"Ma'am, it's Commander Horn," Lieutenant Kaminski said quietly. Commander Manfredi had been taken off to sickbay, and the communications officer had taken over Manfredi's duties as chief of staff. He was scarcely the most senior of her staffers still on his feet, but his official duties left him with the least to do, under the circumstances . . . and it wasn't as if Michelle any longer had a squadron which really needed a chief of staff.

            "Thanks, Al," she said, and turned quickly to her own com screen as a face materialized upon it.

            Commander Alexandra Horn was a stocky, short-haired, gray-eyed brunette. She'd also been HMS Ajax's executive officer, up until the moment the death of Diego Mikhailovic and every other officer and rating who'd been on his command deck changed that. Now she was the ship's commanding officer, and behind her, Henke could see the backup command crew in the battlecruiser's Auxiliary Control, located at the far end of Ajax's core hull from her normal command deck, as they bent over their command stations, working frantically.

            "Yes, Vicky?"

            "Admiral," Horn's voice was hoarse, her face tight with strain and fatigue, "I think it's time to start evacuating everyone who has access to a life pod."

            Michelle felt her own face turn mask-like, but managed to hold her voice to an almost normal conversational pitch.

            "It's that bad, is it?" she asked.

            "Maybe worse than that, Ma'am." Horn rubbed her eyes for a moment, then looked back out of the display at Michelle. "There's just too much wreckage in the way. God only knows how all four rails can still be up, because we've got breaches clear through to the missle core in at least four places. Maybe as many as six. Commander Tigh still can't even tell us where the control runs are broken, much less when he might be able to get the after ring back up."

            Well, that seems to be a fairly emphatic answer to the great fragility debate, doesn't it, Mike? a small voice said in the back of Michelle's head. Under the circumstances, it's a mystery to me why we didn't go up right along with Patrocles and Priam. What was that phrase Honor used? "Eggshells armed with sledgehammers," wasn't it? Of course, she was talking about LACs at the time, not battlecruisers, but still . . . .

            She gazed at the other woman for several seconds while her mind raced down the same logic trees Horn must already have worked through. Lieutenant Commander William Tigh was Ajax's chief engineer, and she knew he and his damage control crews had been prying, battering, and cutting their way through the wreckage aft of midships in their frantic search for the damage which had taken the after alpha nodes off-line. She couldn't say she was particularly surprised by what Horn had just told her, but that didn't make the news one bit more welcome.

            Nor could she misunderstand what Horn was thinking now. They couldn't afford to let the technology aboard Ajax fall into Havenite hands. Haven had captured more than enough examples of Manticoran weapons and electronics tech at the outbreak of the war, but the systems aboard Ajax and her sisters now were substantially more advanced than anything they might have captured then, and the Alliance had already suffered graphic evidence of just how quickly Haven had managed to put anything they'd captured to good use. The Navy had built in the very best safeguards it could to make sure that as little as possible of that tech would be recoverable if a ship was lost, and virtually all of her molycircs could be wiped with the entry of the proper command codes, but no possible system was perfect. And if Tigh couldn't get the after ring back on-line, there was only one way to prevent Ajax and everything aboard her from falling into Havenite hands.

            "What about the after boat bay?" Michelle asked after several moments.

            "The Bosun's still working at clearing away the wreckage, Ma'am. At the moment, it looks like it's a horse race — at best."

            Michelle nodded in understanding. Master Chief Alice MaGuire was Ajax's Boatswain, her senior noncommissioned officer. At the moment, MaGuire and her own repair teams were laboring with frantic discipline to get at least one of the battlecruiser's boat bay's operational again. Unless they could manage to do that, there was no way anyone without an operational life pod was getting off of the ship.

            Technically, the decision was now Horn's, not Michelle's. The commander was Ajax's captain; what happened to her ship and her crew was her responsibility, not that of the admiral who simply happened to be aboard at the moment. Nor did Michelle think for a moment that Horn was trying to get her to take the weight of decision off of the other woman's shoulders. Which wasn't quite the same thing as saying she wouldn't be grateful for any advice Michelle might be able to contribute.

            "Assuming you get the pods off, will you still have enough personnel to fight the ship?" she asked quietly.

            "I'm afraid the answer to that question is yes, Ma'am," Horn said bitterly. "We'll lose most of our on-mount backup crews for the energy weapons and point defense clusters, but none of our remaining mounts are in local control at the moment, anyway. And, of course, our rails won't be affected at all. Within those limits, we'll still have more people than we need to fight her."

            Michelle nodded again. The on-mount crews were there primarily to take over the weapons should they be cut off from the centralized control of the tactical officer on the ship's command deck. The probability that they'd be able to do any good — especially against the threat which had been rumbling steadily towards Ajax  at almost twice the lamed battlecruiser's current maximum acceleration ever since Bogey Two abandoned its pursuit of the rest of the task force — was minute. The ship's primary armament, her missile pods, on the other hand, were buried deep at her core. The men and women responsible for overseeing them were much too far inside the core hull for any possible life pod to carry them to safety.

            What it really came down to, Michelle thought sadly, was the fact that it was now too late to save the ship even if Tigh somehow managed to get the after ring back. They'd lost too much lead on Bogey Two. In less than twenty minutes, those six modern superdreadnoughts were going to enter their own MDM range from Ajax. When they did that, the ship was going to die, one way or the other. The only way to prevent that would have been to surrender her to the enemy, which would just happen to hand all of that invaluable technological data and examples of modern systems over to Haven.

            I wonder if Horn's cold-blooded enough to give the scuttle order? Could she really order the ship blown up knowing over half her crew would go with her?

            The fact that no court of inquiry or court-martial convened in Manticore would ever condemn her for honorably surrendering her vessel made the commander's dilemma even more hellish. For that matter, if she didn't surrender — if she went ahead and destroyed her own ship, with so many of her people still aboard — her name would undoubtedly be vilified by any number of people who hadn't been there, hadn't had to face the same decision or make the same call.

            But she's not going to have to do that, Michelle thought almost calmly. If she tries to fight that much firepower, the Peeps will take care of it for her.

            "If your ship will still be combat capable, Captain," she said formally to Horn, "then by all means, I concur. Given the tactical situation, evacuating everyone you can by pod is clearly the right decision."

            "Thank you, Ma'am," Horn said softly. The decision had been hers, but her gratitude for Michelle's concurrence was both obvious and deep. Then she drew a deep breath. "If you and your staff will evacuate Flag Bridge now, Ma'am, there'll be time –"

            "No, Captain," Michelle interrupted quietly. Horn looked at her, and she shook her head. "Those pods will be used by the personnel assigned to them or closest to them at the moment the evacuation order is given," Michelle continued steadily.

            For a moment, she thought Horn was going to argue. For that matter, Horn had the authority to order Michelle and her staff off the ship, and to use force to accomplish that end, if necessary. But as she looked into the commander's eyes, she saw that Horn understood. If Michelle Henke's flagship was going to die with people trapped aboard it, then she was going to be one of those people. It made absolutely no sense from any logical perspective, but that didn't matter.

            "Yes, Ma'am," Horn said, and produced something almost like a smile. "Now, if you'll excuse me, Admiral, I have some orders to issue," she said.

            "By all means, Captain. Clear."