Naval Arm Base Resolution had been found as much as built. The asteroid at its core was elongated, something nearing a kilometer long. Nine rings rotated slowly around it, pinpricks of light marking windows. She mounted six turrets, each nearly as large as Warspite, bulky reinforced shrouds encircling the impossibly slender barrels and impeller rails.
Warspite had arrived eight hours earlier, taken on fuel, stores, replacement crew, and a half-platoon of Marines, and was now under spin a few dozen kilometers from Resolution. She would remain in the vicinity for two weeks; she was to relieve a pair of destroyers rotating off the front, and Weatherby intended to drill his crew to perfection before taking them any closer to the fight.
He had been delighted to find NPAS Hermes refitting at Resolution. Beyond the fact that Hermes and Warspite would cover each others’ weaknesses well in company—it pained Weatherby to admit that the frigate probably outgunned his cruiser—Hermes was commanded by Adam Lassiter, an old shipmate of Weatherby’s. They had planned a reunion aboard Warspite.
Much to the surprise of Winston Hughes, he’d received an invitation. It was unusual for subensigns to dine at the executive officer’s wardroom, much less the captain’s, and Subcommander Jones was responsible for them. Him, Winston corrected himself, pulling his dress uniform from his closet and whispering a prayer of thanks that he could skip the freefall version and all its inventively hidden and hideously uncomfortable elastic, which kept it hanging properly in microgravity. The rest of the ship’s subensigns had been put ashore on the way through Nexus, at the requests of their families. Winston’s father couldn’t very well ask for him to be sent home, but that was politics, and truth be told Winston would not have gone willingly. He supposed he missed his fellows, or at least one of them, and for a moment he basked in the memory of her smile and her promise they’d catch up once he returned. Wearing a smile of his own, he straightened his tie, settled his cap onto his head, and stepped into the corridor.
Minutes later he stepped through the hatch into the captain’s wardroom. The armored shutters over the spin floor had been rolled back, and Winston walked on a carpet of stars, framed by the twin guns of B turret, to his seat. There were nine places set at the long table, and his was the last one on the right. The ship’s three senior lieutenants were near the captain’s place at the head of the table, Rawlins from navigation, Leighton from gunnery, and Callamy from engineering. There were three more junior officers at the table, two sublieutenants and an ensign. Winston knew two of them already, one of them well—Gunnery Ensign Hannah Welles was across the table from him—but stayed on the periphery of what little conversation there was; the three section chiefs were chatting with a surprising lack of regard for decorum, but all the junior officers seemed a bit wary of the formality of the occasion.
The captain’s steward, an aging former marine sergeant, stepped through the hatch, cleared his throat, and announced, “Ship’s Commander Warspite Charles Weatherby and Ship’s Subcommander Hermes Adam Lassiter.”
The senior lieutenants turned off their smiles and laughs and came to attention, only a fractional moment behind their subordinates. The sound of laughter preceded the two captains into the room. They were both in stitches, leaning on each other for support. Weatherby was saying, “—and the skipper got their commander on the line and said—” Lassiter joined him for the finale “‘—You waste your own gnats, I’m the welder here!”
As they doubled over, Winston risked a quick glance at Hannah, and was relieved to see that she looked just as baffled as he imagined he did.
Weatherby wiped a tear from his eye, recovering himself and saying, “As you were, gentlemen. I’ve no intention of standing on ceremony tonight. Isn’t it a miracle,” he added, showing Lassiter to the place of honor and taking his own place at the head of the table, “we didn’t turn out like Captain Sid?”
“Speak for yourself,” Lassiter replied, making a valiant effort at a straight face but losing it altogether in the end. With a long-suffering sigh, Weatherby’s steward poured—wine, Winston noticed, and probably the last anyone would see of it for some time—around the laughing captains, and Winston caught Hannah’s eye.
“Is this normal?” he mouthed.
“No idea,” she mouthed back.
Winston saw that the steward had completed his circuit of the table, then stood, lifted his glass, and cleared his throat. “To the flag!” he said.
Weatherby raised his glass in reply, speaking through the smile on his face and his obvious good humor with something approaching his usual gravity. “Ever may she stand for courage and honor.” He took a sip and said, “Mr. Talbot, I presume you’ve worked your usual culinary wizardry?”
“We haven’t provisioned since Nexus, sir,” Talbot replied, and Winston reflected that only a man in petty officer’s chevrons could deliver that much reproach that respectfully. “I did all I could.”
In Winston’s estimation, he needn’t have hedged; it was one of the better meals Winston had ever had shipboard. The evening wore on, and they talked about all manner of things as Talbot whisked their dishes away and kept their wineglasses full. Lassiter had been surprised to meet him— “Son of old Bally Hughes himself? Your father deserves better than Undersecretary” —and he and Weatherby had kept kept everyone merry with stories of their service together, when they could finish without dissolving into guffaws themselves. After one such tale, Winston finally regained control of himself, although it would take the merest push to send him back into paroxysms of laughter. From the undercurrent of half-hidden smiles and chuckles around the table he could tell he wasn’t alone. He reached for his wineglass, once again mysteriously full—that Talbot was a specter—and put it back when he saw the purpose in his captain’s eyes.
“Adam,” Weatherby said, “do you intend to sail with us when we depart?”
“I assumed I would be,” Lassiter replied.
“Good.” Weatherby looked round the table at his officers. “I suppose I should inform all of you that I’ve a special target in mind, no less than one of those infernal cruisers.” He let that sink in for a moment. “Retribution, Reprisal, and Vengenace have run roughshod over our fleet for too long, and I intend to find one of them, bring her to battle, and destroy her.”
For a few moments, absolute silence prevailed. Lassiter was the first to respond. “Charles, with all due respect, Warspite is outclassed. Even Warspite and Hermes together would be outclassed.”
Weatherby sat down again, nodded, and carried on regardless. “I’ve seen the intelligence reports. You were there with Lindemannsstadt, Adam; why don’t you share the story with my officers?”
“I was a quarter-million kilometers away, disposing of Reprisal‘s escorts. Lindemannsstadt closed on Reprisal, and once Reprisal got into gun range she tore Lindemannsstadt apart. It was over in half an hour,” Lassiter said, turning to Weatherby. “You know each one of those cruisers outweighs Warspite by ten thousand tons and mounts a main battery of thirty-eight centimeter guns, as near as we can tell. You’re badly outgunned, and still you’re sitting there smiling. What’s your plan?”
“No one has ever seen those cruisers make more than three gravities. Warspite can handle four and a half, and Hermes what, seven?”
“Seven and a half,” Lassiter replied with a smile. “You want to fight a running battle? That could work, with Hermes to deliver the long-range punch, but you’ll still have to peel one of the cruisers away from the rest of the task force.”
Weatherby nodded. “We cripple her at long range, and then we close to deliver the knockout blow when she can’t reply. As for finding one alone, I have a plan for that. We lay a trap.”
Winston noticed the glances between his fellow junior officers, supposed it was his job to ask the obvious questions, and hazarded, “Sir, the prevailing wisdom is that it’s impossible to achieve tactical surprise…”
“Yes, Mr. Hughes, but the prevailing wisdom may be said to hold only in the prevailing circumstances,” Weatherby replied. Winston blinked, and the commander grinned. “I’ll show you what I mean. Mr. Talbot! Would you be so kind as to find us a sheet of plotting paper?”