Chapter Two

          "It's Her Grace, Ma'am," Lieutenant Kaminski said quietly, and Michelle stood, rising from where she'd knelt on the decksole beside the sick berth attendant working on an unconscious Manfredi.

          "I'll take it there, Albert," she said, crossing quickly to the communications officer's station. She leaned over his shoulder, looking into the pickup, and saw Honor on the display.

          "How bad is it, Mike?" Honor asked quickly.

          "That's an interesting question." Michelle managed a twisted smile. "Captain Mikhailov is dead, and things are . . . a bit confused over here, just now. Our rails and pods are still intact, and our fire control looks pretty good, but our point defense and energy armament took a real beating. The worst of it seems to be the after impeller ring, though. It's completely down."

          "Can you restore it?" Honor asked urgently.

          "We're working on it. The good news is that the damage appears to be in the control runs; the nodes themselves look like they're still intact, including the Alphas. The bad news is that we've got one hell of a lot of structural damage aft, and just locating where the runs are broken is going to be a copperplated bitch."

          "Can you get her out?" Honor's voice was suddenly softer as she asked the only question that really mattered, and Michelle looked into best friend's eyes for perhaps three heartbeats, then shrugged.

          "I don't know," she admitted. "Frankly, it doesn't look good, but I'm not prepared to just write her off yet. Besides," she managed another smile, "we can't abandon very well."

          "What do you mean?" Honor demanded quickly.

          "Both boat bays are trashed, Honor. The Bosun says she thinks she can get the after bay cleared, but it's going to take at least a half-hour. Without that –"

          Michelle shrugged, wondering if she looked as stricken as Honor did. Not that Honor's expression would have given anything away to most people, but Michelle knew her too well.

          They looked at one another for several seconds, neither of them willing to say what they both knew. Without at least one functional boat bay, small craft couldn't dock with Ajax to take her crew off, and she carried enough emergency life pods for a little more than half her total complement. There wasn't much point in carrying more than that, since only half her battle stations were close enough to the skin of her hull to make a life pod practical.

          And her flag bridge was far too deeply buried to be one of them.

          "Mike, I –"

          Honor's voice seemed to fray around the edges, and Michelle shook her head quickly.

          "Don't say it," she said, almost gently. "If we can get the after ring back, we can probably play hide and seek with anything heavy enough to kill us. If we don't get it back, we're not getting out. It's that simple, Honor. And you know as well as I do that you can't hold the rest of the task force back to cover us. Not with Bogey Three still closing. Even just hanging around for a half-hour while we try to make repairs would bring you into their envelope, and your missile defense has been shot to shit."

          She could see it in Honor's eyes. See that Honor wanted to argue, to protest. But she couldn't.

          "You're right," she said quietly. "I wish you weren't, but you are."

          "I know." Michelle's lips twitched again. "And at least we're in better shape than Necromancer," she observed. "Although I think her boat bays are at least intact."

          "Well, yes," Honor said. "There is that minor difference. Rafe's coordinating the evacuation of her personnel now."

          "Good for Rafe," Michelle replied.

          "Break north," Honor told her. "I'm going to drop our acceleration for about fifteen minutes."

          Michelle opened her mouth to protest, but Honor shook her head quickly.

          "Only fifteen minutes, Mike. If we go back to the best acceleration we can sustain at that point and maintain heading, we'll still scrape past Bogey Three at least eighty thousand kilometers outside its powered missile range."

          "That's cutting it too close, Honor!" Michelle said sharply.

          "No," Honor said flatly, "it isn't, Admiral Henke. And not just because Ajax is your ship. There are seven hundred and fifty other men and women aboard her."

          Michelle started to protest again, then stopped, inhaled sharply, and nodded. She still didn't like it, still suspected that Honor's friendship for her was affecting the other woman's judgment. But it was also possible that that same friendship was affecting her own judgment, and Honor was right about how many other people were at risk aboard Ajax.

          "When they see our accel drop, they'll have to act on the assumption Imperator has enough impeller damage to slow the rest of the task force," Honor continued. "Bogey Three should continue to pursue us on that basis. If you can get the after ring back within the next forty-five minutes to an hour, you should still be able to stay clear of Bogey Two, and Bogey One is pretty much scrap metal at this point. But if you don't get it back –"

          "If we don't get it back, we can't get into hyper anyway," Michelle interrupted her. "I think it's the best we can do, Honor. Thank you."

          Honor's mouth tightened on Michelle's com screen, but she only nodded.

          "Give Beth my best, just in case," Michelle added.

          "Do it yourself," Honor shot back.

          "I will, of course," Michelle said. Then, more softly, "Take care, Honor."

          "God bless, Mike," Honor said equally quietly. "Clear."