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David Weber

Ashes Of Victory

CHAPTER ONE

Admiral Lady Dame Honor Harrington stood in the gallery of ENS Farnese's boat bay and tried not to reel as the silent emotional hurricane thundered about her.

She gazed through the armorplast of the gallery bulkhead into the brilliantly lit, perfect clarity of the bay itself, and tried to use its sterile serenity as a sort of mental shield against the tempest. It didn't help a great deal, but at least she didn't have to face it alone, and she felt the living side of her mouth quirk in a wry smile as the six- limbed treecat in the carrier on her back shifted uneasily, ears half-flattened as the same vortex battered at him. Like the rest of his empathic species, he remained far more sensitive to others' emotions than she, and he seemed torn between a frantic need to escape the sheer intensity of the moment and a sort of euphoric high driven by an excess of everyone else's endorphins.

At least the two of them had had plenty of practice, she reminded herself. The stunned moment when her people realized their scratch-built, jury-rigged, half-derisively self proclaimed 'Elysian Space Navy' had destroyed an entire Peep task force and captured the shipping to take every prisoner who wanted to leave the prison planet of Hades to safety lay over three standard weeks behind them. She'd thought, then, that nothing could ever equal the explosion of triumph which had swept her ex-Peep flagship at that instant, but in its own way, the emotional storm seething about her now was even stronger. It had had longer to build on the voyage from the prison the entire People's Republic of Haven had regarded as the most escape-proof facility in human history to freedom, and anticipation had fanned its strength. For some of the escapees, like Captain Harriet Benson, the CO of ENS Kutuzov, over sixty T-years had passed since they'd breathed the air of a free planet. Those people could never return to the lives they'd left behind, but their need to begin building new ones blazed within them. Nor were they alone in their impatience. Even those who'd spent the least time in the custody of the Office of State Security longed to see loved ones once more, and unlike the escapees who'd spent decades on the planet inmates called 'Hell,' they could pick up the threads of the lives they'd feared they would never see again.

Yet that hunger to begin anew was tempered by a matching emotion which might almost have been called regret. An awareness that somehow they had become part of a tale which would be told and retold, and, undoubtedly, grow still greater in the tellings... and that all tales end.

They knew the impossible odds they had surmounted to reach this moment, in this boat bay gallery, in this star system. And because they did, they also knew that all the embellishments with which the tale would be improved upon over the years — by themselves, as likely as not — would be unnecessary, peripheral and unimportant to the reality.

And that was what they regretted: the fact that when they left Farnese, they would also leave behind the companions with whom they had built that tale's reality. The unvoiced awareness that it was not given to human beings to touch such moments, save fleetingly. The memory of who they'd been and what they'd done would be with them always, yet it would be only memory, never again reality. And as the heart- stopping fear and terror faded, the reality would become even more precious and unattainable to them.

That was what truly gave the emotions whirling about her their strength... and focused that strength upon her, for she was their leader, and that made her the symbol of their joy and bittersweet regret alike.

It was also horribly embarrassing, and the fact that none of them knew she could sense their emotions only made it worse. It was as if she stood outside their windows, listening to whispered conversations they'd never meant to share with her, and the fact that she had no choice — that she could no longer not sense the feelings of those about her — only made her feel perversely guilty when she did.

Yet what bothered her most was that she could never return what they had given her. They thought she was the one who'd achieved so much, but they were wrong. They were the ones who'd done it by doing all and more than all she'd asked of them. They'd come from the military forces of dozens of star nations, emerging from what the Peeps had contemptuously believed was the dustbin of history to hand their tormentors what might well prove the worst defeat in the history of the People's Republic. Not in tonnage destroyed, or star systems conquered, but in something far more precious because it was intangible, for they had delivered a potential deathblow to the terror of omnipotence which was so much a part of State Security's repressive arsenal.

And they'd done it for her. She'd tried to express even a fraction of the gratitude she felt, but she knew she'd failed. They lacked the sense she'd developed, the ability to feel the reality behind the clumsy interface of human language, and all her efforts had made not a dent in the storm of devotion pouring back at her.

If only—

A clear, musical chime — not loud, but penetrating — broke into her thoughts and she drew a deep breath as the first pinnace began its final approach. There were other small craft behind it, including dozens of pinnaces from the three squadrons of the wall which had come to meet Farnese and more than a dozen heavy-lift personnel shuttles from the planet San Martin. They queued up behind the lead pinnace, waiting their turns, and she tried not to let her relief show as she thought about them. She and Warner Caslet, Farnese's exec, had packed the battlecruiser, like all the other ships of the ESN, to the deckheads to get all of the escapees aboard. The massive redundancy designed into warship life-support systems had let them carry the overload (barely), but it had done nothing about the physical crowding, and the systems themselves were in serious need of maintenance after so long under such heavy demand. The personnel shuttles outside the boat bay were but the first wave of craft which would transport her people from the packed-sardine environment of their battlecruiser to the mountainous surface of San Martin. The planet's heavy gravity scarcely qualified it as a vacation resort, but at least it had plenty of room. And after twenty-four T-days crammed into Farnese's overcrowded berthing spaces, a little thing like weighing twice one's proper weight would be a minor price for the glorious luxury of room in which to stretch without putting a thumb into someone else's eye.

But even as she felt her crew eagerly anticipating the end of its confinement, her own attention was locked upon the lead pinnace, for she knew whose it was. Over two T-years had passed since she'd last faced the officer to whom it belonged, and she'd thought she'd put her treacherously ambiguous feelings about that officer aside. Now she knew she'd been wrong, for her own emotions were even more confused and turbulent than those of the people about her as she waited to greet him once again.

* * *

Admiral of the Green Hamish Alexander, Earl of White Haven and Commanding Officer, Eighth Fleet, forced his face to remain immobile as GNS Benjamin the Great's pinnace approached rendezvous with the battlecruiser his flagship had come to meet. ENS Farneseand just what the hell is an 'ENS?' he wondered. That's something else I should have asked her — was a Warlord—class unit. The big ship floated against the needle- sharp stars, well out from San Martin, where no unauthorized eye might see her and note her Peep origin. The time to acknowledge her presence would come, but not yet, he thought, gazing through the view port at the ship logic said could not be there. No, not yet.

Farnese retained the lean, arrogant grace of her battlecruiser breed, despite the fact that she was even larger than the Royal Manticoran Navy's Reliant —class. Small compared to his superdreadnought flagship, of course, but still a big, powerful unit. He'd heard about the Warlords, read the ONI analyses and appreciations of the class, even seen them destroyed in combat with units under his own command. But this was the first time he'd ever come close enough to see one with the unaided human eye. To be honest, it was closer than he'd ever anticipated he might come, except

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