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The Shadow of Saganami: Chapter One

       Last updated: Tuesday, February 3, 2004 01:52 EST



    Admiral of the Red Lady Dame Honor Harrington, Steadholder and Duchess Harrington, sat beside Vice Admiral of the Red Dame Beatrice McDermott, Baroness Alb, and watched silently as the comfortable amphitheater seating of the huge holographic simulator filled up. It was an orderly audience. It was also quite a bit smaller than it would have been a few years earlier. There were fewer non-Manticoran uniforms out there, as well, and the vast majority of the foreign ones which remained were the blue-on-blue of the Grayson Space Navy. Several of the Star Kingdom’s smaller allies had cut back sharply on the midshipmen they sent to Saganami Island, and there were no Erewhonese uniforms at all. Dame Honor managed -- somehow -- to maintain her serene expression as she remembered the tight-faced midshipmen who had withdrawn from their classes in a body when their government denounced its long-standing alliance with the Star Kingdom of Manticore.

    She didn’t blame the young men and women, many of whom had been her students during her own time on the Island, despite her personal sense of betrayal. Nor could she really blame their government. Part of her wished she could, but Dame Honor believed in being honest with herself, and it had not been Erewhon which betrayed the Star Kingdom’s trust. It had been Manticore’s own government.

    She watched the final midshipman take his place with a military precision fit to satisfy even a Saganami Marine. Then Dame Beatrice rose from the chair beside hers and walked with brisk yet measured strides to the traditional podium.


    Command Sergeant-Major Sullivan’s harsh voice filled even the vastness of the simulator with a projection the finest opera singer would have been hard-pressed to match, and a perfectly synchronized, thunderous “Bang!” answered as eleven thousand brilliantly polished boots slammed together in instant response. Fifty-five hundred midshipmen and midshipwomen came to attention, eyes front, shoulders square, spines ramrod straight, thumbs on trouser seams, and she looked back at them unblinkingly.

    They were graduating early. Not as early as some of their predecessors had before Eighth Fleet’s decisive offensive under Earl Whitehaven. But much earlier than their immediate predecessors had, now that Eighth Fleet’s triumph had been thrown away like so much garbage. And they were headed not to the deployments of peacetime midshipman cruises, but directly into the cauldron of a new war.

    A losing war, Dame Beatrice thought harshly, wondering how many of those youthful faces would die in the next few desperate months. How many of the minds behind those faces truly understood the monumental betrayal which was about to send them straight into the furnace?

    She gazed at them, a master swordsmith contemplating the burnished brightness of her new-forged blades, searching for hidden flaws under the glittering sharpness. Wondering if their whetted steel was equal to the hurricane of combat which awaited them even as she prepared their final tempering.

    “Stand easy, Ladies and Gentlemen.”

    The Academy Commandant’s voice was even, a melodious contralto that flowed into the waiting silence, filling the stillness with its own quiet strength.

    A vast, sibilant scuffing of boots answered her as the thousands of midshipmen assumed the parade rest position, and she gazed at them for several more seconds, meeting their eyes levelly.

    “You are here,” she told them, “for one final meeting before you begin your midshipman cruises. This represents a custom, a final sharing of what naval service truly is, and what it can cost, which has been a part of Saganami Island for over two centuries. By tradition, the Commandant of the Academy addresses her students at this time, but there have been exceptions. Admiral Ellen D’Orville was one such exception. And so was Admiral Quentin Saint-James.

    “This year is another such exception, for we are honored and privileged to have Admiral Lady Dame Honor Harrington present. She will be on Manticore for only three days before returning to Eighth Fleet to complete its reactivation and take up her command once more. Many of you have had the privilege of studying under her as underclassmen. All of you could not do better than to hold her example before you as you take up your own careers. If any woman in the Queen’s uniform today truly understands the tradition which brings us all together this day, it is she.”

    The silence was utter, and Honor felt her cheekbones heat as she rose from her chair in turn. The cream and gray treecat on her shoulder sat stock still, proud and tall, and the two of them tasted the emotions sweeping through the assembled midshipmen. Emotions which were focused on her, true, but only partially. For today, she truly was only a part, a spokeswoman, for something greater than any one woman, whatever her accomplishments. The silent midshipmen might not fully understand that, yet they sensed it, and their silent, hovering anticipation was like a slumbering volcano under a cool, white mantle of snow.

    Dame Beatrice turned to face her and came to attention. She saluted sharply, and Honor’s hand flashed up in answer, as sharp and precise as the day of her own Last View. Then their hands came down and they stood facing one another.

    “Your Grace,” Dame Beatrice said simply, and stepped aside.

    Honor drew a deep breath, then walked crisply to the lectern Dame Beatrice had yielded to her. She took her place behind it, standing tall and straight with Nimitz statue-still upon her shoulder, and gazed out over that shining sea of youthful eyes. She remembered Last View. Remembered being one of the midshipwomen behind those eyes. Remembered Nimitz on her shoulder that day, too, looking up at Commandant Hartley, feeling the mystic fusion between her and him, with all the other middies, with every officer who had worn the Star Kingdom’s black and gold before her. And now it was her turn to stand before a new arsenal of bright, burnished blades, to see their youth and promise… and mortality. And to truly sense, because this time she could physically taste it, the hushed yet humming expectancy and union which possessed them all.

    “In a few days,” she said finally into their silence, “you will be reporting for your first true shipboard deployments. It is my hope that your instructors have properly prepared you for that experience. You are our best and brightest, the newest link in a chain of responsibility, duty, and sacrifice which has been forged and hammered on the anvil of five centuries of service. It is a heavy burden to assume, one which can -- and will -- end for some of you in death.”

    She paused, listening to the silence, feeling its weight.

    “Your instructors have done their best, here at the Island, to prepare you for that burden, that reality. Yet the truth is, Ladies and Gentlemen, that no one can truly prepare you for it. We can teach you, train you, share our institutional experience with you, but no one can be with you in the furnace. The chain of command, your superiors, the men and women under your orders… all of them will be there. And yet, in that moment when you truly confront duty and mortality, you will be alone. And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is a moment no training and no teacher can truly prepare you to face.

    “In that moment, you will have only four things to support you. Your training, which we have made as complete, as demanding, and as rigorous as we possibly could. Your courage, which can come only from within. Your loyalty to the men and women with whom you serve. And the tradition of Saganami. Some of you, most of you, will rise to the challenge of that moment. Some will try with all that is within you, and discover that all the training and courage in the universe do not make you immortal. And some, hopefully only a very few, will break.”

    The sound of a single indrawn breath would have been deafening as every eye looked back at her.

    “The task to which you have been called, the burden you have volunteered to bear for your Queen and your Kingdom, for your Protector and your Planet, for whatever people you serve, is the most terrifying, dangerous, and honorable one in the universe. You have chosen, of your own free will, to place yourselves and your lives between the people and star nations you love and their enemies. To fight to defend them; to die to protect them. It is a burden others have taken up before you, and if no one can truly teach you the reality of all it means and costs until you have experienced it for yourself, there remains still much you can learn from those who have gone before. And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the reason you are here today, where every senior class of midshipmen has stood on the eve of its midshipman cruise for the last two hundred and forty-three T-years.”

    She pressed a button on the podium before her, and the lights dimmed. For an instant, there was nothing but dense, velvet darkness, broken only by the pinprick glitter of the LEDs on her podium’s control panel, burning in the blackness like lost and lonely stars.

    Then, suddenly, there was another light. One that glowed in the depths of the simulator.

    It was the light-sculpted image of a man. There was nothing extraordinary about his appearance. He was of somewhat less than average height, with a dark complexion, a strong nose, and dark brown, slightly receding hair, and his dark eyes had a pronounced epicanthic fold. He wore an antique uniform, two T-centuries and more out of date, and the visored cap which the Royal Manticoran Navy had replaced with berets a hundred and seventy T-years before was clasped under his left arm.

    “Your Majesty,” he said, and like his uniform, his recorded accent was antique, crisp and understandable, but still an echo from another time. A ghost, preserved in an electronic shroud. And yet, despite all the dusty years which had swept past since that man breathed and slept and dreamed, there was something about him. Some not quite definable spark that burned even now.

    “I beg to report,” he continued, “that the forces under my command have engaged the enemy. Although I deeply regret that I must inform you of the loss of HMS Triumph and HMS Defiant in action against the piratical vessels based at Trautman’s Star, I must also inform you that we were victorious. We have confirmed the destruction of thirteen hostile cruisers, light cruisers, and destroyers, and all basing infrastructure in the system. In addition, we have captured one destroyer, one light and two heavy cruisers, and two battlecruisers. Several of these units appear to have been of recent Solarian construction, with substantially heavier armaments than most ‘pirates’ carry. Our own casualties and damage were severe, and I have been forced to detach HMS Victorious, Swiftsure, Mars, and Agamemnon for repairs. I have transferred sufficient of their personnel to the other units of my command to fully crew each of my remaining vessels, and I have instructed Captain Timmerman, Swiftsure’s commander, as the detachment’s senior officer, to return to the Star Kingdom, escorting our prize ships.

    “In light of our casualties, and the reduction in my squadron’s strength, it will be necessary to temporarily suspend our offensive operations against the pirate bases we have identified. I regret to inform you that we have captured additional corroborating evidence, including the quality of the enemy’s warships, of the involvement of both Manpower, Incorporated, and individuals at the highest level of the Silesian government with the so-called ‘pirates’ operating here in the Confederacy. Under the circumstances, I do not believe we can rely upon the Confederacy Navy to protect our commerce. Indeed, the collusion of senior members of the government with those attacking our commerce undoubtedly explains the ineffectiveness of Confederacy naval units assigned as convoy escorts.

    “Given this new evidence, and my own depleted numbers, I see no option but to disperse my striking force to provide escorts in the areas of greatest risk. I regret the factors which compel me to temporarily abandon offensive action, but I fully intend to resume larger scale operations once I receive the reinforcements currently en route to Silesia.

    “I have prepared a detailed report for the Admiralty, and I append a copy of it to this dispatch. Your Majesty, I have the honor to remain your most loyal and obedient subject.

    “Saganami, clear.”

    He bowed, ever so slightly but with immense dignity, and his recorded image faded away.

    There was another moment of darkness, one that left the watching audience alone with the memory of his message. His final message to Queen Adrienne, the monarch who had sent his squadron to Silesia. And then, the holo display came back to life.

    This time there were two images, both command decks. One was the command deck of a freighter; the other, the bridge of a warship.

    The freighter’s command crew sat at their stations, their shoulders taut, their faces stiff, even terrified. The merchantship’s skipper looked just as anxious as any of his officers, but he stood beside his command chair, not seated in it, looking into the communications screen which linked him to the second ship.

    The warship’s bridge was quaint and cramped by modern standards, that of a “battlecruiser” smaller than many modern heavy cruisers, with displays and weapons consoles that were hopelessly out of date. The same almond-eyed officer stood on the command deck, his old-style vac suit far clumsier and bulkier than a modern skinsuit. Battle boards blazed crimson at his ship’s Tactical station, and the flow and rush of his bridge personnel’s disciplined combat chatter rippled under the surface of his voice when he spoke.

    “My orders aren’t open to discussion, Captain Hargood,” he said flatly. “The convoy will disperse immediately and proceed across the hyper limit on least-time courses. Now, Captain.”

    “I’m not refusing your orders, damn it!” Captain Hargood shot back, his voice harsh. “I’m only trying to keep you from throwing away your own ship and the lives of every man and woman aboard her!”

    “The effort is appreciated,” Commodore Saganami said with a thin smile. “I’m afraid it’s wasted, however. Now get your ship turned around and get out of here.”

    “God damn it to Hell, Eddy!” Hargood exploded. “There are six of the bastards, including two battlecruisers! Just what the fuck do you think you’re going to accomplish? Unlike us, you’ve got the legs to stay away from them, so do it, damn it!”

    “There won’t be six when we’re done,” Saganami said grimly, “and every one we destroy, or just cripple badly enough, is one that won’t be chasing you or another unit of the convoy. And now, I’m done arguing with you, James. Take your ship, and your people, and get your ass home to that wife and those kids of yours. Saganami, clear.”

    Captain Hargood’s display blanked, and his holographic image’s shoulders slumped. He stared at the featureless screen for perhaps a half-dozen breaths, then shook himself and turned to his astrogator.

    “You heard him,” he said heavily, his face decades older than it had been mere moments before. “Get us out of here.”

    “Yes, Sir,” the astrogator said quietly.

    The simulator’s imagery changed once more as the recording of the exchange between Hargood and Saganami ended. It was replaced by a huge tactical display, one so old its symbology had been tagged with newer, more modern icons a present-day tactician could read. A ship’s name strobed in a light bar at the base of the display: RMMS Prince Harold, Captain James Hargood’s ship.

    The display’s imagery wasn’t very detailed, despite all computer enhancement could do. The range was long, and the sensors which drove it had been built by a technology that was crude and limited by modern standards. And even if neither of those things had been true, Prince Harold had been a merchant vessel, not a warship. But the display was detailed enough.

    A single green icon, tagged with the name “Nike,” drove ahead, accelerating hard towards six other icons that glared the fresh-blood color of hostile units. Two of the hostiles were identified as battlecruisers. Another was a heavy cruiser. The other three were “only” destroyers. The range looked absurdly low, but no one had fired yet. The weapons of the day were too crude, too short-legged. But that was about to change, for the range fell steadily as Nike moved to intercept her enemies.

    The first missiles launched, roaring out of their tubes, and Prince Harold’s sensor imagery was suddenly hashed by jagged strobes of jamming. The icons all but vanished completely in the electronic hash, but only for a moment. Then multiple layers of enhancement smoothed away the interference, replacing it with a glassy clarity. The dearth of data gave away how badly Prince Harold’s sensors had been affected, yet what data there was was crystal clear… and brutal.

    It lasted over forty minutes, that battle, despite the horrendous odds. Forty minutes in which there was not a sound, not a whisper, in all that vast auditorium while fifty-five hundred midshipmen’s eyes watched that display. Watched that single, defiant green bead of light drive straight into more than four times its own firepower. Watched it concentrate its fire with a cold precision which had already discounted its own survival. It opened fire not on the opposing battlecruisers, but on the escorting destroyers. It hammered them with the thermonuclear thunder of old-fashioned contact warheads. And as the range closed, it clawed at them with the coherent light of broadside lasers.

    Not a single member of the audience misunderstood what they were seeing. Commodore Saganami wasn’t fighting to live. He was fighting to destroy or cripple as many pirate vessels as he could. It didn’t matter to a slow, unarmed merchantman whether the pirate that overhauled it was a destroyer or a superdreadnought. Any pirate could destroy any merchantman, and there were as many pirates as there were ships in Saganami’s convoy. Each ship he killed was one merchantship which would live… and he could kill destroyers more easily than he could battlecruisers.

    Nike bored in, corkscrewing around her base vector and rolling ship madly to interpose her impeller wedge against incoming fire, snapping back upright to send an entire broadside of lasers blasting through the fragile sidewall of a destroyer. Her target reeled aside, belching atmosphere, trailing debris. Its wedge fluctuated, then died, and Nike dispatched it to whatever hell awaited its crew with a single missile even as she writhed around to savage one of its consorts.

    The green icon twisted and wove, spiraling through its enemies, closing to a range which was suicidal even for the cruder, shorter-ranged weapons of her own day. There was an elegance to Nike’s maneuvers, a cleanness. She drove headlong towards her own destruction, yet she danced. She embraced her own immolation, and the hand which guided her shaped her course with a master’s touch.

    Yet elegance was not armor, nor grace immortality. Aother ship would have died far sooner than she, would have been raked by enemy fire, would have stumbled into the path of a killing salvo. But not even she could avoid all of the hurricane of destruction her enemies hurled to meet her, and damage codes flashed beside her icon as hit after hit slammed home.

    A second destroyer blew up. Then the third staggered aside, her forward impeller ring a broken, shattered ruin, and Nike turned upon the heavy cruiser. Her missiles ripped into it, damaging its impellers, laming it so that even a lumbering merchantship could outpace it.

    Her icon was haloed in a scarlet shroud that indicated escaping atmosphere. Her acceleration dropped steadily as alpha and beta nodes were blown out of her impeller rings. The weight of her fire dwindled as lasers and missile tubes -- and the men and women who crewed them -- were shattered one by one. Dame Honor and Nimitz had seen the horrors of battle, seen friends torn apart, splendid ships shattered and broken. Unlike Dame Beatrice’s watching midshipmen, they knew what it must have been like aboard Nike’s bridge, in the ship’s passages, in the armored pods where her weapons crews fought and cursed… and died. But those watching midshipmen knew they lacked Dame Honor’s experience, knew they were witnessing something beyond their experience and comprehension. And that that same something might someday come for them, as it had come for Edward Saganami and the crew of HMS Nike so many years before.

    The brutally wounded battlecruiser rolled up at point-blank range, barely eight thousand kilometers from her target, and fired every surviving weapon in her port broadside into one of the enemy battlecruisers. The pirate heaved sideways as transfer energy shattered armor and blasted deep, deep into her hull. She coasted onward for a few moments, and then vanished in a titanic explosion.

    But Nike paid for that victory. As she rolled to take the shot, the second, undamaged pirate battlecruiser finally found a firing bearing of her own. One that was no longer obstructed by Nike’s skillfully interposed wedge. Her energy weapons lashed out, as powerful as Nike’s own. Saganami’s ship was more heavily armored than any cruiser or destroyer, but she wasn’t a battleship or a dreadnought. She was only a battlecruiser. Her armor splintered, atmosphere gushed from her ruptured hull, and her forward impeller ring flashed and died.

    She staggered, trying to twist back away from her opponent, and the heavy cruiser she had already lamed sent a full salvo of missiles into her. Point defense stopped some, but four exploded against her wavering sidewall, and more damage codes flashed as some of their fury overpowered the straining generators and blasted into her side. And then the hostile battlecruiser fired again. The green icon lurched, circled with the flashing red band of critical damage, and a window opened in the tactical display.

    It was a com screen. Prince Harold’s name blinked in the date/time hack in the lower right hand corner, identifying the recipient of the recorded transmission, and more than one midshipman flinched physically as he found himself staring into the vestibule of Hell.

    Nike’s bridge was hazed with thin smoke, eddying towards the holed bulkheads and the bottomless hunger of vacuum beyond. Electrical fires blazed unchecked, Astrogation was so much blasted wreckage, and bodies littered the deck. Edward Saganami’s face was streaked with blood as he faced the pickup, and more blood coated his vac suit’s right side as it pulsed from a deep wound in his shoulder. The tactical display was still up behind him. Its icons and damage sidebars and the lurid damage codes on the damage control schematic flickered and wavered as its power fluctuated. But they were still there, still showed the other battlecruiser maneuvering for the final, fatal shot Nike could no longer avoid.

    “We’re done, James,” Saganami said. His voice was hoarse, harsh with pain and the exhaustion of blood loss, yet his expression was almost calm. “Tell the Queen. Tell her what my people did. And tell her I’m sor -- “

    The simulator went black. There was utter silence in the lightless auditorium. And then, slowly, one final image appeared. It was the golden cross and starburst of the Parliamentary Medal of Valor on its blue, white, and red ribbon. The same colors gleamed among the ribbons on Dame Honor’s chest, but this Medal of Valor was different. It was very first PMV ever awarded, and it hung before them for perhaps twenty seconds.

    And then the lights came up once more, and Lady Dame Honor Harrington, Commanding Officer of the newly reactivated Eighth Fleet, Manticoran Alliance, looked out over the Royal Manticoran Naval Academy’s four hundred and eleventh senior class. They looked back at her, and she inhaled deeply.

    “Ladies and Gentlemen,” she said, her soprano voice ringing out clear and strong, “the tradition lives!”

    Sixty more seconds passed in ringing silence, and then --

    “Dismissed, Ladies and Gentlemen,” she said very quietly.

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