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At All Costs: Chapter Twenty Three

       Last updated: Friday, October 14, 2005 10:07 EDT



    "That's the last of them, Your Grace."


    "Yes, Ma'am." Mercedes Brigham smiled hugely at Honor. "According to the preliminary reports, we didn't lose anyone on combat ops."

    "That's . . . hard to believe," Honor said. She reached up to gently caress Nimitz's ears and shook her head. "Mind you, I'm delighted to hear it. I just didn't expect it."

    "Good planning, good target selection, detailed pre-attack reconnaissance, FTL sensor capability, overwhelming force advantage at the point of contact, and Katanas to smack hell out of their piece-of-crap LACs." Brigham shrugged. "Ma'am, we were playing with our deck, and they didn't even get to cut the cards, much less shuffle."

    "Not this time," Honor agreed. "I suspect they're going to make it a priority to see to it we don't do that to them again, though."

    "Which was the entire point of the exercise, wasn't it, Your Grace?"

    Brigham grinned at her. Nimitz bleeked in amusement, echoing the chief of staff's cheerfulness, and Honor was forced to smile back at her.

    "Yes, Mercedes. Yes, it was," she agreed. "And I rather suspect the Admiralty's going to be pleased with us."

    "I'm sure they are," Brigham said a bit less jubilantly. "And they're also going to want us to go out and do it again, as soon as we can."

    "Of course they are, although I'm sure we'll have at least a couple of weeks to plan."

    "I'd like to have more time, Your Grace," Brigham's tone was downright sober this time. Honor looked at her a little quizzically, and the chief of staff shrugged. "Part of the reason it went so well this time was that you, Andrea, Admiral Truman and Admiral McKeon, and I had so much time to kick it around. There was time to look at the best current intelligence data, to model the attacks, to think about where their rear area coverage was going to be weakest. With less time, we're more likely to miss something and stub our toes."

    "It's always that way, isn't it?" Honor's smile was a bit more crooked than the artificial nerves in the left side of her face could normally account for. "Remember what Clausewitz said."

    "Which quote this time?"

    "'Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.'"

    "Well, he got that one right, Your Grace."

    "He got quite a few of them right, actually. Especially for a theorist who never exercised high command himself. Of course, he got some of them wrong, too. In this case, though, I think we'll probably be okay for at least Cutworm II. Especially if any of our additional units have reported in while we were away."

    "That would be nice, wouldn't it? Care to place any small wagers on whether or not they have?"

    "Not particularly." Honor shook her head, her smile tarter than ever. "We should know in the next few hours, one way or the other. In the meantime, Tim," she looked over her shoulder at her flag lieutenant, "please have Harper make a general signal. I'd like all flag officers to repair aboard the flagship, with their senior staffers, by fourteen-thirty hours. I want them prepared to discuss each system, including analysis of damage inflicted, and any observations on the Havenites' system defense doctrine. I also want discussion of how well our current doctrine and hardware worked and any suggestions for how we might make further improvements. And tell them to plan on staying for dinner."

    "Yes, Ma'am." Lieutenant Meares grinned. "But this time, they all know what that means!"

    "Lieutenant, I have no idea what you're talking about," Honor said sternly, almond eyes twinkling, then made a shooing motion with one hand. "Now run along and see to it before something nasty happens to you."

    "On my way, Ma'am, and --" Meares paused in the day cabin hatch just long enough to give her another grin "-- shaking in abject terror."

    He disappeared, and Honor looked at Brigham.

    "Is it my imagination, or does the staff seem to be getting just a bit uppity these days?"

    "Oh, definitely your imagination, Your Grace."

    "I thought it was."



    "Okay," Solomon Hayes said, "what's so important?"

    He sat in an expensive Landing restaurant, looking out through its two hundredth-floor's crystoplast wall across the waters of Jason Bay. The sun was just dipping below the horizon, turning the wrinkled blue sheet of water bloody and painting the clouds in crimson, purple, and vermilion.

    The food was almost good enough to justify its priciness, and the view, he admitted, was spectacular. And not just where the scenery was concerned. The exquisitely attired woman seated across the table from him looked as if she'd probably profited from more than a bit of biosculpt, and the flowing mass of beautiful red hair spilling down her back spoke directly to Hayes's smattering of ancient Irish genes.

    She was also immoderately wealthy, with powerful political connections. Most of which, he conceded, could probably be construed as liabilities, just at the moment. Still, she'd been an important inside source during the High Ridge years, and she continued to offer an insight into the inner workings of the currently gelded Conservative Association.

    "So direct and to the point," she said now, pouting slightly. "You might at least pretend I'm more than just a newsy's source, Derek."

    "My dear Countess," Hayes replied, leering at her only half-professionally, "I believe I've amply demonstrated in other environs that you're much more than just a source. In fact, I do hope you haven't made other plans for the evening?"

    "Bertram has, but since he didn't discuss them with me -- and since I believe they include a pair of barely legal-age girls -- I felt free to reserve my own evening for other . . . activities. Did you have something in mind?"

    She smiled, and Hayes smiled back.

    "As a matter of fact, I do. Something involving a friend's yacht, moonlight, champagne, silk sheets, and a few other things like that."

    "My goodness, you do know how to compensate an informant for her news, don't you?" There was an ever so faint steeliness in the glorious blue eyes across the table from him.

    "I try," he said, not attempting to deny the implication. There wasn't much point, after all. Besdies, Countess Fairburn had used him at least as much as he'd ever used her. That little matter of the supposed Harrington-White Haven love affair came to mind, among others.

    "And you succeed nicely," she told him, sipping wine. Then she smiled. "And since you've taken such pains to arrange a pleasant evening, why don't we go ahead and get the sordid details out of the way now?"

    "I think that would be an excellent idea," he agreed. "The best reason to put business before pleasure is to dispose of the former early so you can concentrate on the latter properly."

    "I see why you've done so well working with words," she said, setting the wine glass down. "Very well. It's actually a fairly small tidbit, in some ways, but I'll confess that I take a certain amount of pleasure in being able to pass it along to you. After all, there's not much point pretending I'm not a rather vengeful sort at heart."

    She smiled again, and this time there was no humor at all in the expression.

    "That sounds a bit ominous," he said lightly, watching her warily.

    "Oh, I suppose it will be . . . for some. And after that unfortunate little fiasco last year, I'm sure you'll want to check it out independently before you do anything with it." Hayes's eyes had narrowed at the "fiasco" reference, and she chuckled. "It just happens to have come to my attention," she said, "that the heroic Duchess Harrington, before her departure for Trevor's Star, stopped by the Briarwood Reproduction Center."

    Hayes blinked.

    "Briarwood?" he repeated after a moment.

    "Precisely. Now, I suppose it's possible she was there to consult with the doctors because of some fertility problem. That seems a bit unlikely, given her profession and current duties, however. And even if it didn't, according to a little bird who sang into my ear, she was there for a routine outpatient procedure. The tubing of a fetus, I believe."

    Hayes looked at her, his eyes narrower than ever, and she smiled back sweetly.

    "How good a source is your 'little bird'?" he asked.

    "Quite good, actually."

    "And he -- or she -- says this is Harrington's child?"

    "I can't imagine any other reason for her to have outpatient surgery, can you?"

    "Not at Briarwood," Hayes conceded. "Not unless, for some bizarre reason, she was trying to get pregnant at this moment." He thought some more. "Do you happen to know who the father is?"


    For just a moment, something ugly flashed in the countess' eyes. Disappointment, Hayes realized. He knew who she wanted the father to be, but she knew equally well that after the way Emily Alexander had rabbit-punched the attempt to link her husband and "the Salamander," he wasn't about to leap to any conclusions that couldn't be firmly substantiated. Not in this case, at least, no matter how sharp a personal ax he had to grind. Or perhaps because of how very personal this particular ax was.

    "Pity," he said, picking up his own wine and sipping thoughtfully.

    "I do have three other bits of information," Fairburn said. "Straws in the wind, one might say."

    "Which are?"

    "First, Harrington's declined to declare paternity. She didn't simply ask Briarwood to maintain confidentiality; she didn't tell them. Secondly, and not surprisingly, I suppose, she's designated her mother, Dr. Harrington, to act in loco parentis for her child while she's away or if anything . . . unfortunate should happen to her. And third -- third, dear Derek, Dr. Harrington is also the physician of record for one Emily Alexander, who has mysteriously decided, after sixty or seventy years in a life-support chair, that the time has come for her and her husband to become parents, as well."

    Hayes blinked again. He was sure he could have come up with half a dozen explanations for the coincidences Fairburn had just listed without even trying. But that didn't matter. His instincts told him that, motivated by vengefulness or not, the countess had zeroed in on what was actually going on. Especially in light of Harrington's refusal to declare paternity even to Briarwood's medical staff.

    "Those are interesting straws, Elfrieda," he conceded after several seconds. "And I do have my own ways of confirming your information -- not that I believe for a moment that it isn't accurate." This time, he didn't add, although he was certain she heard it anyway. "I imagine you'd like me to maintain confidentiality about your own part in bringing this to my attention?"

    "I'm afraid so," she sighed with what he realized was genuine regret. "A part of me would dearly love to let that lowborn upstart bitch know precisely who blew the whistle on her. Given the current . . . unfortunate political climate and the disgusting way the proles are fawning all over her, however, it probably wouldn't be very wise to make myself a target for retaliation. Bertram wouldn't thank me for it, either."

    "I thought as much," Hayes said, projecting as much sympathy as he could. "So I'll be very careful to document any hard facts I use without mentioning your name."

    "Such a dear, cautious man!" Countess Fairburn cooed.

    "I try, Elfrieda. I try."





    Sir Thomas Caparelli came to his feet, stepping out from behind his desk and smiling broadly as he reached out to grip Honor's hand firmly.

    "It's good to see you," he said, and Honor smiled as she tasted the personal warmth behind his greeting. "And you, of course, Nimitz," Caparelli continued, nodding to the treecat on Honor's shoulder. "And you, Commodore," he added with a smile as he released Honor's hand to shake Mercedes Brigham's.

    "I see you have your priorities in proper order, Sir Thomas," Brigham murmured, responding to the twinkle in the First Space Lord's eye.

    "Well, Her Grace and Nimitz do rather come as a unit, Commodore."

    "That they do, Sir."

    "Sit down. Sit down, both of you -- well, all three of you!" he invited, waving at the comfortable chairs in the conversational nook around his splendid office's coffee-table. Two carafes -- one of coffee, and one of hot chocolate -- steamed on the coffee-table in question, which also offered cups and saucers, a plate of fresh croissants, and a fresh head of celery.

    Honor and Brigham obeyed, and Nimitz slithered down into Honor's lap, eyeing the celery with cheerful greediness. Honor chuckled and gave him a gentle smack, and he rolled over onto his back, grabbing her wrist with true-hands and hand-feet and wrestling with it cheerfully.

    "And this," Caparelli observed with a chuckle, "represents Sphinx's native sentient species?"

    "Some 'cats tend to revert to kittenhood more readily than others, Sir Thomas," Honor told him, swatting at Nimitz with her free hand while he purred happily.

    "I'm glad he likes you," Caparelli said. "I've seen pictures of what those claws of his can do." He shook his head. "Personally, I've always wondered how something that short can do so much damage."

    "That's probably because, like most people, you think of treecat claws the way you do of terrestrial cats' claws. In fact, they aren't at all the same. Stinker?"

    Nimitz released her wrist and forearm and sat up in her lap. He extended one true-hand -- long, wiry fingers slightly crooked -- and unsheathed his needle-pointed claws. Caparelli leaned closer, his expression fascinated, and Nimitz held them up where he could see them clearly.

    "If you'll notice," Honor said, "his claws are much broader at the base than those of a terrestrial cat. When people call them 'scimitar-shaped,' it's literally descriptive, except that the wrong side is edged. And they retract into some fairly specialized, cartilage-lined receptacles, because they're actually more like a terrestrial shark's tooth than anything someone from Old Earth would call a 'claw.' The actual composition of the claw itself is more like stone than it is like horn, cartilage, or bone, and this curved inner section is at least as sharp as most flaked obsidian knives. It's true they aren't very long, but for all intents and purposes, he's got scalpel blades on each finger that are the next best thing to a centimeter and a half in length. That's why a 'cat in a true killing rage looks so much like a berserk buzz saw. Each individual cut isn't that deep, but with all six limbs going at once in repeated slashes, well --"

    She shrugged, and Caparelli shuddered slightly at the image her words had evoked.

    "I never realized just how formidable those weapons were," he confessed.

    "Well, Sir Thomas," Honor said cheerfully, "if you want something to give you real nightmares, you might consider that hexapumas -- which, you know, are just a little bigger -- have exactly the same sort of claws. Of course, their claws tend to be eight or nine centimeters long. Which is why we Sphinxians never go into the bush unarmed."

    "Your Grace," Caparelli said, "if I were a Sphinxian and knew about hexapuma claws, I wouldn't go into the bush at all!"

    "We do lose the occasional tourist," she said, straight-faced.

    "No doubt," he said dryly, leaning forward and personally pouring coffee for Brigham and chocolate for Honor. He waved at the croissants and celery, and settled back in his own chair with a cup and saucer while they helped themselves.

    "I've got a formal meeting set up for tomorrow afternoon," he told them more seriously. "I'll have several people there -- including Hamish, Honor -- and I hope you and Commodore Brigham will be prepared to give us a comprehensive brief and answer any questions about Cutworm."

    He raised one eyebrow interrogatively, and Honor nodded.

    "Good. In the meantime, I just wanted to say the preliminary read on Cutworm indicates that it did exactly what we had in mind. Good work. Especially pulling it off without any losses of your own. Whether or not it has the long term effect we hoped for remains to be seen, but no one else could have done the job better. Or, for that matter, as well, probably."

    "Thank you, Sir Thomas," Honor murmured, tasting the sincerity behind his words.

    "We've managed to scare up a few more units for you, as well," Caparelli continued. "Not as many as I'd like, or anywhere near as many as we'd originally scheduled, although some of them will be a bit newer than projected, to compensate. What we have been able to dig up will be waiting for you when you get back to Eighth Fleet. The main problem, as I'm sure you've guessed, is the need to cover Zanzibar and Alizon. Especially Zanzibar, since the Peeps got such a good look at our defensive deployments there. To be honest, your success in Cutworm is actually going to make that particular problem worse. The logic, I'm sure, is going to run something like 'If Harrington can do that to them, then they could do it to us.' And the hell of it, of course, is that they're right. Even if they weren't, the political realities of the Alliance would require us to respond to their concerns."

    Honor frowned very slightly, and he shook his head.

    "One of the reasons those realities are real, Honor, is that they ought to be. High Ridge's total incompetence makes the situation even worse, I agree. But it doesn't change the fact that those two systems are our allies; that they're currently the most exposed -- and most attractive -- secondary targets available to the Peeps; and that they have a moral right to demand, and receive, adequate protection. I don't like what it does to my deployable fleet strength, but I can't pretend they don't have that right."

    "Maybe so, Sir," Brigham said diffidently, "but Admiral al-Bakr's decisions when the Peeps probed Zanzibar didn't help any."

    "No, they didn't," Caparelli agreed in a tone whose very neutrality was a gentle rebuke. "That, however, is now atmosphere out the airlock, Commodore. We have to deal with the situation as it exists. And while I know it wasn't your intent, we can't afford to lend any credence to the attitude which unfortunately exists among some of our own personnel. Things are thorny enough already without suggesting to the Zanzibarans that we believe they're incompetents or cowards who jump at shadows."

    "No, Sir. Of course not," Brigham agreed.

    "Leaving that aside, however," Caparelli continued, turning back to Honor, "the newsies are already playing this one up as our first offensive victory of the war, which means you now hold title to both our defensive and offensive accomplishments. I'm afraid your reputation's been even further enhanced."

    "That's ridiculous," Honor half-muttered. She shook her head irritably. "'Offensive victory,' indeed! Those poor Havenite picket forces were so outclassed it was like . . . like feeding baby chicks to near-sharks!"

    "Of course it was." Caparelli shook his own head -- in his case, more in amusement than anything else. "That's the way it's supposed to be, whenever we can arrange it. On the other hand, your accomplishments -- and especially the way you allowed Milligan to scuttle his own ships -- is the kind of copy the newsfaxes dream of. They can't quite seem to decide whether to play you as the elegant, chivalrous corsair or the tough-as-nails, blood-and-guts warhorse. Hamish mentioned a couple of wet-navy types from Old Earth. Someone named Raphael Semmes and someone else named Bill Halsey. Although he did comment that you had marginally better tactical sense than Semmes and better strategic sense than Halsey."

    "Oh, he did, did he?" Honor's eyes gleamed ominously, and Caparelli chuckled.

    "Somehow I suspect he was looking forward to having me tell you that. Still, however . . . irksome you may find it, don't expect anybody in the Government or the Navy to try to put the brakes on it. Frankly, we need all the good press -- and all the morale-boosting stories -- we can get. Anything that simultaneously helps our morale and hurts the Peeps' morale is much too valuable for us to even consider not using."

    "In that respect, Sir Thomas," Brigham said, "I think what the Katanas and Agamemnons did to them ought to have a definite morale-hurting effect. For that matter, I suspect it's going to make them reconsider their estimates of relative combat effectiveness across the board."

    "I hope you're right, Commodore. And I also have to admit that what I've seen in the preliminary reports makes me feel better about the relative effectiveness of the new ships and hardware. But the fact of the matter is that we don't have very many of them. In fact, that's one reason we gave such a high percentage of the ones we do have to Eighth Fleet. We want the Peeps to see them being used -- to throw them right into Theisman's face in hopes he'll be so impressed by their effectiveness he won't realize how few of them we actually have."

    "And just how likely does ONI think that is, Sir?" Honor asked neutrally. In her own mind, she already knew, and Caparelli smiled wryly at her.

    "About as likely as you think it is," he said. "On the other hand, when the . . . water is this deep, Your Grace, you reach for anything that might help you keep your head above the surface."

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