Large PrintHandheldAudioRating
using
 paypal
Twisting The Hellmouth Crossing Over Awards - Results
Is your email address still valid?

The Honor of the Hellmouth

StoryReviewsStatisticsRelated StoriesTracking
Story

Summary: Honor Harrington, Shannon Foraker and friends in pre-Diaspora Sunnydale. Will the town ever be the same again?

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Literature > Sci-Fi > Honor Harrington SeriesSmegheadFR18214,9261326,10912 Jan 047 Apr 04No

Prologue

The Honor of the Hellmouth

The Honor of the Hellmouth

Author: Robert Cox (smeghead_76@dodo.com.au)

Rating: MA-15+ (Australian system), for all the usual reasons

Disclaimer: Buffy belongs to Joss, as I'm sure everyone knows by now. Honor Harrington belongs to David Weber, and the excellent series of novels. If you haven't read them, why not? :)

Summary: As the peace talks with Haven break down, and the war starts again, a chance encounter between Honor and Shannon Foraker has interesting ramifications, but before they can get to Manticore to tell anyone, things go pear-shaped, and they - along with a handful of survivors - somehow end up on pre-Diaspora Earth... specifically, Sunnydale. What happens next is kind of inevitable...

Timeline: S7 Buffy/post-'War of Honor', with spoilers for both of them. Hell, I might as well throw in the rest of the smeggin' Honorverse as well, including the short stories.

Pairing: I'm not sure at this stage, but I can say with a fair degree of confidence that therewon' be any Xander/Honor stuff involved. The age difference alone should ensure that - as anyone who's read the novels will agree with. Oh yeah, and the BS that was B/S... erk. Damn Plot Bunnies.

Feedback: Please? Pretty please? Even if it's to tell me what I'm doing wrong.

AN: Thanks to Greywizard for volunteering to beta this. I hope it wasn't too painful.

(Greywizard's note: Hell, no! This was a lot of fun! Just write faster, Rob!)


****

Uninhabited system, near Trevor's Star

Star Empire of Manticore


The dozen ships fell in-system on a ballistic trajectory, dragged in by the gravity well of the system's primary. Electronically silent, and with impeller nodes powered down but at standby, the ships were in full stealth mode - well, as stealthy as eight-million-ton-plus superdreadnoughts could be, anyway.

On the flag bridge of the flagship - the Sovereign-class pod-superdreadnought RHNS Haven - Vice Admiral Shannon Foraker studied the display showing the formation of the ships under her command with no small amount of satisfaction. Despite the crews' lack of experience, the formation was good; tight enough to allow for either a good concentration of fire or fairly rapid manoeuvring into a wall of battle, but loose enough to reduce the risk of collision.

Satisfied that her subordinates had things under control for now, she leaned back in her chair and thought about the overall situation. Damn it, what was wrong with the Manties? Did they want war with the Republic of Haven? As the commanding officer of Bolthole - Haven's top-secret shipyard, and the nerve centre of its efforts to bridge the technological gap between them and Manticore - she had been thoroughly briefed by Secretary of War Theisman regarding the progress of the peace talks. While she had shared Theisman's - and President Pritchard's too, from what she'd been told - annoyance over the dilatory pace of the talks, she also shared their opinion that no matter how slowly the talks went, it was certainly better than a resumption of hostilities. And apart from anything else, it had allowed Admirals Giscard and Tourville to root out the last of the Committee of Public Safety's holdouts.

Bolthole had been successful in a number of areas, as the Manties had found out to their dismay. The first Haven-built Multi-Drive Missile, for starters, had been built there, along with the first CLACs and up-rated LACs. Of course, they weren't as good as those used by the Manticoran Alliance - nothing in Haven service was - but the fact that they existed at all had come as a nasty surprise, first when Theisman had revealed Bolthole's existence, and then when they had been used in combat during Operation Thunderbolt; the opening operation of the renewed Haven-Manticore war. That operation had been a success - except in two locations, but those two locations had arguably been the most vital: Trevor's Star and the Marsh system.

Both of those setbacks hadn't come about as the result of anything the Manties had done, though - Shannon was of the opinion that the previous and unlamented High Ridge government had been incapable of pouring piss out of a boot, even with detailed instructions printed on the heel. No, it had been the Graysons who'd engineered the defeats at Trevor's Star and the Marsh system, first by sending elements of the Protector's Own Squadron to Marsh, ostensibly on a 'training cruise' and then using the terms of their alliance agreement with Manticore - no matter how badly the idiotic Janacek along with the other morons of the High Ridge government had allowed the alliance to fray - to ship still more of their fleet through the Manticore Wormhole Junction to Trevor's Star. At least Admiral Giscard had been able to break off without a shot being fired, unlike Admiral Tourville, who had been neatly trapped between the Manticoran and Grayson units, and had taken a hammering before managing to escape over the hyper limit.

Offsetting both of those setbacks, however, had been the success at Grendelsbane, where the shipyards and a stunning amount of new construction had been destroyed by the grossly outgunned Manticoran system picket before they retreated. According to Naval Intelligence - NavInt - the attack on Grendelsbane had been the triggering event for the collapse of the High Ridge government. Which was, Shannon reflected, both good news and bad news.

The High Ridge government had been the one who'd let the peace talks break down to the point where a resumption of hostilities had been all but inevitable. However, the new government that had formed had William Alexander as its Prime Minister, and both NavInt and the Foreign Intelligence Service were convinced that he would prosecute the war to the best of his extent, with the full backing of Queen Elizabeth III. The fact that both military and civilian analysts agreed on the broad details, and most of the specifics, was enough to convince Shannon. And, evidently, Secretary Theisman, too, since he'd removed her from Bolthole and given her a fleet command - the newly raised Third Fleet, which, along with First Fleet, would bear the brunt of combat operations around Trevor's Star until Second Fleet could be brought back up to strength. Obviously, Secretary Theisman thought she'd be of more use commanding a fleet rather than running Bolthole. On the second part of that statement, she was in full agreement with Theisman. Over the past four years, she'd selected subordinates who, like her, treated the Manties' superior electronics systems as a challenge, rather than a cause for despair, and who were equally determined to close the gap.

She wasn't too sure if she agreed with him that she'd make a good fleet commander, though. When Theisman overthrew the Committee for Public Safety - shooting Oscar Saint-Just personally, according to rumour - she'd been a simple tactical officer with precisely zero command experience; not even a LAC! In fact, sometimes she wondered how she survived the Committee years at all, given that, back then, she had a tendency to concentrate on tactical problems to the exclusion of everything else. But when Theisman had persuaded her to accept a fleet command, he'd shown her the personnel evaluations files submitted by both of her previous commanding officers; Warner Caslet and Lester Tourville and Denis Jourdain and Everard Honeker - their respective People's Commissioners, and they'd had nothing but nice things to say about her.

Thinking about Warner Caslet - her first commanding officer - brought almost-inevitable feelings of regret. He'd been forced to defect to the Manticoran Alliance after the series of events set in motion by the capture of Honor Harrington in the Adler system. It had been sheer bad luck that Cordelia Ransom had been in the Barnett system, overseeing the production of propaganda intended to inspire the citizens of the then-People's Republic to keep fighting once the system had fallen, which it was expected to do. Given Ransom's hatred for the military, it had been hardly surprising that she'd ordered Theisman to hand Harrington over to her, at which time she'd gleefully announced that Harrington was to be executed in accordance with the verdict handed down by the People's Court prior to the outbreak of hostilities, regarding the destruction of the Sirius in the Basilisk system.

Of course, the trial had been purest propaganda - after all, the People's Republic of Haven could hardly admit that they'd sent a fully armed Q-ship into Manticoran space. It was just that no-one had really expected Harrington to ever be in a position where the sentence was ever likely to be carried out.

Both Theisman and Tourville had been appalled by Ransom's decision, and Caslet had gone so far as to bitterly protest to Theisman, regardless of personal safety. Big trouble was headed towards Caslet - not to mention Tourville and Shannon, as well - but fortunately, Ransom had died when the Tepes was destroyed during the Manties' breakout in the Cerberus system.

That incident had also crystallised Shannon's own hatred for the Committee of Public Safety, but she'd been careful not to say or do anything about it, until Saint-Just decided to recall both Giscard and Tourville to Haven... where they would be shot. Seeing a perfect opportunity, Shannon implemented her plan, destroying the two-dozen StateSec superdreadnoughts assigned to Twelfth Fleet with but a few lines of computer code and an "Oops."

Shaking off that line of thought was an effort, but she managed somehow, and took another look at the main tactical plot, which showed the twelve green dots reassuringly glowing in the centre - ten Sovereign-class SD(P)s and two Aviary-class CLACs. And no screen of battlecruisers, cruisers and destroyers. Shannon had studied the reports from Operation Buttercup, along with Tourville's after-action report, and had come to the conclusion that lighter units - which had had no place in the wall of battle even before the advent of pod-based designs - didn't add enough missiles to make including them worthwhile. In fact, LACs could assume their other role of thickening anti-missile defences.

Well, that was the conventional thinking, at any rate. No-one had told the Graysons that, and with the same sort of outside-the-box thinking that had innocently led to the introduction of a whole new generation of inertial compensators, they'd simply designed a pod-based battlecruiser class - the Courvoisier II-class, which had seen action at Sidemore, along with the first dedicated space-superiority LAC, the Katana-class. In fact, it was starting to look like Grayson was becoming the heart of the Manticoran Alliance, not to mention-

"Grav pulse! Bearing two-niner-three, down azimuth zero-two-seven, consistent with Manty RD FTL com," the tac officer's snapped announcement interrupted, derailing her train of thought. "Range - three-point-four light-seconds." The tac officer turned to face Shannon. "It had us cold, Ma'am."

Shannon thought about demanding why the reconnaissance drone hadn't been detected prior to this, but thought better of it. After all, her ships had had their active sensors shut down - part of the impromptu training patrol that she'd arranged - and RDs sat inert until they picked up something and reported.

All of this went through Shannon's mind in slightly less than a heartbeat as she gave the necessary orders. "Bring up our wedge and sidewalls, along with active sensors. Go to general quarters, and pass on the same orders to the other ships." She paused and thought for a moment. "Order the CLACs to launch," she added.

Even as she gave those orders, Shannon knew that what was about to happen would be bloody. Despite her ships' impeller nodes being at standby, it would still take the better part of fifteen minutes to bring wedges and sidewalls to operational status, during which, they would be naked to any incoming fire with only point-defences in a position to make any contribution.

And there had to be Manty ships out there. If they were cleared for action, even a squadron of humble heavy cruisers would massacre her force. Shannon hoped they'd been just as surprised as she'd been.

She didn't feel confident, though.

****

Honor had thought datawork had been bad enough when she'd been a mere destroyer commander, but it had only gotten worse; first when she'd commanded the ad-hoc squadron sent to Yeltsin's Star as part of a diplomatic mission prior to the outbreak of hostilities; then as Mark Sarnow's flag captain in Hancock; and then there was her brief stint as commandant of the Advanced Tactical Course, while recuperating from the injuries she'd received during the breakout from the Tepes; and then...

The grey-and-cream coloured treecat sprawled lazily on the perch near her desk bleeked cheerfully, and Honor stopped reading long enough to send a glare his way. "Laugh it up, Stinker," she said sternly. "I know you've been told that it's impolite to enjoy other peoples' misery." Nimitz bleeked again, radiating a smugly satisfied air that clearly indicated that he was, indeed, drawing intense amusement from the situation.

"Keep it up, and there'll be no celery for you tonight... heck, for a week!" Honor warned, which had the same effect that she thought it would - in other words, none at all. He knows I probably wouldn't follow through with it, she thought ruefully. And besides, knowing him, he's probably got at least a dozen people who'll slip him a stalk or two, when they think they can get away with it. Such as Lieutenant Commander Edward Anderson, for instance. Like her, he was from Sphinx, and also like her, he'd been adopted by a treecat. It hadn't taken long for Nimitz and Sylvester to strike up a friendship - and both shared the same low sense of humour.

Nimitz made a reproachful sound and tried to look innocent, but the not-quite-suppressed amusement shading his emotions ruined the effect he was trying for - much like a barely-suppressed grin would have ruined a human's efforts at looking innocent. Shaking her head, Honor was about to turn back to the datawork when the com unit built into her desk buzzed. "Yes, Andrew?" she asked.

"Commodore Cardones and Captain Tremaine to see you, My Lady," her Grayson armsman replied.

Honor had gotten so caught up in the datawork that she'd forgotten about the informal meeting she'd scheduled with the commander of her heavy units and the senior Commanding Officer, Light Attack Craft - or COLAC - to discuss the effectiveness of the new tactics they were devising in the wake of Haven's Operation Thunderbolt and the resumption of hostilities. So far, the results had been somewhat mixed, but that was all right - it was only the first day, after all. She'd picked an uninhabited star system to avoid neutral - Solarian League - shipping 'accidentally' stumbling on any exercise area within the Trevor's Star system, and tempting the ship's captain to do something like selling his sensor data to Havenite intelligence when he reached his destination.

"Send them in, Andrew."

"Yes, My Lady."

The door hissed open, and Rafe Cardones and Prescott Tremaine entered the room. "Rafe, Scott," Honor said in greeting, and Nimitz bleeked his own hello. Rafe and Scott returned the greetings, and when Nimitz continued to look expectantly at them, Scott grinned and added, "Sorry, Nimitz. I don't have any celery for you today. Besides, I'd probably get into trouble if I gave you any."

Nimitz sniffed scornfully, and his true-hands flickered. {Not too much,} he signed, causing Honor to shake her head in resignation. "I know you like him," she told the 'cat. "But that's no reason to corrupt him."

"I don't mind, Skipper," Scott said cheerfully.

Honor shook her head again. Determined to get the meeting back on track, she asked, "How are the efforts going?" She was referring to the new tactics, which called for Katanas to escort the Shrikes and Ferrets on strike missions, to protect them from the Havenite Cimterre-class LACs.

"Pretty good," Scott replied. "Of course, there are some areas that need work, but it looks promising. We think we've worked out a way to reduce the triple-ripple's effectiveness, but that's something that's going to have to be tested in combat." He shook his head in not-so-grudging admiration. "Another 'Shannon Special'," he added, referring to Shannon Foraker, who'd devised the tactic.

Honor couldn't help but agree. The three Havenite admirals - Foraker, Giscard and Tourville - were just as good as any senior officer in the Manticoran Alliance, and now that the technological gap was starting to be bridged...

Just then, the com unit buzzed again. "Admiral, RD Three-Seven's picked up incoming Havenite ships - on visual, and at a range of just over a million kilometres. They're coming in ballistic and silent."

The tac officer's second sentence answered the question of how they'd gotten past the outer shell of RDs - partially, anyway; and the other part was probably that they'd come in from an unusual angle. Not that it mattered, anyway. Her ships had been caught in orbit with their impellers cold - the black-water equivalent of an anchored fleet - and it was only a small consolation that the incoming ships had to have cold nodes as well. There were people back on Manticore who hated her enough as it was, and this would just be more fuel for them to-

Nimitz, already half-way to his locker to get his skinsuit, paused for long enough to bleek reproachfully at her, and Honor knew that if he'd been able to, he'd also have nipped at her ear in the scolding way he usually did when he was reproaching his person. "All right, Stinker, I get the point," Honor told him as she ripped open her locker and grabbed her skinsuit. As she started stripping down, she paused and turned to Scott. "I assume you brought your skinsuit with you," she said levelly.

Scott nodded gravely. "Of course, Skipper," he said. "I learned my lesson on the Prince Adrian."

"Then you'd better go put it on, hadn't you? And pass on word to Chief Harkness as well," she added with a slight smile, despite the seriousness of the situation.

Scott looked at her in mock-surprise. "How'd you know he was here?"

"I didn't; I guessed. It was a reasonable assumption to make, given that the two of you have been inseparable ever since Basilisk."

"You know, Skipper," Scott remarked, "if I didn't know it was impossible, I'd say that Harkness had done something in BuPers' records." All three shared a brief chuckle at that thought. The Royal Manticoran Navy's Bureau of Personnel's - BuPers - computer systems were protected by the most advanced security systems in known space. It was ludicrous that anyone, even someone as skilled as Sir Horace Harkness, would be able to crack that security to the extent that modifications could be made to posting orders.

Then, a small element of doubt entered the minds of the three officers. This was Harkness they were talking about, the man who'd so compromised a StateSec battlecruiser's computers that they'd committed seppuku at his command with only the aid of a hand computer, and so skillfully that no-one had noticed until it was too late. Granted, Peep computers had been much simpler than those used by the RMN, but still...

Honor managed to shake off the irrelevant line of thought and continued giving orders, both to Rafe and over the com. "Have all hands come to General Quarters, and pass the word among the task force. They should already be coming to GQ, but I don't want to take any chances. Have Admiral Truman launch all LACs with anti-ship loadouts. And initiate emergency impeller activation, authorisation Hotel-Hotel-Zero-Niner-Bravo-Tango."

She heard both Scott and Rafe inhale sharply, and felt the surge of their emotions. Not that she blamed them; although it was possible to bring a ship's impellers on-line in a hurry by simply surging power through them, as opposed to the steadily increasing amount of power that was the normal activation process, it was most definitely not recommended by either BuShips or the manufacturer. Even if the ship trying it didn't blow up, the most likely occurrence would be inertial compensator failure. And even if it went off smoothly, it'd take a minimum of a full third from the operational life-span of the nodes, and BuShips hated replacing them without a damn good reason - they were expensive.

For that reason, any captain who found themselves in a situation where it was necessary had to use a specific authorisation code, which was entered into the ship's log for any subsequent investigation to examine. Of course, if a ship's captain found themselves in a situation where crash-activation was necessary, the bitching likely to come from BuShips would probably pale into insignificance next to the official wrath about to thunder down on said officer's head.

Of course, that was assuming that the officer - and the ship's crew - survived the situation in the first place.

****

Aboard two dozen ships, two dozen tactical officers gaped in surprise at what their displays were telling them. Almost simultaneously, they mashed flat their 'panic buttons', which activated the General Quarters alarms, brought up point defences and active sensors, and began the process of bringing weapons mounts on-line. The Havenite ships didn't have the option of crash-activating their nodes, but since they were starting from standby, in this case it wasn't really necessary.

As they watched, weapons mount indications began to switch from the red of 'inactive' to the amber of 'ready under central computer control', with a handful unexpectedly turning the green of 'ready under local control'. Strictly speaking, crews for weapons mounts were unnecessary, as they were a backup in case the telemetry links to the bridge failed due to battle damage.

Fire plans were entered and verified, and two dozen firing keys were mashed flat. The first salvoes would be relatively light, but each successive salvo would be the full throw-weight of a SD(P) as more and more missile pods were flushed.

****

By the time Honor had reached the bridge, the Invictus had shuddered no less than a dozen times, each time marking an occasion when incoming missiles had broken though the active defences and raked the hull with their bomb-pumped X-ray lasers. Hopefully, most of the crew had suited up, but the bridge watch had had no time for such measures, so Honor had detailed a couple of damage-control parties for skinsuit-grabbing duty, and she saw that her efforts had paid off, as almost every person on the bridge was either suited or mostly there. It would most definitely be uncomfortable - that thought caused Honor to squirm slightly as she settled into the captain's chair and Nimitz strapped himself into the specially designed harness; putting on a skinsuit in a hurry never was, particularly the plumbing connections - but at least they'd be safe from decompression if the bridge took damage.

"What's out there?" she asked, her clear soprano betraying none of the emotions that she felt. The skipper of one of Her Majesty's warships was never allowed to panic, even if her ship was being shot to pieces around her.

"The initial contact report was ten Sovereigns and two Aviarys, but so far, two Sovereigns have been destroyed, another crippled, and the rest have taken varying amounts of damage. The Aviarys have launched their full complement of LACs, but the Katanas seem to have that situation under control. Shrike and Ferret strikes have gone in, and done a fair amount of damage."

"And our damage?"

"We've also lost two ships, Ma'am," the tactical officer admitted. "One Invictus-class and one Harrington-class, plus varying amounts of damage to the others."

Honor nodded. She'd started the battle with twelve ships - four Invictus-class and four Grayson Harrington-class SD(P)s, along with two Minotaur-class and two Grayson Covington-class CLACs. From what was known of Haven's Sovereign-class SD(P)s, they were matched fairly evenly in terms of firepower, as well. Havenite designs tended to be fairly missile-heavy, but Manticoran ships were able to tie more pods into their fire-control systems, plus they had more missiles per pod. Haven's missiles had larger payloads, but Manticoran missiles were more accurate and had better penetration aids. Her ECM and ECCM systems were also better, along with point defences, but Havenite ships tried to make up for that deficiency by cramming more into their hulls.

Not that any of that was likely to matter, as none of the ships involved had their wedges and sidewalls up, which meant that the only defences available were their antimissile missiles and point-defence laser clusters. There would be no rolling ship in order to take incoming fire on the impenetrable roof or floor of a wedge, and it was impossible for any point-defence system, no matter how good, to stop all incoming fire.

Just then, the Invictus shuddered again as another missile got past the point defences, underscoring that fact.

****

Shannon was coming to a similar conclusion. This battle was going to be brief but bloody. Mutual annihilation wasn't out of the question, either. The Haven shuddered again as more lasers raked the hull, rupturing compartments, destroying weapons mounts, and killing and injuring more of her crew. In the few brief minutes since the exchange of fire started, she'd already lost a quarter of her force, and her LACs had been all but wiped out.

More hits registered, this time on the all-but-unarmoured top of the ship. Even in an eight million ton-plus, ship there were limits to how much of anything could be crammed in, and armour was no exception. Naval architects assumed that when a ship went into battle, they would have their wedges and sidewalls activated, which was generally the case. Since no weapon ever designed could penetrate the stressed gravity bands of a wedge, they'd left the top and bottom of a ship virtually unarmoured, in order to cram more armour onto the flanks. Sidewalls might shrug off conventional nuclear explosions, and be invulnerable to energy weapons at ranges greater than four hundred thousand kilometres, but they weren't invincible. Weapons like grav lances and laser heads, which brought their payload of bomb-pumped X-ray lasers within twenty-five thousand kilometres, were able to bring down or penetrate a sidewall, which meant that the armour saved from the top or bottom was placed on the sides, to protect against such weapons.

But none of that mattered now, since surprise had been total for both sides.

"Power surge!"

The startled call of her sensor officer drew Shannon's attention. "Report," she said shortly, wondering what new trick the Manties were about to unleash.

"It's in their nodes, Ma'am. If I had to guess, they're hot-loading them, trying to bring them on-line quicker."

Shannon nodded thoughtfully. Theoretically, it was possible, but extremely dangerous. She'd refused to put any hot-loading systems in Haven's new designs, simply because the high odds of disaster, combined with the sheer unlikelihood of such a system ever being required, made it not worth the risks and extra mass. However, it seemed that the Manties and Graysons had included such systems, which was interesting.

What was more interesting was the fact that the Manty commander was willing to risk their use. Now, who could that be? Hamish Alexander was immediately removed from consideration. Although he probably would do something like this, according to both NavInt and the FIS, he'd been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, and it was unlikely - to say the least - that he'd ever see action again.

Theodosia Kuzak? It was possible, but according to NavInt's dossier, it was unlikely that she'd use such a high-risk tactic.

Other senior Manty and Grayson officers were considered and rejected - except for one. But surely she wouldn't be here... would she?

****

Missiles flashed back and forth between the two rapidly closing groups of ships. One by one, ships were hammered into air-bleeding wrecks or vanished in the golden fireballs characteristic of fusion bottles losing containment in the most spectacular and catastrophic way possible. Through it all, LACs darted about, Shrikes firing their ludicrously powerful grasers into whatever targets offered themselves, and Ferrets unloading their missiles. Katanas hunted Cimterres, and a hundred savage, twisting dogfights erupted - but the Katana was specifically designed for this sort of fight, and the Cimterre wasn't, which meant that the Katanas had a decidedly lethal advantage.

There was one question raised which would prove difficult to answer - how was a ship to indicate surrender? The traditional method of striking the wedge was unavailable in this instance, since none of the ships involved had active wedges to strike, so each ship's captain had to work out something on their own. Not that many got the chance, of course.

In the end, it was the Manticoran LACs which decided the issue, but it was still eight minutes of some of the worst mutual slaughter seen since Old Earth's Final War.

****

The missile survived everything that was thrown at it, detonating twenty thousand kilometres above the Invictus. X-ray lasers erupted in all directions, most of them missing, but three raked the hull with their white-hot talons, rupturing compartments, and sending debris shrapnelling outward from the points of impact, and among those killed or injured was one Edward Anderson.

Honor convulsed briefly in her chair as she felt Anderson's death, and the keening grief of Sylvester. It was nowhere near as bad as when Harold Tschu had been killed in Silesia, since Nimitz was only friends with Sylvester, where as he'd been mated with Samantha, but it was still bad enough. She felt apathy immediately leeching into her personality, the 'why-bother-living?' feeling that afflicted all treecats whose person died or was killed. Samantha had felt the same, but Nimitz had been able to rekindle her interest in life, preventing her self-inflicted starvation.

Things were considerably different this time, however, as Nimitz was only friends with Sylvester, and the injury he'd taken on Enki had robbed him of his telepathic sense. That meant that unless something was found to rekindle Sylvester's interest, he'd simply stop eating and eventually starve to death. It was possible for a 'cat who'd lost their person to re-adopt, but Honor knew of only two occasions where that had happened. The late King Roger III - Elizabeth III's father - had been adopted, like his daughter, and Monroe had adopted Elizabeth's then-future husband, Justin Zyrr, after protecting him from a would be assassin in the wake of King Roger's own assassination. And Samantha herself had re-adopted - she'd adopted Hamish Alexander.

Honor shook off the feeling, and returned her concentration to the battle.

****

As the pinnace was slowly tractored towards the Manty ship's small-craft bay, Shannon sat in the front row of the passenger compartment, deep in thought. The only bright side was that some of her crew, at least, were still alive. But that just reminded her that nine-tenths of her crew were dead or seriously wounded. And that nine of her twelve ships had been destroyed, and the other three crippled. Her first action in command had been nothing short of disaster.

But she'd managed to inflict serious losses on the Manties, though. Five of their eight SD(P)s had been destroyed or crippled, along with two of their CLACs, and none of the others had escaped unhurt, either. In fact, she could see the air bleeding from compartments, along with short-lived bursts of flame, but those were becoming fewer in number as damage-control parties moved through the ship, making whatever repairs were possible.

It wasn't too long before the pinnace settled to the deck of the boat bay with a gentle thump, and Shannon was forced to contemplate her future, which would now involve another stint as a POW - which would probably be a lot longer than the first one, unless...

Her thoughts were interrupted when the entrance hatch hissed open. Any protest about the breach of protocol died down when the head topped by tousled sandy-brown hair poked through the opening. The man briefly scanned the interior of the pinnace with the brisk professionalism of a bodyguard before stepping fully through the hatchway, revealing his green-on-green uniform. Grey eyes widened in surprise and recognition, and he nodded a greeting to Shannon, who returned the gesture.

If Andrew LaFollet was here, then Honor Harrington couldn't be too far away.

****

Honor tried not to fidget as Andrew made a quick check of the Havenite pinnace. It wasn't that she didn't appreciate his watchfulness on her behalf - on more than one occasion that had saved her life - but there was such a thing as taking professional paranoia too far. Suddenly, his back stiffened, and she felt his surprise, which caused her to start to worry, but then his surprise became the little-boy glee that meant that he was about to put one over on his Steadholder... again. No wonder he got along so well with Nimitz, since they both shared what was, in her opinion, an unhealthy desire to play low tricks on her.

Andrew re-emerged from the pinnace, grinning broadly in a way that confirmed her suspicions. At least there was nothing harmful in the pinnace - nothing physically harmful, she corrected herself - otherwise Andrew wouldn't be grinning so broadly. She wished that Nimitz was here; she'd taken Sylvester to her cabin, and Nimitz was there keeping an eye on him. As expected, he was refusing to eat, despite the efforts of Scott and Rafe.

Her thoughts juddered to a halt when she saw who was following Andrew. Of all the people she'd expected to be in charge of the Havenite task force, Shannon Foraker had been last on the list.

****

The steward withdrew, leaving the bottle of Honor's prized Delacourt wine behind for the two admirals to consume at their own pace, and to allow private conversation. On the couch, Sylvester was curled up around his pain in near-complete silence, which was only intermittently broken by the occasional pain-filled keening noise, and Nimitz was hovering protectively over him. Shannon watched this for a few moments before asking, "What's the matter with him?"

Clean clothes had been found for her, until the search and rescue parties now going through her ships could return with some of her belongings. The fact that they were civilian clothes were of little consequence compared to the fact that she'd managed to shed her skinsuit. While it was possible to wear a skinsuit near-on indefinitely, only limited by power requirements, it soon became uncomfortable, and as a consequence, people only wore skinsuits for as long as strictly necessary.

"His person was killed," Honor replied simply.

"Oh," Shannon muttered. Ever since the inspired piece of invention that had saved Nimitz's life on Enki, she'd been interested in treecats, and had done some research on the subject. There hadn't been a great deal available, but the fact that treecats whose person died tended to stop eating was one of the publicly available facts. "I'm sorry," she added to Sylvester, who slowly raised his head - almost as if it was too much effort to do so, and in a way, it was - and nodded gravely to her. Nimitz added a soft bleek of thanks and twitched an ear at her. "I'd also like to thank you for the treatment my wounded are receiving. I know you wouldn't do anything less, but I still appreciate it."

Honor shrugged. "Even if I'd wanted to do anything else, my chief medical officer wouldn't let me." She grinned slightly before continuing. "I believe you know him - Surgeon Captain Fritz Montoya."

"Ah," Shannon replied. "No, I don't think he'd let you get away with anything nefarious - even if you'd wanted to."

"What I'm curious about is why we ended up shooting at one another again," Honor continued. "I know the way the High Ridge government dragged out the negotiations must have been frustrating, but surely there was a course of action other than resuming hostilities? And what was President Pritchard thinking when she renounced claims on all systems except Trevor's Star?"

"What?" Shannon blurted. "Duchess Harrington - Honor - we don't want that system. The San Martinos have made it abundantly clear over the past thirty-odd years that they don't want us their, either. Their request for annexation should have made that obvious."

"I know," Honor admitted. "I thought it was a negotiating position, myself, if not a particularly inspired one. But leaving that aside for now, surely Secretary Theisman must have tried to talk her out of it."

"He did. But when the communications from Manticore began to abruptly change tone to become more demanding, she felt that there was not much in the way of choice." Shannon placed her glass on the table and looked at Honor levelly. "Damn it, Honor, I know the High Ridge government was composed of idiots, but were they that stupid?"

"No," Honor admitted grudgingly. "The reason they were letting the talks drag out for so long was to wring the maximum possible advantage from the 'war-time' measures they'd enacted, or had left over from the Cromarty government. But why did Pritchard try to justify the resumption of hostilities by releasing altered versions of the communications from both sides?"

"What?" Shannon blurted. "Those were the messages we sent and received," she continued slowly, and Honor could feel her suspicion and gradually forming dread, and both Honor's senses and her link to Nimitz were in agreement that Shannon was telling the truth as she knew it.

It was a suspicion she shared, and a growing lump of ice settled in the pit of her stomach. If her suspicions were right, then Elizabeth was making a mistake, blinded by her hatred for Haven. Not that Honor could blame her, given that the then-People's Republic had been responsible for her father's assassination, but her tendency to take things personally might not be the best of ideas when dealing with other star nations. But if she was right, and Pritchard had had nothing to do with what had happened, then...

It was obvious that Shannon had come to the same conclusion. The way she suddenly growled, "Duchess Harrington, I request permission to return to Haven so I can strangle that scumbag Arnold Giancola with my bare hands. I don't care if I have to do it in the middle of a session of Congress, but that bastard single-handedly restarted the war between our nations," was something of an unsubtle hint.

"Sure," Honor agreed, "but we're going to Manticore first, so you can tell Elizabeth and Willie Alexander what you just told me." Shannon paled at the thought of meeting royalty, especially under these circumstances. "And then I'll take you to Haven myself so you can strangle Giancola." She paused before adding, "Want me to help?"

****

Of course, there was a little more to it than that. Surviving engineers had to check the Invictus' structural integrity, making sure that it would survive translations to the various hyper bands and the transit through the wormhole junction terminus at Trevor's Star. Their answer was a grudging 'yes', provided they went no higher than the delta bands. Additionally, the brief battle had destroyed enough beta nodes - but no alpha nodes, fortunately - that the Invictus' maximum acceleration was now somewhere in the vicinity of three hundred and fifty gravities.

So, the trip to the system's hyper limit took a few more hours than it normally would have, and it was just as the Warshawski sails were being powered up that it happened.

Strictly speaking, the Manticore Wormhole Junction wasn't a true wormhole - or even a series of wormholes - but rather, a region in space where hyper space bled through into normal space through a number of ruptures leading into the most powerful grav waves known to man.

This was a true wormhole, and the incoming task force had missed it by nearly a full light-minute, but the Invictus didn't - and it also managed to find an approach vector that was almost, but not quite, perfectly accurate, which was another problem in and of itself, since wormholes are chinks in the universe, gaps in the fabric of space-time. Hit one wrong, and it's impossible to guess where, not to mention when you'll end up.

The Invictus vanished from the universe.

****

"What the...?"

Vice Admiral of the Red Dame Alice Truman looked up from the damage control reports she was reading when she heard the sensor officer's surprised mutter. "What is it, Commander?" she asked moving to her side.

"Well, Ma'am - it's the Invictus," she replied. "It just vanished from my displays."

"Translated into hyper?" Alice asked, more out of hope than anything else.

"No, Ma'am," the sensor officer replied, shaking her head. "It's hard to tell from this distance, but it seems her nodes weren't fully powered up, and her sails hadn't been properly deployed yet." She adjusted her display, and the data reversed itself until the blip marked 'INVTS' reappeared, and replayed the last few seconds. The Invictus trundled towards the hyper limit at just under a quarter of light-speed and, just after leaving the shaded area that marked the system's hyper limit... vanished. "As you can see, Ma'am," the sensor officer continued, "there was no hyper footprint."

The two women exchanged glances. "What the hell just happened?" Alice asked in confusion.
Next Chapter
StoryReviewsStatisticsRelated StoriesTracking