestus was wreaking upon her lovely ship.

She paused to adjust the golden plaque on the bulkhead by her desk. There was a fingerprint on the polished alloy, and she felt a familiar, wry self-amusement as she leaned closer to burnish it away with her sleeve. That plaque had accompanied her from ship to ship and planet-side and back for twelve and a half years, and she would have felt lost without it. It was her good luck piece. Her totem. She rubbed a fingertip gently across the long, tapering wing of the sailplane etched into the gold, remembering the day she'd landed to discover she'd set a new Academy record—one that still stood—for combined altitude, duration, and aerobatics, and she smiled.

But the smile faded as she glanced through the open internal hatch into the dining compartment and returned to the depressing present. She sighed again. She wasn't looking forward to that dinner. For that matter, she wasn't looking forward to her tour of the ship, after what she'd found locked away in her computer. The happiness she'd felt such a short time ago had soured, and what should have been two of the more pleasurable rituals of a change of command looked far less inviting now.

She'd told McKeon she meant to study the ship's books, and so she had, but her main attention had been focused on the refit specs and the detailed instructions she'd found in the captain's secure data base. McKeon's description of the alterations was only too accurate, though he hadn't mentioned that in addition to ripping out two-thirds of Fearless's missile tubes, the yard was gutting her magazine space, as well. Missile stowage was always a problem, particularly for smaller starships like light cruisers and destroyers, because an impeller-drive missile simply had to be big. There were limits to how many you could cram aboard, and since they'd decided to reduce Fearless's tubes, they'd seen no reason not to reduce her magazines, as well. After all, it had let them cram in four additional energy torpedo launchers.

She felt her lips trying to curl into a snarl and forced them to smooth as Nimitz chittered a question at her. The treecat's vocal apparatus was woefully unsuited to forming words. That was no problem with other 'cats, since they relied so heavily on their ill-understood telempathic sense for communication, but it left many humans prone to underestimate their intelligence—badly. Honor knew better, and Nimitz was always sensitive to her moods. Indeed, she suspected he knew her better than she knew herself, and she took a moment to scratch the underside of his jaw before she resumed her pacing.

It was all quite simple, she thought. She'd fallen into the clutches of Horrible Hemphill and her crowd, and now it was up to her to make their stupidity look intelligent.

She gritted her teeth. There were two major schools of tactical thought in the RMN: the traditionalists, championed by Admiral Hamish Alexander, and Admiral of the Red Lady Sonja Hemphill's "jeune ecole." Alexander—and, for that matter, Honor—believed the fundamental tactical truths remained true regardless of weapon systems, that it was a matter of fitting new weapons into existing conceptual frameworks with due adjustment for the capabilities they conferred. The jeune ecole believed weapons determined tactics and that technology, properly used, rendered historical analysis irrelevant. And, unfortunately, politics had placed Horrible Hemphill and her panacea merchants in the ascendant just now.

Honor suppressed an uncharacteristic urge to swear viciously. She didn't study politics, she didn't understand politics, and she didn't like politics, but even she grasped the Cromarty government's current dilemma. Confronted by the Liberals' and Progressives' inflexible opposition to big-ticket military budgets, and signs the so-called "New Men" were inclining towards temporary alliance with them, Duke Allen had been forced to draw the Conservative Association into his camp as a counterweight. It was unlikely the Conservatives would stay put—their xenophobic isolationism and protectionism were too fundamentally at odds with the Centrist and Crown Loyalist perception that open war with the People's Republic of Haven was inevitable—but for now they were needed, and they'd charged high for their allegiance. They'd wanted the military ministry, and Duke Allen had been forced to buy them off by naming Sir Edward Janacek First Lord of the Admiralty, the civilian head of Honor's own service under the Minister of War.

Janacek had been an admiral in his time, and one with a reputation for toughness and determination, but a more reactionary old xenophobe would be hard to find. He was one of the group who had opposed the annexation of the Basilisk terminus of the Manticore Junction on the grounds that it would "antagonize our neighbors" (translated: it would be the first step on the road to foreign adventurism), and that was bad enough. Unpolitical Honor might be, but she knew which party she supported. The Centrists realized that the Republic of Haven's expansionism must inevitably bring it into conflict with the Kingdom, and they were preparing to do something about it. The Conservatives wanted to bury their heads in the sand until it all went away, though they were at least willing to support a powerful fleet to safeguard their precious isolation.

But the point which most affected Fearless just now was that Hemphill was Janacek's second cousin and that Janacek personally disliked Admiral Alexander. More, the new First Lord feared the traditionalists' insistence that aggressive expansion like Haven's would continue until it was forcibly contained. And, finally, Hemphill was one of the most senior admirals of the red. Each of the RMN's flag ranks was divided into two divisions on the basis of seniority: the junior half of each rank were admirals of the red, or Gryphon Division, while the senior half were admirals of the green, or Manticore Division. Simple longevity would eventually move any flag officer from one division to the other, but they could also be promoted over the heads of their fellows, and with her cousin as First Lord, Lady Sonja was poised to move up to the green—especially if she could justify her tactical theories. All of which, added together, had given Horrible Hemphill the clout to butcher Honor's helpless ship.

She growled and kicked a stool across the cabin. The satisfaction was purely momentary, and she flung herself back into her chair to glower at her screen.

Her command, it seemed, was her "reward" for graduating first in Admiral Courvosier's Advanced Tactics class, for Fearless was also Hemphill's secret weapon in the upcoming Fleet problem. That explained the security clamped over the refit (which Courvosier had made his excuse for not warning Honor), and she didn't doubt that Hemphill was chuckling and rubbing her hands in anticipation. For herself, if Honor had known what was waiting, she darn well would have blown off a couple of percentage points just to avoid it!

She rubbed her eyes again, wondering if McKeon already knew about their role in the Fleet problem. Probably not. He hadn't been upset enough, given what it was going to do to their efficiency ratings and, beyond a doubt, to Fearless's reputation.

The problem was that, on paper, the whole thing made sense. Gravity sidewalls were the first and primary line of defense for every warship. The impeller drive created a pair of stressed gravity bands above and below a ship—a wedge, open at both ends, though the forward edge was far deeper than the after one—capable in theory of instant acceleration to light speed. Of course, that kind of acceleration would turn any crew to gory goo; even with modern inertial compensators, the best acceleration any warship could pull under impeller was well under six hundred gravities, but it had been a tremendous step forward. And not simply in terms of propulsion; even today no known weapon could penetrate the main drive bands of a military-grade impeller wedge, which meant simply powering its impellers protected a ship against any fire from above or below.

But that had left the sides of the impeller wedge, for they, too, were open—until someone invented the gravity sidewall and extended protection to its flanks. The bow and stern aspects still couldn't be closed, even by a sidewall, and the most powerful sidewall ever generated was far weaker than a drive band. Sidewalls could be penetrated, particularly by missiles fitted with penetration aids, but it took a powerful energy weapon at very short range (relatively speaking) to pierce them with any effect, and that limited beams to a range of no more than four hundred thousand kilometers.

It also meant that deep-space battles had a nasty tendency to end in tactical draws, however important they might be strategically. When one fleet realized it was in trouble, it simply turned its ships up on their sides, presenting only the impenetrable aspects of its individual units' impeller wedges, while it endeavored to break off the action. The only counter was a resolute pursuit, but that, in turn, exposed the unguarded frontal arcs of the pursuers' wedges, inviting raking fire straight down their throats as they attempted to close. Cruiser actions were more often fought to the finish, but engagements between capital ships all too often had the formalism of some intricate dance in which both sides knew all the steps.

The situation had remained unaltered for over six standard centuries, aside from changes in engagement range as beam weapons improved or defensive designers came up with a new wrinkle to make missile penetration more difficult, and Hemphill and her technophiliacs found that intolerable. They believed the grav lance could break the "static situation," and they were determined to prove it.

In theory, Honor had to concede their point. In theory. Deep inside, she even wished, rather wistfully, that they might be right, for the tactician in her hated the thought of bloody, formalistic battles. The proper objective was the enemy's fleet, not simple territory. If his battle squadrons lived to fight another day, one was forced back on a strategy of attrition and blockade—and casualties, ultimately, were far higher in that sort of grinding war.

Yet the jeune ecole wasn't right. The grav lance was new and might, indeed, someday have the potential Hemphill claimed for it, but it certainly didn't have it yet. With only a very little luck, a direct hit could set up a harmonic fit to burn out any sidewall generator, but it was a cumbersome, slow-firing, mass-intensive weapon, and its maximum range under optimum circumstances was barely a hundred thousand kilometers.

And that, she thought gloomily, was the critical flaw. To employ the lance, a ship had to close to point-blank range against enemies who would start trying to kill it with missiles at upward of a million kilometers and chime in with energy weapons at four times the lance's own range. It might even make sense aboard a capital ship with the mass to spare for it, but only an idiot (or Horrible Hemphill) would think it made sense aboard a light cruiser! Fearless simply didn't have the defenses to survive hostile fire as she closed, and thanks to the grav lance, she no longer even had the offensive weapons to reply effectively! Oh, certainly, if she got into grav lance range, and if the lance did its job, the massive energy torpedo batteries Hemphill had crammed in could tear even a superdreadnought apart. But only if the lance did its job, since energy torpedoes were as effective as so many soft-boiled eggs against an intact sidewall.

It was insane, and it was up to Honor to make it work.

She glowered at the screen some more, then switched it off in disgust and sprawled untidily across her bunk. Nimitz stretched and ambled down from his rest to curl up on her stomach, and this time she cooed to him and stroked his fur as he laid his jaw on her breastbone to help her think.

She'd considered protesting. After all, tradition gave a captain the authority to question alterations to her command, but Fearless hadn't been her command when the refit was authorized, and the right to question wasn't the same as the right to refuse. Honor knew exactly how Hemphill would react to any protest, and it was too late to undo the damage, anyway. Besides, she had her orders. However stupid they were, it was her job to make them work, and that, as they said at the Academy, was that. Even if it hadn't been, Fearless was her ship, by God! Whatever Hemphill had done to her, no one was going to crap on Fearless's reputation if Honor could help it.

She forced her muscles to unknot as Nimitz's purr hummed against her. She'd never been able to decide what else he did, but that mysterious extra sense of his had to be at the bottom of it, for she felt her outrage fading into determination and knew darn well it wasn't all her doing.

Her mind begin to pick and pry at the problem. It was probable, she decided, that she could get away with it at least once, assuming the Aggressors hadn't cracked Hemphill's security. After all, the idea was so crazy no sane person would expect it!

Suppose she arranged to join one of the screening squadrons? That was a logical enough position for a light cruiser, and the big boys would tend to ignore Fearless to concentrate on the opposing capital ships. That might let her slip into lance range and get off her shot. It would be little better than a suicide run, but that wouldn't bother Hemphill's cronies. They'd consider trading a light cruiser (and its crew) for an enemy dreadnought or superdreadnought more than equitable, which was one reason Honor hated their so-called tactical doctrine.

Yet even if she got away with it once and somehow managed to survive, she'd never get away with it twice—not once the Aggressors knew Fearless was out there and what she was armed with. They'd simply burn down every light cruiser they saw, for Hemphill had placed her sledgehammer in too thin an eggshell to survive capital ship fire. On the other hand, succeeding even once would be a major feather in Honor's cap, at least among those who recognized the impossibility of her task.

She sighed and closed her eyes, understanding herself entirely too well. She never had learned how to refuse a challenge. If there was a way to bring off Horrible Hemphill's gambit, Honor would find it, however much it galled her soul to do it.


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