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Shadow of Saganami
By David Weber
Baen Books ISBN: 0-7434-8852-0
Chapter One 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 Dame Honor managed-somehow-to maintain her serene expression as she remembered the tight-faced midshipmen who had withdrawn from their classes in a body when their government denounced its long-standing alliance with the Star Kingdom of Manticore.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 White Haven. 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.
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.
Excerpted from Shadow of Saganami by David Weber Excerpted by permission.
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