On basilisk station by David Weber

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The officers in the captain's briefing room just off Fearless's bridge rose as Honor came through the hatch. She waved them back into their chairs and crossed to her own, her movements brisk and intense. She sat and turned to face them all, and her face was expressionless.

"Ladies and gentlemen," she began without preamble, "Warlock will be departing for Manticore for refit within the hour." McKeon sat straighter in surprise, but she kept her voice cool and level, almost clipped, as she went on. "Captain Young will be accompanying her, which will leave Fearless the only Queen's ship in the system . . . and myself as senior officer."

She allowed herself a small smile at the almost-sound of dismay that swept the compartment, but her eyes were ice. She'd tried motivating them through opportunity and pride in self and hit a stone wall. Very well. If they wouldn't respond to her invitations to meet their responsibilities for their own sense of self-worth, she would try other means.

"Needless to say, this will leave us with a great many commitments, many of them mutually contradictory. This, however, is a Queen's ship. We will discharge our responsibilities, or I will know the reason why. Is that clear?"

Those cold brown eyes seemed to impale each of them in turn, and McKeon moved slightly in his chair as they lingered on him. His chin rose, but he said nothing, and she nodded.

"Good. In that case, let's move on to precisely what our duties and responsibilities are, shall we?"

She punched buttons on her terminal at the head of the conference table, and a small-scale holo display of the Basilisk System bloomed above it. She manipulated more buttons, and a bright red cursor blinked to life.

"We have a single ship, ladies and gentlemen, and our problem, in the simplest terms, is that one ship can be in only one place at a time. The Fleet is responsible for supporting Basilisk Control in management of Junction through traffic, including customs inspections as required. In addition, we are responsible for inspection of all traffic with Medusa itself or with the planet's orbital facilities, for supporting the Resident Commissioner and her Native Protection Agency police, for safeguarding all extraMedusan visitors to the planet, and for insuring the security of this system against all external threats. To accomplish this, we must be here—" the cursor blinked in orbital proximity to Medusa "—here—" it blinked amid the flowing beads of traffic around the junction terminus "—and, in fact, here." The cursor swept a wide circuit of the system, right on the twenty-light-minute radius of a G5 star's hyper limit.

She let the red light circle the holo display's central star for several seconds, then killed the cursor and folded her hands before her on the tabletop.

"Obviously, ladies and gentlemen, a single light cruiser can't be in all those places at once. Nonetheless, I have my orders from Captain Young, and I will discharge them."

McKeon sat silent, staring at her in disbelief. She couldn't be serious! As she herself had just proven, no single ship could discharge them.

But she obviously meant to try, and his cheeks burned as he realized what she'd been doing in her quarters over the three hours since her return from Warlock. She'd been tackling her impossible assignment by herself, wrestling with it without even attempting to involve her officers in its solution, for they'd proven that she couldn't. He'd proven that she couldn't.

His hands gripped together under the edge of the table. The final responsibility would have been Harrington's in any case, but captains had officers—and especially first officers—specifically to help them in situations like this. More, McKeon had already grasped the malice behind her new orders. He'd suspected there was something between her and Young; now he knew there was. Young was running a grave risk with his own career by quitting his station, though it seemed likely he had the patronage and influence to stave off outright disaster. But if Harrington failed to discharge the responsibilities he'd dumped on her, however impossible . . .

He shivered internally and made himself concentrate on her words.

"Lieutenant Venizelos."

"Yes, Ma'am?"

"You will select thirty-five ratings and one junior officer for detached duty. Fearless will escort Warlock to the terminus. As soon as Warlock has departed, I will drop you, your chosen personnel, and both pinnaces. You will rendezvous with Basilisk Control and assume the duties of customs and security officer for the terminus traffic. You will be attached to Basilisk Control for that purpose until further notice. Understood?"

Venizelos gawked at her for a moment, and even McKeon blinked. It was unheard of! But it might just work, he admitted almost unwillingly. Unlike cutters, pinnaces were large enough to mount impeller drives and inertial compensators, and they were armed. Their weapons might be popguns and slingshots compared to regular warships, but they were more than sufficient to police unarmed merchantmen.

Yet Venizelos was only a lieutenant, and he would be ten hours' com time from his commanding officer. He'd be entirely on his own, and one wrong decision on his part could ruin not only his own career but Harrington's, as well, which certainly explained his white, strained expression.

The captain sat motionless, eyes on Venizelos's face, and her mouth tightened ominously. One tapering forefinger tapped the tabletop gently, and the tactical officer shook himself visibly.

"Uh, yes, Ma'am! Understood."

"Good." Honor regarded him levelly for another moment, tasting his anxiety and uncertainty, and made herself step firmly on her compassion. She was throwing him into the deep end, but she'd been three years younger than he was now when she assumed command of LAC 113. And, she thought mordantly, if he screwed up, Pavel Young and his cronies would see to it that she paid the price for it, not Venizelos. Not that she intended to tell the lieutenant that.

"I will leave you detailed instructions," she told him, relenting just a bit, and he sighed in what he clearly thought was unobtrusive relief, then stiffened again as she added, "but I will expect you to exercise your own discretion and initiative as the situation requires."

He nodded again, unhappily, and she turned her hard eyes on Dominica Santos.

"Commander Santos."

"Yes, Captain?" The lieutenant commander looked much calmer than Venizelos had, possibly because she knew there was no way Honor would detail her chief engineer for detached duty.

"I want you to confer with Lieutenant Venizelos before his departure. Get with the Exec, as well. Before the Lieutenant leaves us, I want a complete inventory of our on-hand recon drones."

She paused, and Santos nodded as she tapped a note into her memo pad.

"Yes, Ma'am. May I ask the purpose of the inventory?"

"You may. Once you've completed it, I want you and your department to begin stripping the sensor heads from the missile bodies in order to fit them with simple station-keeping drives and astrogation packages." This time Santos looked up quickly, her composure noticeably cracked. "I imagine we can do the job by swapping the sensor heads into standard warning and navigation beacons. If not, I want a design for a system that will work on my desk by thirteen hundred."

She locked eyes with the engineer, and Santos flinched. She hid her dismay well, but Honor could almost feel her racing thoughts as the magnitude of her task loomed before her. Just the man-hours involved were daunting, and if she had to design from scratch . . .

"As soon as we've dropped Lieutenant Venizelos and his party," Honor continued in that same flat, cool voice, "Fearless will begin a globular sweep pattern ten light-minutes from Basilisk. Lieutenant Stromboli—" the astrogator started in his chair as her glance moved to him "—will work out a least-time course for us, and we will deploy our drones as stationary sensor platforms. I realize that we will almost certainly have insufficient drones for complete coverage, but we'll concentrate on the ecliptic. We can't make patrol sweeps by the book with only one ship, but we can cover the most likely approach vectors."

"You want us to fit all of them with station-keeping drives, Ma'am?" Santos asked after a moment.

"That's what I said, Commander."

"But—" The engineer caught Honor's glacial glance and changed what she'd been about to say. "I expect you're right about fitting the sensor heads into standard beacon kits, Ma'am, but the numbers you're talking about are going to clean out our kits in a hurry. We're going to have to scratch-build an awful lot of drives and astro packs. That's not going to be cheap, and I don't even know if we have sufficient spares aboard."

"What we don't have, we'll fabricate. What we can't fabricate, we'll requisition from Basilisk Control. What we can't requisition, we'll steal." Honor bared her teeth in a humorless smile. "Is that clear, Commander Santos?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"A point, Captain," McKeon heard himself say, and Harrington's eyes whipped to his face. They seemed to harden a bit more, but there was wariness—and perhaps a trace of surprise—in them, as well.

"Yes, Exec?"

"I'm not certain how many probes we have in stores, Ma'am, but I am certain you're right about our inability to achieve complete coverage even if we can—I mean, even after we have fitted them all with station-keeping drives." He was speaking stiffly, and he knew it, but he was also contributing to the solution of a problem for the first time since Harrington had come on board. It felt . . . odd. Unnatural.

"And?" the captain prompted him.

"We also have the problem of their endurance, Ma'am. They were never intended for long-term deployment like this. But we might be able to increase their effective time on station by setting them for burst activation. They've got a passive detection range of just over twenty light-minutes against an active impeller drive. If they're on the ten-light-minute shell, they'll have a reach of over half a light-hour from the primary—call it forty minutes' flight time."

Honor nodded. The best radiation and particle shielding available still limited a ship to a maximum speed of .8 c in normal-space.

"If we set them to come up for, say, thirty seconds every half-hour, they should detect any incoming vessel under power in normal-space at least twenty light-minutes out. That should give us sufficient time to respond, and at the same time increase their endurance by a factor of sixty."

"An excellent suggestion, Exec." Honor smiled at him, grateful that he'd finally come out of his shell, and his facial muscles twitched as if to return it. But then they stiffened again, as if he regretted his momentary lapse, and she smothered a frown of her own.

"Lieutenant Venizelos." The tactical officer looked positively harried as she turned back to him, and her smothered frown turned into a smothered smile at his expression.

"Yes, Ma'am?"

"Lieutenant Cardones will be taking over your responsibilities in your absence. In addition to your other duties before departure, I want you to get with him and work out the optimum drone deployment based on the availability figures I feel certain Commander Santos and Commander McKeon will have for you within the hour."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Very well. Now, once we've detached the pinnaces and deployed our drones, I intend to place Fearless in Medusa orbit. It will be necessary for me to meet and confer with the Resident Commissioner as soon as possible, which will, of course, require a visit to the planet. In addition, however, the detachment of our pinnaces will force us to rely on our cutters for all inspections of space-to-surface and orbit-to-orbit trade. Since they do not have impellers, we may be required to use Fearless herself to move them from orbit to orbit in order to cover all targets. Moreover, the planet lies within three light-minutes of the inner edge of our drone deployment, and our onboard sensors have far more reach than the drones will. By remaining in Medusa orbit, we will be so positioned as to allow our sensors to cover the most critical spatial volume of our responsibilities and also free drones to thicken other portions of the net. I'll want at least one drone reserved to cover the planet if we leave orbit, as I intend to run periodic sweeps of the inner system, if possible, but I'm afraid we'll find ourselves too busy to make many of them. Is all this understood?"

She sat back and swept them with her eyes. Most of them nodded; none shook their heads.

"Excellent. In that case—"

"Ah, Captain?"

"Yes, Lieutenant Venizelos?"

"Something just occurred to me, Ma'am. Commander McKeon's right about the probe endurance, and even without that consideration, getting the kind of coverage you're talking about would be a real problem with the numbers we have aboard. We could get a lot better density if we asked Warlock to drop off any she can spare. I mean, it's not like she's going to be needing them in Manticore."

"I appreciate the suggestion," Honor said in an absolutely toneless voice, "but I'm afraid it's impractical. We'll just have to do the best we can from our own resources."

"But, Captain—"

"I said it's impractical, Lieutenant." Her voice was even flatter than before, its very lack of expression a warning, and Venizelos closed his mouth with a snap. He shot a helpless, sidelong glance at McKeon, but the exec didn't even blink. He'd already noted that Harrington planned to detach her pinnaces after the heavy cruiser—and Young—had departed. Now her response to Venizelos confirmed his reading of the situation. Whatever the source of the bad blood between her and Young, it was nasty enough for him to deliberately set her up for disaster . . . and for her to see it coming. And to take steps against it only after he was no longer in a position to frustrate them.

All of which sounded ominously as though HMS Fearless—and her officers—might just find themselves caught in the crossfire.

Honor watched her executive officer's masklike expression and guessed was going on behind it. He was right, of course—and so was Venizelos. She deeply regretted having stepped on the tactical officer so hard, especially when he'd only offered the sort of suggestion she'd practically prayed for her officers to make, but she couldn't explain the enmity between her and Young. Even if it hadn't been unthinkable for any CO to reveal such things to her subordinates, it would have sounded entirely too much like petulant whining.

"Are there any other comments or suggestions?" she asked after a moment. There were none, and she nodded.

"I will announce our new orders and responsibilities to the ship's company at fourteen hundred. Lieutenant Venizelos, I'll want a list of the personnel you want for your party by thirteen hundred. Commander McKeon will vet them before you submit them to me, but I want final approval made before I address the crew."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Very well, ladies and gentlemen. You have your instructions. Let's be about them."

She nodded, and they rose and hurried from the compartment. They didn't look very happy, but at least they were actively engaged with their duties for the first time in far too long. Perhaps it was a good sign.

The hatch closed behind the last of them, and she put her elbows on the table and buried her face in her palms, massaging her temples with her fingertips. God, she hoped it was a good sign! She'd done her best to radiate confidence, but a terrifying number of things could go wrong. Merchant skippers could be prickly about their right of passage, and Venizelos might well provoke an interstellar incident if he pressed the wrong captain too hard. Even with McKeon's suggestion, the endurance of their cobbled-up sensor platforms would be frighteningly limited. They might last the three months until Warlock returned—with luck—if Young didn't find some excuse to extend his "refit" even further. And, worst of all, all of her plans counted on nothing going seriously wrong anywhere. If something did break, she had an excellent chance of knowing about it, but she had an even better chance of being in entirely the wrong place to do anything to stop it.

She sighed and straightened, then lowered her hands to the table and stared long and hard at their backs.

In the final analysis, everything depended on her crew, and she hated to think about the strain she was about to impose upon them. Marines would be of limited utility to Venizelos, so the tactical officer would almost certainly ask solely for naval ratings. That meant he would be taking almost ten percent of Fearless's ship's company with him, and she would have a very hard time denying him the best ten percent, with the most small-craft experience. Her own customs parties for orbital traffic would have to come from what was left, and she'd already noted an appalling number of merchantmen in Medusa orbit. What they could be finding to trade with the aborigines was beyond her imagination, but they were clearly trading a lot of something, and it would be her duty to check every one of those ships.

It would be tempting, she knew, to settle for a simple examination of their manifests, but that wasn't what the Fleet expected of her. Manifest checks would do for through traffic entering the system only to transit the Junction; in the case of vessels trading with Manticoran territory, however, or those transshipping cargo here, she was supposed to inspect the cargo shuttles and ships themselves for contraband. That meant long, grueling hours for her people, and each inspection party would require an officer or senior petty officer to command it.

Even if she had to make no other detachments, that was going to leave her chronically shorthanded, and she could almost see the domino effect rippling towards her. Too few people meant longer watches, less free time, and more resentment from a crew that was already hostile at a time when she needed absolute top effort from everyone on board.

She sighed again and stood, looking around the empty compartment. So be it. Her own nature and all of her training cried out for her to lead, but if leadership failed she would cajole, kick, bully, or terrorize. One way or the other, whatever it took, she would get it done.

They could hate her guts all they liked as long as they did their duty.

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