Book: At All Costs

At All Costs

At All Costs


Honor Harrington, Book Eleven

David Weber

David Weber, 2005

David and the Phoenix by Edward Ormondroyd, 1957

Cover art by David Mattingly

Interior map by Randy Asplund



For Richard Andrew Earnshaw,


After forty years of shared laughter, love, and tears, it's hard to let go. But it's time. So, fly, Richard. Wherever you are, wherever God takes you, fly high. I love you.

At All Costs

The big Aviary-class CLACs and their escorting battlecruisers crossed the Alpha wall into normal-space just outside the hyper limit. There were only two of the superdreadnought-sized vessels, but their LAC bays spat out almost six hundred light attack craft, and if the Republic of Haven's Cimeterre-class LACs were shorter-legged, more lightly armed, and nowhere near so capable as the Star Kingdom of Manticore's Shrikes and Ferrets, they were more than adequate for their current assignment.

They accelerated in-system, building vectors towards the industrial infrastructure of the Alizon System, and discovered an unanticipated bit of good fortune. A pair of lumbering freighters, both squawking Manticoran IDs and bumbling along on the same general flight plan, found themselves squarely in the path of the incoming storm and already within extreme missile range. They accelerated desperately, but the LACs had an overtake velocity of over a thousand KPS at the moment they were first detected, and the freighters' maximum acceleration rate was little more than two hundred gravities. The Cimeterres were capable of very nearly seven hundred, and they were armed . . . which the merchantmen weren't.

"Manticoran freighters, this is Captain Javits of the Republican Navy," a harsh, Haven-accented voice said over the civilian guard frequency. "You are instructed to kill your impellers and abandon ship immediately. Under the terms of applicable interstellar law, I formally inform you that we do not have the capacity to board and search your vessels or to take them as prizes. Therefore, I will open fire upon them and destroy them in twenty standard minutes from . . . now. Get your people off immediately.

Javits, clear."

One of the two freighters killed her impellers immediately. The other skipper was more stubborn. He continued to accelerate, as if he thought he might somehow still save his ship, but he wasn't an idiot, either.

It took him all of five minutes to realize—or, at least, to accept— that he had no chance, and his impellers, too, went abruptly cold.

Shuttles spilled from the two merchant ships, scuttling away from them at their maximum acceleration as if they expected the Havenite LACs to open fire upon them. But the Republic hewed scrupulously to the requirements of interstellar law. Its warships meticulously waited out the time limit Javits had stipulated, then, precisely on the tick, launched a single pair of missiles at each drifting freighter.

The old-fashioned nuclear warheads did the job just fine.

The Cimeterres sped onward, ignoring the dissipating balls of plasma which had once been somewhere in the vicinity of fourteen million tons of merchant shipping.

Their destruction, after all, was a mere sideshow. Ahead of the Havenite units, a half-dozen destroyers and a division of RMN Star Knight-class CAs accelerated to meet them. The range was still too long for the Cimeterres to actually see the defenders, but the remote reconnaissance platforms spreading out ahead of the LACs were another matter, and Captain Bertrand Javits grimaced as he took note of the drones' relayed report of the defenders'

acceleration rates.

"They're not killing themselves to come out and meet us, are they, Skip?" Lieutenant Constanza Sheffield, his executive officer observed.

"No, they aren't," Javits said, and gestured at the cramped, utilitarian LAC's bare-bones plot. "Which probably means Intelligence is right about what they've got covering the inner system," he told her.

"In that case, this is gonna hurt," she said.

"Yes, it is. If not quite as much as they hope it will,"

Javits agreed. Then he punched a new combination into his com panel. "All Wolverines, this is Wolverine One. From their acceleration rate, it looks like they've got to be towing pods. And from the fact that there's so few of them, I have to assume Intelligence is right about their defensive stance. So instead of walking obligingly into the inner system, we're shifting to Sierra Three. We'll change course at Point Victor-Able on my command in another forty-five minutes. Review your Sierra Three targeting queues and stand by for a defensive missile engagement.

Wolverine One, clear."

The range continued to fall, and the recon platforms began to report widespread active sensor emissions. Some were probably search systems, but the primary search platforms for any star system were passive, not active. So the odds were high that most of those active emitters were tied into fire control systems of one sort or another.

Javits watched his own platforms' telemetry as it streamed across his plot's sidebars. The far more capable computer support aboard the CLACs and battlecruisers which had launched the platforms could undoubtedly do more with the data they were acquiring, and he knew how the tech teams back at Bolthole would salivate when they got a look at it. All that was rather secondary to his own calculations, however, since those calculations were mostly concerned with how to keep as many as possible of his people alive through the next few hours.

"Looks like we've got four main nets of platforms on this side of the primary, Skipper," his XO said finally. "Two of them spread to cover the ecliptic, and one high and one low. Gives them pretty fair coverage of the entire sphere of the limit, but they're obviously concentrating on the ecliptic."

"The question, of course, Constanza," he replied dryly,

"is how many pods each of those 'clusters' of yours represent."

"Well, that and how many pods they want us to think they have, Sir," Lieutenant Joseph Cook, Javits' tactical officer pointed out.

"That, too," Javits conceded. "Under the circumstances, though, I'm prepared to be fairly pessimistic on that particular point, Joe. And they've clearly gone ahead and deployed the sensor platforms to control the pods.

Those're probably at least as expensive as the pods themselves would be, so I'd say there's a good chance they wouldn't have deployed them if they hadn't also deployed the pods for them to control."

"Yes, Sir."

Lieutenant Cook's expression and manner couldn't have been more respectful, but Javits knew what he was thinking. Given the totality of the surprise Operation Thunderbolt had achieved, and the equally total incompetence of the previous Manticoran government, it was entirely possible—even likely—that Alizon's defenses had not been significantly upgraded in the immediate run up to the resumption of hostilities. In which case the defenders might, indeed, be attempting to bluff Javits into believing they had more to work with than they really did.

On the other hand, there'd been time since Thunderbolt for the Manties to ship a couple of freighter loads of their multi-drive missile pods out here. And however incompetent Prime Minister High Ridge might have been, the new Alexander Government knew its ass from a hole in the ground. If those additional missiles hadn't been shipped out and deployed, the recon platforms would have been reporting a far heavier system picket than they were actually seeing.

"We're coming up on course change, Skipper," Sheffield told him several minutes later, and he nodded.

"Range to the nearest active sensor platforms?" he asked.

"Closest approach, twelve seconds after we alter course, will be about sixty-four million kilometers," she replied.

"A million inside their maximum effective range from rest," Javits observed, and grimaced. "I wish there was another way to find out if Intelligence knows what it's talking about."

"You and me both, Skip," Sheffield agreed, but she also shrugged. "At least we're the ones calling the tune for the dance this time."

Javits nodded and watched the icon representing his massive flight of LACs sweeping closer and closer to the blinking green crosshair which represented Point Victor-Able. By this time, the Cimeterres had traveled almost thirty-three million kilometers and were up to a velocity of over twenty thousand kilometers per second. The Manty picket ships were still accelerating to meet them, but it was obvious that they had no intention of entering standard missile range of that many LACs. Well, Javits wouldn't have either, if he'd been towing pods stuffed full of multi-drive missiles with a standoff range of over three light-minutes. However good Manticoran combat systems might have been, six hundred-plus LACs would have swarmed over that handful of ships like hungry pseudo-piranha if they could get into range of their own weapons.

If there'd been heavy defending units in-system, things might have been different, but in that case, Javits would never have come close enough for them to get a shot at him in the first place.

"Victor-Able, Sir," his astrogator reported suddenly.

"Very well. Order the course change, Constanza."

"Aye, Sir," Sheffield said in far more formal tones, and he heard the order go out.

The green beads representing friendly units on his display shifted course abruptly, arcing back out and away from the inner system on a course which would take them right through one of the more heavily developed and mined portions of the Alizon System's asteroid belt. For several seconds, nothing else changed on the display. And then, like a cascading eruption of scarlet curses, dozens—

scores—of previously deployed MDM pods began to fire all along the outer edge of the inner system.

The range was incredibly long, even for Manticoran fire control, and one thing Thunderbolt had taught the Republican Navy was that as good as Manty technology was, it wasn't perfect. Hits at such extreme range, even against all-up, hyper-capable starships would have been hard come by. Against such small, elusive targets as LACs, they would be even harder to achieve.

But of course, Javits thought, hyper-capable units could take a lot more damage than we can. Anybody they do hit, is going to get reamed.

The missiles streaked outward at well over forty thousand gravities. Even at that stupendous rate of acceleration, it would take them the next best thing to nine minutes to reach his ships, and his missile defense crews began to track the incoming threat. It was hard—

Manty ECM had always been hellishly good, and it had gotten even better since the last war—but Admiral Foraker's teams at Bolthole had compensated for that as much as they could. The Cimeterres' point defense and EW

weren't in the same league as Manty LACs' systems, but they were much better than any previous Havenite LAC

had ever possessed, and the extreme range worked in their favor.

At least three-quarters of the total Manticoran launch simply lost lock and wandered off course. The recon platforms reported the sudden spiteful flashes as the lost missiles detonated early, before they could become a threat to navigation here in the system. But the rest of the pursuing missiles continued to charge after his units.

"Approximately nine hundred still inbound," Lieutenant Cook announced in a voice which struck Javits as entirely too calm. "Allocating outer zone counter-missiles."

He paused for perhaps a pair of heart beats, then said one more word.


The command Cimeterre quivered as the first counter-missiles blasted away from her. They were woefully outclassed by the missiles racing to kill her, but there were almost two-thirds as many LACs as there were attack missiles, and each LAC was firing dozens of counter-missiles.

Not all of them simultaneously. Admiral Foraker's staff, and especially Captain Clapp, her resident LAC tactical genius, had worked long and hard to develop improved missile defense doctrine for the Cimeterres, especially because of their small size and the technological imbalance between their capabilities and those of their opponents. They'd come up with a variant on the "layered defense" Admiral Foraker had devised for the wall of battle, a doctrine which relied less on sophistication than on sheer numbers and recognized that counter-missiles were far less expensive than LACs full of trained Navy personnel.

Now Javits watched the first waves of counter-missiles sweeping towards the incoming Manticoran fire. EW

platforms seeded throughout the MDMs came on-line, using huge bursts of jamming in efforts to blind the counter-missiles' seekers. Other platforms produced entire shoals of false images, saturating the LACs' tracking systems with threats. But that had been accepted when the missile defense doctrine was evolved, and in some ways, the very inferiority of Havenite technology worked for Javits at this moment. His counter-missiles' onboard seekers were almost too simpleminded to be properly confused. They could "see" only the very strongest of targeting sources at the best of times, and they had been launched in such huge numbers that they could afford to waste much of their effort killing harmless decoys.

A second, almost equally heavy wave of counter-missiles followed the first one. Again, a Manticoran fleet wouldn't have fired the salvos that closely together. They would have waited, lest the second wave's impeller wedges interrupt their telemetry control links to the first wave's CMs. But Javits' crews knew that at this range, the relatively less capable onboard fire control systems of their LACs had nowhere near the reach and sensitivity of their Manticoran counterparts, anyway. Which didn't even consider the effectiveness of the Manty missiles'

penetration aids and EW. Since they could barely see the damned things in the first place, they were giving up far less in terms of enhanced accuracy than a Manticoran formation would have sacrificed, and the larger number of counter-missiles they were putting into space more than compensated for any target discrimination they lost.

The Cimeterres' own EW did what it could, as well. The first-wave counter-missiles took out over three hundred of the Manticoran missiles. The second wave killed another two hundred. Perhaps another hundred fell prey to the LACs' electronic warfare systems, lost lock, and went wandering harmlessly astray. Another fifty or sixty lost lock initially, but managed to reacquire their targets or to find new ones, yet their need to quest for fresh victims delayed them, kicked them slightly behind the rest of the stream to make them easier point defense targets.

The third and final wave of counter-missiles killed over a hundred more of the incoming missiles, but over two hundred, in what were now effectively two slightly staggered salvos, burst through the inner counter-missile zone and charged down upon Javits' LACs.

The agile little craft opened fire with every point defense laser cluster that would bear. Dozens of lasers stabbed at each incoming laser head, and as the attack missiles rolled in on their final approaches, the targeted Cimeterres rotated sharply, presenting only the bellies and roofs of their impenetrable impeller wedges to them. The targeted LACs' consorts continued to slam bolts of coherent light into the teeth of the Manticoran missiles. Over half of those missiles disappeared, torn apart by the defensive fire, but many of the others swerved at the last moment, either because they'd been executing deceptive attack runs to mask their true targets or else because they'd lost their initial targets and had to acquire new ones. Most of those got through; only a handful of the others did.

Vacuum blazed as the powerful Manticoran laser heads detonated in vicious, fusion-fueled chain-lightning, and immensely powerful X-ray lasers stabbed out of the explosions. Many of those lasers wasted their fury on the interposed wedges of their targets, but others ripped through the LACs' sidewalls as if they had not existed.

These were capital missiles of the Royal Manticoran Navy, designed to blast through the almost inconceivably tough sidewalls and armor of ships of the wall. What one of them did to a tiny, completely unarmored light attack craft was cataclysmic.

More explosions speckled space as Cimeterres' fusion bottles failed. Almost three dozen of Javits' LACs were destroyed outright. Another four survived long enough for their remaining crewpeople to abandon ship.

"Wolverine Red Three, Wolverine One," he said harshly into his microphone. "You've got lifeguard. Pick up everyone you can. One, clear."

"Aye, Wolverine One. Red Three copies. Decelerating now."

Javits watched the designated squadron decelerate slightly—just enough to match vectors with the skinsuited crewmen who could no longer accelerate—and his eyes were hard. Under other circumstances, delaying to pick those people up would have represented an unacceptable risk. But at this range, and with the range already opening to the very edge of even Manticoran missiles' reach, it was a chance well worth taking.

And not just because of the "asset" those people represent, he thought. We left too many people too many places under the People's Republic. Not again—not on my watch. Not if there's any option at all.

He watched the plot's sidebars silently update themselves, listing his losses. They hurt. Thirty-eight ships represented over six percent of his total strength, and he'd known most of the four hundred people who'd been aboard them personally. But in the unforgiving calculus of war, that loss rate was not merely acceptable, it was low.

Especially for LAC operations.

And we're outside their reach, now. We've confirmed what they're deploying for system defense, but they're not going to waste more missiles on us. Not at this range . . .

and not when they can't be certain what else may be waiting to pounce if they fire off all their birds.

"Sir," Lieutenant Cook said. "We're beginning to pick up active emissions ahead of us." Javits looked across at him, and the lieutenant looked up from his own display to meet his CO's eyes. "The computers assess them as primarily point defense radar and lidar, Sir. There don't seem to be very many of them."

"Good," Javits grunted. "All Wolverines, Wolverine One.

Stand by to launch on Sierra targets on my command."

He switched channels again, back to the civilian guard frequency.

"Alizon System Central, this is Captain Javits. I will be bringing your Tregarth Alpha facilities into my extreme missile range in twenty-seven minutes from . . . now. My vector will make it impossible for me to match velocity with the facilities or send across boarding parties, and I hereby inform you that I will open fire on them, and on any extraction vessels within my missile envelope, in twenty-nine minutes."

He looked down at his plot once more with a hard, fierce grin. Then keyed his mike once more.

"I advise you to begin evacuation procedures now," he said. "Javits, clear."

* * *

"So what's the best estimate of the results, Admiral?"

President Eloise Pritchart asked.

The beautiful, platinum-haired President had come across to the Octagon, the Republic of Haven's military nerve center, for this meeting, and aside from one bodyguard, she was the single civilian in the enormous conference room. All eyes were on the huge holo display above the conference table, where the reproduced imagery from Bertrand Javits' tactical plot hovered in midair.

"Our best estimate from the recon platforms' data is that Captain Javits' raid destroyed about eight percent—

probably a little less—of Alizon's total resource extraction capability, Madam President," Rear Admiral Victor Lewis, Director of Operational Research replied. Thanks to venerable traditions of uncertain origin, Naval Intelligence reported to Op Research, which, in turn, reported to Vice Admiral Linda Trenis' Bureau of Planning.

"And was that an acceptable return in light of our own losses?" the President asked.

"Yes," another voice said, and the President looked at the stocky, brown-haired admiral at the head of the table who'd spoken. Admiral Thomas Theisman, Secretary of War and Chief of Naval Operations, looked back at her steadily.

"We lost about a third of the people we'd have lost aboard a single old-style cruiser, Madam President," he continued, speaking very formally in the presence of their subordinates. "In return, we confirmed NavInt's estimate of the system-defense doctrine the Manties appear to be adopting and acquired additional information on their fire control systems and current pod deployment patterns; destroyed eight million tons of hyper-capable merchant shipping, better than five times the combined tonnage of all the LACs Javits lost; and put a small but significant dent into the productivity of Alizon. More to the point, we hit one of the Manticoran Alliance's member's home system for what everyone will recognize as negligible losses, and this isn't the first time Alizon's been hit. That has to have an effect on the entire Alliance's morale, and it's almost certain to increase the pressure on the White Haven Admiralty to detach additional picket forces to cover the Star Kingdom's allies against similar attacks."

"I see." The spectacularly beautiful, platinum-haired President's topaz-colored eyes didn't look especially happy, but they didn't flinch away from Theisman's logic, either.

She looked at him for a moment longer, then returned her attention to Rear Admiral Lewis.

"Please pardon the interruption, Admiral," she said.

"Continue, if you would."

"Of course, Madam President." The rear admiral cleared his throat and punched a new command sequence into his terminal. The holo display shifted, and Javits' plot disappeared, replaced by a series of bar graphs.

"If you'll look at the first red column, Madam President,"

he began, "you'll see our losses to date in ships of the wall.

The green column beside it represents SD(P)s currently undergoing trials or completing construction. The amber column . . ."

* * *

"Well, that was all extremely interesting, Tom," Eloise Pritchart said some hours later. "Unfortunately, I think we're into information overkill. In some ways, I think I know less about what's going on now than I did before I came over here!"

She made a face, and Theisman chuckled. He sat behind his desk, tipped back comfortably in his chair, and the Republic's President sat on the comfortable couch facing the desk. Her personal security detail was camped outside the door, giving her at least the illusion of privacy, her shoes lay on the carpet in front of her, and she had both bare feet tucked up under her while she nursed a steaming cup of coffee in slender hands. Theisman's own cup sat on his desk's blotter.

"You spent long enough as Javier's people's commissioner to have a better grasp of military realities than that, Eloise," he told her now.

"In a general sense, certainly." She shrugged. "On the other hand, I was never actually trained for the realities of the Navy, and there've been so many changes in such a short time that what I did know feels hopelessly out of date. I suppose what matters is that you're current. And confident."

Her tone was ever so slightly questioning on the last two words, and it was his turn to shrug.

"'Confident' is a slippery word. You know I was never happy about going back to war against the Manties." He raised one hand in a placating gesture. "I understand your logic, and I can't disagree with it. Besides, you're the President. But I have to admit that I never liked the idea.

And that Thunderbolt's success has exceeded my own expectations. So far, at least."

"Even after what happened—or didn't happen—at Trevor's Star?"

"Javier made the right decision on the basis of everything we knew," Theisman said firmly. "None of us fully appreciated just how tough Shannon's 'layered defense' was going to be against long-range Manticoran missile fire. If we'd been able to project probable losses during the approach phase as accurately then as we could now, then, yes, he should have gone ahead and pressed the attack. But he didn't know that at the time any more than the rest of us did."

"I see." Pritchart sipped coffee, and Theisman watched her with a carefully hidden smile. That was about as close as the President was ever going to allow herself to come to

"pulling strings" on Javier Giscard's behalf, lover or no lover.

"And Lewis' projections?" she continued after a moment.

"Do you feel confident about them, too?"

"As far as the numbers from our own side go, absolutely,"

he said. "Manpower's going to be a problem for about the next seven months. After that, the training programs Linda and Shannon have in place should be producing most of the personnel we need. And a few months after that, we'll begin steadily mothballing the old-style wallers to crew the new construction as it comes out of the yards. We're still going to be stretched to come up with the officers we need—especially flag officers with experience—but we were able to build up a solid base between the Saint-Just cease-fire and Thunderbolt. I think we'll be all right on that side, too.

"As far as the industrial side goes, I realize the economic strain of our present building plans is going to be heavy.

Rachel Hanriot's made that clear enough on behalf of Treasury, but I didn't need her to tell me, and I deeply regret having to impose it. Especially given the high price we've all paid to start turning the economy around. But we don't have a lot of choice, unless we end up successfully negotiating a peace settlement."

He raised his eyebrows questioningly, and she gave her head a quick, irritable shake.

"I don't know where we are on that," she admitted, manifestly unhappily. "I'd have thought even Elizabeth Winton would be willing to sit down and talk after you, Javier, and the rest of the Navy finished kicking her navy's ass so thoroughly! So far, though, nothing. I'm becoming more and more convinced that Arnold's been right about the Manties' new taste for imperialism from the very beginning . . . damn him."

Theisman started to say something, then stopped. This wasn't the time to suggest that the Queen of Manticore might have very good reasons to not see things exactly as Eloise Pritchart did. Or to reiterate his own deep distrust and suspicion of anything emerging from the mouth of Secretary of State Arnold Giancola.

"Well," he said instead, "in the absence of a negotiated settlement, we don't really have any choice but to press for an outright military victory."

"And you genuinely believe we can achieve that?"

Theisman snorted in harsh amusement at her tone.

"I wish you wouldn't sound quite so . . . dubious," he said. "You're the commander-in-chief, after all. Does terrible things for the uniformed personnel's morale when you sound like you can't quite believe we can win."

"After what they did to us in the last war, and especially Buttercup, it's hard not to feel a little doubtful, Tom," she said a bit apologetically.

"I suppose it is," he conceded. "But in this case, yes, I do believe we can defeat the Star Kingdom and its allies if we have to. I really need to take you out to Bolthole to actually see what we're doing there, and discuss everything Shannon Foraker is up to. The short version, though, is that we hurt the Manties badly in Thunderbolt. Not just in the ships we destroyed, but in the unfinished construction Admiral Griffith took out at Grendelsbane. We gutted their entire second-generation podnought building program, Eloise. They're basically having to lay down new vessels from scratch, and while their building rates are still faster than ours are, even at Bolthole, they aren't fast enough to offset the jump we've gotten in ships already under construction and nearing completion. Our technology still isn't as good as theirs is, but the tech information Erewhon handed over, and the sensor data we recorded during Thunderbolt—plus the captured hardware we've been able to take apart and examine—is helping a lot in that regard, as well."

"Erewhon." Pritchart shook her head with a sigh, her expression unhappy. "I really regret the position we put Erewhon in with Thunderbolt."

"Frankly, I don't think the Erewhonese are exactly ecstatic over it, themselves," Theisman said dryly. "And I know they didn't anticipate that they were going to hand over their tech manuals on Alliance hardware just in time for us to go back to war. On the other hand, they know why we did it," why you did it, actually, Eloise, he carefully did not say aloud, "and they wouldn't have broken with Manticore in the first place if they hadn't had some pretty serious reservations of their own about the Manties'

new foreign policy. And since the shooting started, we've been scrupulous about respecting the limitations built into the terms of our treaty relationship."

Pritchart nodded. The Republic's treaty with the Republic of Erewhon was one of mutual defense, and her administration had very carefully informed Erewhon—and the Manticorans—that since Haven had elected to resume open hostilities without being physically attacked by Manticore, she had no intention of attempting to invoke the military terms of the treaty.

"In any case," Theisman continued, "they at least gave us a look inside the Manties' military hardware. What they had was dated, and I could wish it were more current, but it's been extraordinarily useful to Shannon, anyway.

"The upshot is that Shannon's already working out new doctrine and some new pieces of hardware, especially in the LAC programs and out system-defense control systems, based on the combination of our information from Erewhon, examination of captured and wrecked Manticoran hardware, and analysis of operations to date.

At the beginning of Thunderbolt, we'd estimated that one of our pod superdreadnoughts probably had about forty percent as much combat power as a Manticoran or Grayson SD(P). That estimate looks like it was fairly accurate at the time, but I believe we're steadily moving the ratio in our favor."

"But the Manties have as much operational data as we do, don't they? Aren't they going to be improving their capabilities right along with ours?"

"Yes and no. Actually, except for what happened to Lester at Marsh, they didn't retain possession of a single star system where we engaged them, and none of Lester's modern hyper-capable types were taken intact. We, on the other hand, effectively destroyed virtually every one of their pickets we hit, so those pickets didn't have much opportunity to pass on any observations they might have made.

"In addition, we captured examples of a lot of their hardware. Their security protocols worked damned effectively on most of their classified mollycircs, and quite a bit of what we did get we can't really use yet. Shannon says it's a case of basic differences in the capabilities of our infrastructure. For all intents and purposes, we've got to build the tools, to build the tools, to build the tools we need to reproduce a lot of Manticore's cutting edge technology. But we've still picked up a lot, and, frankly, our starting point was so far behind theirs that our relative capabilities are climbing more rapidly than theirs are.

"As I say, we'd estimated pre-Thunderbolt that each of their modern wallers was about two and a half times as combat-effective as one of ours. On the basis of changes we've already made in doctrine and tactics, and allowing for how much more capable our missile defenses turned out to be, we've upped that estimate to set one of their SD(P)s as equal to about two of our podnoughts. On the basis of the current rate of change in our basic capabilities, within another eight months or a year, the ratio should drop from its original two-point-five-to-one to about one-and-a-half-to-one, or even one-point-three-to-one. Given the difference in the numbers of ships of the wall we can anticipate commissioning over the next T-year and a half or so, and especially bearing in mind how much more strategic depth we have, that equates to a solid military superiority on our part."

"But the Legislaturalists had a solid military superiority when they started this entire cycle of war," Pritchart pointed out. "And, like the one you're talking about, it depended on 'strategic depth' and offsetting the Manties'

tech edge with numbers."

"Granted." Theisman acknowledged. "And I'll also grant you that the Manties aren't going to be letting any grass grow under them. They know as well as we do that their big equalizer has always been their superior technology, so they're going to be doing whatever they can do increase their tech edge. And as someone who had far more experience than I ever wanted working with the bits and pieces of assistance we were able to get from the Solarian League back in the bad old days under Pierre and Saint-Just, I sometimes suspect that even the Manties don't realize just how good their hardware really is. It's certainly better than anything the Sollies actually have deployed. Or had deployed as of two or three T-years ago, at least. And if NavInt's right, they haven't done a thing to change that situation since.

"But the bottom line, Eloise, is that they simply can't match or overcome our building edge over the next two T-years or so. Even then, the sheer numbers of hulls we can lay down and man—assuming the economy holds—should be great enough to allow us to more than maintain parity in newly commissioned units. But for those two years, at a bare minimum, they simply won't have the platforms to mount whatever new weapons or defenses they introduce.

And one thing both we and the Manties learned the last time around is that strategic hesitation is deadly."

"What do you mean?"

"Eloise, no one else in the history of the galaxy has ever fought a war on the scale on which we and the Manties are operating. The Solarian League never had to; it was simply so big no one could fight it, and everyone knew it. But we and the Manties have hammered away at each other with navies with literally hundreds of ships of the wall for most of the last twenty T-years now. And the one thing the Manties made perfectly clear in the last war is that wars like this can be fought to a successful military conclusion.

They couldn't do it until they managed to assemble their Eighth Fleet for 'Operation Buttercup,' but once they did, they drove us to the brink of military collapse in just a few months. So, if they won't negotiate, and if we have a time window of, say, two T-years in which we enjoy a potentially decisive advantage, then this is no time to be dancing around the edges."

He looked her straight in the eye, and his voice was deep and hard.

"If we can't achieve our war objectives and an acceptable peace before our advantage in combat power erodes out from under us, then it's time for us to use that advantage while we still have it and force them to admit defeat. Even if that requires us to dictate peace terms in Mount Royal Palace on Manticore itself."

Chapter One

The nursery was extraordinarily full.

Two of the three older girls—Rachel and Jeanette—were downstairs, hovering on the brink of adulthood, and Theresa was at boarding school on Manticore, but the remaining five Mayhew children, their nannies, and their personal armsmen made a respectable mob. Then there was Faith Katherine Honor Stephanie Miranda Harrington, Miss Harrington, heir to Harrington Steading, and her younger twin brother, James Andrew Benjamin, and their personal armsmen. And lest that not be enough bodies to crowd even a nursery this large, there was her own modest person—Admiral Lady Dame Honor Harrington, Steadholder and Duchess Harrington, and her personal armsman. Not to mention one obviously amused treecat.

Given the presence of seven children, the oldest barely twelve, four nannies, nine armsmen (Honor herself had gotten off with only Andrew LaFollet, but Faith was accompanied by two of her three personal armsmen), and one Steadholder, the decibel level was actually remarkably low, she reflected. Of course, all things were relative.

"Now, that is enough!" Gena Smith, the senior member of Protector's Palace's child-care staff, said firmly in the no-nonsense voice which had thwarted—more or less—the determination of the elder Mayhew daughters to grow up as cheerful barbarians. "What is Lady Harrington going to think of you?"

"It's too late to try to fool her about that now, Gigi,"

Honor Mayhew, one of Honor's godchildren, said cheerfully.

"She's known all of us since we were born!"

"But you can at least pretend you've been exposed to the rudiments of proper behavior," Gena said firmly, although the glare she bestowed upon her unrepentant charge was somewhat undermined by the twinkle which went with it.

At twelve, the girl had her own bedroom, but she'd offered to spend the night with the littles under the circumstances, which was typical of her.

"Oh, she knows that," the younger Honor said soothingly now. "I'm sure she knows we're not your fault."

"Which is probably the best I can hope for," Gena said with a sigh.

"I'm not exactly unaware of the . . . challenge you face with this lot," Honor assured her. "These two, particularly,"

she added, giving her much younger twin siblings a very old-fashioned look. They only grinned back at her, at least as unrepentant as young Honor. "On the other hand," she continued, "I think between us we have them outnumbered. And they actually seem a bit less rowdy tonight."

"Well, of course—" Gena began, then stopped and shook her head. A flash of irritation showed briefly in the backs of her gray-blue eyes. "What I meant, My Lady, is that they're usually on their better behavior—they don't actually have a best behavior, you understand—when you're here."

Honor nodded in response to both the interrupted comment, and the one Gena had actually made. Her eyes met the younger woman's—at forty-eight T-years, Gena Smith was well into middle age for a pre-prolong Grayson woman, but that still made her over twelve T-years younger than Honor—for just a moment, and then the two of them returned their attention to the pajama-clad children.

Despite Gena's and Honor's comments, the three assistant nannies had sorted out their charges with the efficiency of long practice. Faith and James were out from under the eye of their own regular nanny, but they were remarkably obedient to the Palace's substitutes. No doubt because they were only too well aware that their armsmen would be reporting back to "Aunt Miranda," Honor thought dryly. Teeth had already been brushed, faces had already been washed, and all seven of them had been tucked into their beds while she and Gena were talking. Somehow they made it all seem much easier than Honor's own childhood memories of the handful she'd been.

"All right," she said to the room at large. "Who votes for what?"

"The Phoenix!" six-year-old Faith said immediately. "The Phoenix!"

"Yeah! I mean, yes, please!" seven-year-old Alexandra Mayhew seconded.

"But you've already heard that one," Honor pointed out.

"Some of you," she glanced at her namesake, "more often than others."

The twelve-year-old Honor smiled. She really was an extraordinarily beautiful child, and for that matter, it probably wasn't fair to be thinking of her as a "child" these days, really, Honor reminded herself.

"I don't mind, Aunt Honor," she said. "You know you got me stuck on it early. Besides, Lawrence and Arabella haven't heard it yet."

She nodded at her two youngest siblings. At four and three, respectively, their graduation to the "big kids"

section of the nursery was still relatively recent.

"I'd like to hear it again, too, Aunt Honor. Please,"

Bernard Raoul said quietly. He was a serious little boy, not surprisingly, perhaps, since he was also Heir Apparent to the Protectorship of the entire planet of Grayson, but his smile, when it appeared, could have lit up an auditorium.

Now she saw just a flash of it as she looked down at him.

"Well, the vote seems fairly solid," she said after a moment. "Mistress Smith?"

"I suppose they've behaved themselves fairly well, all things considered. This time, at least," Gena said as she bestowed an ominous glower upon her charges, most of whom giggled.

"In that case," Honor said, and crossed to the old-fashioned bookcase between the two window seats on the nursery's eastern wall. Nimitz shifted his weight for balance on her shoulder as she leaned forward slightly, running a fingertip across the spines of the archaic books to the one she wanted, and took it from the shelf. That book was at least twice her own age, a gift from her to the Mayhew children, as the copy of it on her own shelf at home had been a gift from her Uncle Jacques when she was a child. Of course, the story itself was far older even than that. She had two electronic copies of it as well—

including one with the original Raysor illustrations—but there was something especially right about having it in printed form, and somehow it just kept turning up periodically in the small, specialty press houses that catered to people like her uncle and his SCA friends.

She crossed to the reclining armchair, as old-fashioned and anachronistic as the printed book in her hands itself, and Nimitz leapt lightly from her shoulder to the top of the padded chair back. He sank his claws into the upholstery, arranging himself comfortably, as Honor settled into the chair which had sat in the Mayhew nursery—reupholstered and even rebuilt at need—for almost seven hundred T-years.

The attentive eyes of the children watched her while she adjusted the chair to exactly the right angle, and she and the 'cat savored the bright, clean emotions washing out from them. No wonder treecats had always loved children, she thought. There was something so . . . marvelously whole about them. When they welcomed, they welcomed with all their hearts, and they loved as they trusted, without stint or limit. That was always a gift to be treasured.

Especially now.

She looked up as the veritable horde of armsmen withdrew. Colonel LaFollet, as the senior armsman present, watched with a faint twinkle of his own as the heavily armed, lethally trained bodyguards more or less tiptoed out of the nursery. He watched the nannies follow them, then held the door courteously for Gena and bowed her through it before he came briefly to attention, nodded to Honor, and stepped through it himself. She knew he would be standing outside it when she left, however long she stayed. It was his job, even here, at the very heart of Protector's Palace, where it seemed unlikely any desperate assassins lurked.

The door closed behind him, and she looked around at her audience in the big, suddenly much calmer and quieter room.

"Lawrence, Arabella," she said to the youngest Mayhews,

"you haven't heard this book before, but I think you're old enough to enjoy it. It's a very special book. It was written long, long ago, before anyone had ever left Old Earth itself."

Lawrence's eyes widened just a bit. He was a precocious child, and he loved tales about the history of humankind's ancient homeworld.

"It's called David and the Phoenix," she went on, "and it's always been one of my very favorite stories. And my mother loved it when she was a little girl, too. You'll have to listen carefully. It's in Standard English, but some of the words have changed since it was written. If you hear one you don't understand, stop and ask me what it means. All right?"

Both toddlers nodded solemnly, and she nodded back.

Then she opened the cover.

The smell of ancient ink and paper, so utterly out of place in the modern world, rose from the pages like some secret incense. She inhaled, drawing it deeply into her nostrils, remembering and treasuring memories of rainy Sphinx afternoons, cold Sphinx evenings, and the sense of utter security and peacefulness that was the monopoly of childhood.

" David and the Phoenix, by Edward Ormondroyd," she read. "Chapter One, In Which David Goes Mountain Climbing and a Mysterious Voice Is Overheard."

She glanced up, and her chocolate-dark, almond-shaped eyes smiled as the children settled more comfortably into their beds, watching her raptly.

"All the way there David had saved this moment for himself," she began, "struggling not to peek until the proper time came. When the car finally stopped, the rest of them got out stiffly and went into the new house. But David walked slowly into the back yard with his eyes fixed on the ground. For a whole minute he stood there, not daring to look up. Then he took a deep breath, clenched his hands tightly, and lifted his head.

"There it was!—as Dad had described it, but infinitely more grand. It swept upward from the valley floor, beautifully shaped and soaring, so tall that its misty blue peak could surely talk face-to-face with the stars. To David, who had never seen a mountain before, the sight was almost too much to bear. He felt so tight and shivery inside that he didn't know whether he wanted to laugh, or cry, or both. And the really wonderful thing about the Mountain was the way it looked at him. He was certain that it was smiling at him, like an old friend who had been waiting for years to see him again. And when he closed his eyes, he seemed to hear a voice which whispered, 'Come along, then, and climb.'"

She glanced up again, feeling the children folding themselves more closely about her as the ancient words rolled over them. She felt Nimitz, as well, sharing her own memories of her mother's voice reading the same story to her and memories of other mountains, even grander than the ancient David's, and rambles through them—memories he'd been there for—and savoring the new ones.

"It would be so easy to go!" she continued. "The back yard was hedged in (with part of the hedge growing right across the toes of the Mountain), but . . . "

* * *

"I imagine it's too much to hope they were all asleep?"

"You imagine correctly," Honor said dryly, stepping through the massive, inlaid doors of polished oak into the palatial chamber which the Palace guides modestly referred to as "the Library." "Not that you really expected them to be, now did you?"

"Of course not, but we neobarbarian planetary despots get used to demanding the impossible. And when we don't get it, we behead the unfortunate soul who disappointed us."

Benjamin IX, Planetary Protector of Grayson, grinned at her, standing with his back to the log fire crackling on the hearth behind him, and she shook her head.

"I knew that eventually all this absolute power would go to your head," she told him in a display of lese majeste which would have horrified a third of the planet's steadholders and infuriated another third.

"Oh, between us, Elaine and I keep him trimmed down to size, Honor," Katherine Mayhew, Benjamin's senior wife said.

"Well, us and the kids," Elaine Mayhew, Benjamin's junior wife corrected. "I understand," she continued with a cheerful smile, "that young children help keep parents younger."

"That which does not kill us makes us younger?" Benjamin misquoted.

"Something like that," Elaine replied. At thirty-seven T-years, she was almost twelve years younger than her husband and almost six years younger than her senior wife.

Of course, she was almost a quarter T-century younger than Honor . . . who was one of the youngest-looking people in the room. Only the third and most junior of her personal armsmen, Spencer Hawke, and the towering young lieutenant commander in Grayson Navy uniform, looked younger than she did. Prolong did that for a person.

Her mouth tightened as the thought reminded her why they were all here, and Nimitz pressed his cheek against the side of her face with a soft, comforting croon.

Benjamin's eyes narrowed, and she tasted his spike of recognition. Well, he'd always been an extraordinarily sharp fellow, and spending eight T-years as the father of a daughter who'd been adopted by a treecat had undoubtedly sensitized him.

She gave him another smile, then crossed to the young man in the naval uniform. He was a veritable giant for a Grayson—indeed, he was actually taller than Honor was—

and although she was in civilian attire, he came to attention and bowed respectfully. She ignored the bow and enfolded him in a firm embrace. He stiffened for an instant—in surprise, not resistance—and then hugged her back, a bit awkwardly.

"Is there any new word, Carson?" she asked quietly, stepping back a half-pace and letting her hands slide down to rest on his forearms.

"No, My Lady," he said sadly. "Your Lady Mother is at the hospital right now." He smiled faintly. "I told her it wasn't necessary. It's not as if this falls into her area of specialization, and we all know there's really nothing to be done now except to wait. But she insisted."

"Howard's her friend, too," Honor said. She glanced at Andrew LaFollet. "Is Daddy with her, Andrew?"

"Yes, My Lady. Since Faith and James are safely tucked away here in the nursery, I sent Jeremiah to keep an eye on them." Honor cocked her head, and he shrugged slightly. "He wanted to go, My Lady."

"I see." She looked back at Carson Clinkscales and gave his forearms another little squeeze, then released them.

"She knows there's nothing she can really do, Carson," she said. "But she'd never forgive herself if she weren't there for your aunts. By rights, I ought to be there, too."

"Honor," Benjamin said gently, "Howard is ninety-two years old, and he's touched a lot of lives in that much time

—including mine. If everyone who 'ought to be there' really were there, there'd be no room for the patients. And he's been in the coma for almost three days now. If you were there, and if he knew you were there, he'd read you the riot act for neglecting everything else you ought to be doing."

"I know," she sighed. "I know. It's just—"

She stopped and shook her head with a slight grimace, and he nodded understandingly. But he didn't really understand, not completely, she thought. Despite the changes which had come to Grayson, his own thought processes and attitudes had been evolved in a pre-prolong society. To him, Howard Clinkscales was old; for Honor, Howard should have been less than middle-aged. Her own mother, who looked considerably younger than Katherine Mayhew, or even Elaine, and who'd carried Faith and James to term naturally, was twelve T-years years older than Howard. And if he was the first of her Grayson friends she was losing to old age so preposterously young, he wouldn't be the last. Gregory Paxton's health was failing steadily, as well. And even Benjamin and his wives showed the signs of premature aging she'd come to dread.

Her mind flashed back to the nursery and the book she'd been reading, with its tale of the immortal, ever-renewed Phoenix, and the memory was more bittersweet than usual as she saw the silver lightly threading the Protector's still-thick, dark hair.

"Your offspring and my beloved siblings did quite well, actually," she said, deliberately seeking a change of subject. "I'm always a bit surprised by how they settle down for reading. Especially with all the other more interactive avenues of amusement they have."

"It's not the same, Aunt Honor," one of the two young women sitting at the big refectory-style table to one side of the cavernous fireplace said. Honor looked at her, and the dark-haired young woman, who looked remarkably like a taller, more muscular version of Katherine Mayhew, reached up to rub the ears of the treecat stretched across the back of her chair.

"What do you mean, not the same, Rachel?" Honor asked.

"Listening to you read," Benjamin's oldest daughter replied. "I guess it's mostly because you're involved—we don't get to see enough of you here on Grayson—and you're, well, sort of larger than life for all the kids." No one else would have noticed the way the young woman colored very slightly, but Honor hid a smile as she tasted Rachel's own spike of adolescent admiration and embarrassment. "I know when Jeanette and I—" she nodded sideways at the slightly younger woman sitting beside her

"—were younger, we always looked forward to seeing you.

And Nimitz, of course."

The treecat on Honor's shoulder elevated his nose and flirted his tail in satisfaction at Rachel's acknowledgment of his own importance in the social hierarchy, and several people chuckled. Rachel's companion, Hipper, only heaved a sigh of long-suffering patience and closed his eyes wearily.

"She may be right, Honor," Elaine said. "Young Honor certainly volunteered suspiciously quickly to 'help keep an eye on the littles' this evening."

"Besides, Aunt Honor," Jeanette said in a softer voice (she was considerably shyer than her older sister), "you really do read awfully well." Honor raised an eyebrow, and Jeanette blushed far more obviously than Rachel had. But she also continued with stubborn diffidence. "I know I always really enjoyed listening to you. The characters all even sounded different from each other. Besides, there's more challenge in a book. No body just gives you the way the people and places look; you have to imagine them for yourselves, and you make that fun."

"Well, I'm glad you think so," Honor said after a moment, and Katherine snorted.

"She's not the only one who thinks so," she said, when Honor looked at her. "Most of the nannies have told me what a wonderful mother you'd make, if you weren't so busy off blowing up starships and planets and things."

"Me?" Honor blinked at her in surprise, and Katherine shook her head.

"You, Lady Harrington. In fact," she went on a bit more intently, "there's been some, um, discussion of your responsibility in that direction. Faith is a perfectly satisfactory heir for the moment, you understand, but no one in the Conclave of Steadholders really expects her to remain your heir."

"Cat," Benjamin said in an ever so slightly quelling tone.

"Oh, hush, Ben!" his wife replied tartly. "Everyone's been pussyfooting around the issue for a long time now, and you know it. Politically, it would be far better in almost every respect for Honor to produce an heir of her own."

"That's not going to be happening any time soon," Honor said firmly. "Not with everything I already have on my plate at the moment!"

"Time's slipping away, Honor," Katherine said with stubborn persistence. "And you're going back out into another war. Tester knows we'll all be praying for you to come back safely, but—"

She shrugged, and Honor was forced to concede her point. Still . . .

"As you say, Faith is a perfectly acceptable heir," she said. "And while I suppose I ought to be thinking in dynastic terms, it doesn't really come naturally to me."

"I hate to say it, Honor, but Cat may have a point from another perspective, as well," Benjamin said slowly. "Oh, there's no legal reason you need to produce an heir of your own body right this minute. Especially with, as you say, Faith acknowledged as your heir by everyone. But you're a prolong recipient. You say you're not used to thinking in dynastic terms, but what happens if you wait another twenty or thirty years and then have a child? Under Grayson law, that child would automatically supplant Faith, whatever special provisions the Conclave may have made in her favor when everyone thought you were dead.

So there's Faith . . . who's spent thirty or forty years thinking of herself as the Harrington Heir Apparent and suddenly finds her nose put out of joint by a brand new infant nephew or niece."

Honor looked at him, and he sighed.

"I know Faith is a wonderful child and she loves you dearly, Honor. But this is Grayson. We've seen a thousand years of those dynastic politics you don't think in terms of, and there have been some really ugly incidents. And the ugliest ones of all have usually happened because the people they happened to were so sure they couldn't arise in their families. Besides, even if no overt problem crops up, would it really be fair to Faith to yank the succession out from under her like that? Unless you produce a child fairly soon, she's got to grow up thinking of herself as Miss Harrington, with all the trappings and importance of the job. You didn't do that, but she's in a totally different position, and it's going to be fairly central to her self-image, you know."

"Maybe so, but—"

"No buts, Honor. Not on this one," Benjamin said gently.

"It will be. It has to be. I know it was a lot harder for Michael than he ever let on, and he never wanted the Protector's job in the first place. But he was in exactly the same position Faith is, and when Bernard Raoul came along and pushed him out of the succession, he was almost . . .

lost for a while. He needed to redefine who he was and what he was doing with his life when he was suddenly no longer Lord Mayhew." The Protector shook his head. "I was discussing this with Howard just last month, and he said—"

It was Benjamin's turn to break off suddenly as Honor's face tightened in remembered pain.

"I'm sorry," he said after a moment, even more gently.

"And I don't mean to be exerting any unfair pressure. But he was concerned about it. He loves Faith almost as much as he loves you, and he was worried about how she'd react.

And," he smiled crookedly, "I think he was sort of hoping he'd have a chance to see your child."

"Benjamin, I" Honor blinked rapidly, and Nimitz crooned soothingly in her ear.

"Don't," Benjamin said, and shook his head. "We don't need to be discussing this right now, and you don't need me reminding you that we're losing him. I wouldn't have brought it up at all, but I think maybe Cat was right to at least put the thought before you. Now we've done that, and you can think about it later. And as far as Howard himself is concerned, of course he loves you. He told me once that he thought of you very much as his own daughter."

"I'm going to miss him so much," she said sadly.

"Of course you are. So am I, you know," Benjamin reminded her with a bittersweet smile. "I've known him literally all my life. He's been an extra uncle, one I've loved almost as much as he sometimes exasperated me."

"And one whose death is going to make a hole in the Conclave," Katherine observed sadly.

"I've discussed my choice for his successor with the Standing Committee and the Chair of the Administration Committee," Honor said. She inhaled deeply, deliberately and gratefully turning to the change in subject. "I think it should go as smoothly as anything could, under the circumstances."

"And you're not supposed to discuss it with me, My Lady Steadholder," Benjamin pointed out.

"And I'm not supposed to discuss it with you," Honor conceded. "Which is, if you don't mind my saying so, one of the stupider of Grayson's innumerable traditions."

"I suppose when you spend as long assembling them as we have, one or two suboptimal selections may make it through the filtering process." Benjamin shrugged.

"Overall, they work pretty well for us, though. And the fact that you're not allowed to discuss it with me doesn't mean my various spies and agents don't know exactly who you're planning to nominate. Or that I don't heartily approve of your selection, for that matter."

"Well, since we've gotten all of that out of the way without ever transgressing, perhaps we could discuss some of the things we are allowed to talk to Honor about,"

Katherine suggested.

"Such as?" Her husband raised his eyebrows at her, and she gave him an exasperated look.

"Such as what the Admiralty is going to have her doing, for starters," she said.

"Oh. That."

Benjamin glanced at his elder daughters. Jeanette favored Elaine at least as strongly as Rachel favored Katherine, with her biological mother's fair coloring and blue eyes. At the moment, both young women seemed torn between attempting to appear invisible or mature and insightful, whichever was more likely to let them go on sitting exactly where they were.

"Sword rules apply, girls," he said. Both of them nodded solemnly, and he turned back to Honor. "What are they going to have you doing?"

"I can't really tell you for certain yet," Honor replied, watching the young women from the corner of one eye.

Rachel had reached up to caress Hipper's ears again, and her expression was intent. Understandably, since she would be entering the Royal Manticoran Navy's Saganami Island academy in less than a month. Honor had delivered the traditional "Last View" address to the senior class two weeks before; the other forms' abbreviated wartime summer leaves would be up in ten days, and Rachel would be returning to Manticore aboard the Paul Tankersley to report to the newest class of snotties. Jeanette looked curious and sober, but she'd never been the navy-mad tomboy Rachel had.

"I'm not trying to be mysterious," Honor continued.

"Things have been so crazy ever since I got back from Sidemore that it seems the Admiralty's strategic thinking changes on an almost daily basis. The numbers ONI is coming up with keep getting worse, not better, and they keep whittling away at what was supposed to be Eighth Fleet's order of battle." She shrugged with an alum-tart smile. "I suppose it's almost a tradition now that building up anything called 'Eighth Fleet' won't go smoothly."

"And you say we have some stupid traditions," Benjamin snorted.

"Well, it's not as if anyone wants it to be that way, Benjamin. But after the hammering we took in the opening phase, nobody's about to uncover Manticore, Grayson, or Trevor's Star. So anything Eighth Fleet gets is going to be what's left over after our minimum security requirements for those systems have been met. Which isn't going to be a lot. Not right at first, anyway. And to be totally fair, Eighth Fleet doesn't really exist yet. I'm Commanding Officer ( Designate), Eighth Fleet. My staff and fleet HQ

haven't even been formally activated yet."

"I know. And, to be honest, I was actually a bit surprised they made the announcement that Eighth Fleet would be reactivated as publicly as they did. Relieved, but surprised." Benjamin waved her into an armchair beside the hearth and seated himself facing her. His wives went over and sat beside their daughters, and Carson Clinkscales walked across to stand beside Honor's chair.

"I'm pleased at the evidence that the Admiralty is thinking in offensive terms," the Protector continued.

"After the pounding Theisman gave us, it must have been dreadfully tempting to revert to a totally defensive stance."

"I'm sure it would have been for a lot of people," Honor said. "Not for Thomas Caparelli and Hamish Alexander, though." She shook her head again. "The difference between them and the Janacek Admiralty is like the difference between day and night."

"Which, if you'll forgive me, My Lady," Lieutenant Commander Clinkscales said, "may be because they can find their posteriors without approach radar."

"I think you could safely describe them as possessing that degree of native ability, Carson," she observed, and he blushed slightly.

"Sorry, My Lady," he said after a moment. "What I meant was that it was because Janacek and Chakrabarti couldn't find their backsides."

"Actually, that's a bit unfair to Chakrabarti, I think,"

Honor said. "But Janacek—and those idiots Jurgensen and Draskovic!" Her mouth tightened, and she shook her head.

"In their cases, you certainly have a point. But my point was that Sir Thomas—and Earl White Haven—have been in this position before. They're not about to panic, and they know we're going to have to take the fight to the other side as soon and as hard as we can. We can't afford to leave the initiative completely in Thomas Theisman's hands. If we do that, he'll hand us our head within the next six months. At the outside, a T-year."

"Is it really that bad, My Lady?" Clinkscales asked quietly.

"Almost certainly," she replied, her soprano voice quiet against the background crackle of the flaming logs. "It's starting to look very much as if Admiral Givens' initial estimates may actually have been low."

"Low?" Benjamin frowned at her.

"I know. I think everyone—myself included—felt she was being too pessimistic in her original assumptions. It just didn't seem possible that the Republic could really have built a fleet the size of the one she was projecting. But that was because we all insisted on thinking in terms of ships built since Theisman overthrew Saint-Just."

"Well, of course we did. They couldn't possibly have had the technology to build the new types any sooner than that. Certainly not before Hamish hit them with Buttercup."

Honor's expression didn't flicker as Benjamin used the current First Lord of Admiralty's given name, but she was careful not to use it herself.

"No, they couldn't have," she agreed. "And that's the reason Earl White Haven, for one, was convinced Admiral Givens' estimates were too high. Unfortunately, he's had to change his mind in the last couple of weeks. I don't have the details yet, but according to his last letter, she's dug up some data that went back to before Jurgensen took over from her at ONI. Some anomalies her own analysts had turned up and been unable to explain at the time.

Apparently, they suggest that the Peeps might have been stockpiling components even before Saint-Just was killed."

"Stockpiling? For that long?" Benjamin looked skeptical, and she shrugged.

"I haven't seen the data or the analysis myself, Benjamin. And I may have it wrong. But that was my impression from the Earl's letter when I viewed it last night. I'm sure he'll have more to say to me about it when I get back to Manticore."

"I'm sure he will," Benjamin said slowly, frowning in manifest thought.

"And if Admiral Givens is right, My Lady?" Clinckscales asked quietly.

"If Admiral Given is right, then we're looking at a serious numerical disadvantage," Honor said soberly. "And one which is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. The question, of course," she smiled without a trace of humor,

"is whether or not the numbers are bad enough to offset our quality. And at the moment, considering the command team they've managed to put together, that's a very pointed question, indeed.

Chapter Two

"Ah, there you are, Aldona! Come in. Find a seat."

Aldona Anisimovna nodded to her host with carefully metered deference and obeyed the smiling order. And it was an order, however pleasantly given. Albrecht Detweiler was, quite possibly, the wealthiest and most powerful single individual in the explored galaxy. There were entire star nations, and not just those full of neobarbs or stuck off in the back of beyond in the Shell, worth less than he was. Quite a few of them, in fact.

The door closed silently behind her. Despite the presence of over a dozen people, the combination office and library radiated a sense of spaciousness. As well it should, even if barely five percent of the population of Mesa even knew it existed. The percentage of people off Mesa who knew about it was, she devoutly hoped, considerably smaller than that.

It was also by far the most luxuriously and beautifully furnished "office" she'd ever been in, which was saying quite a lot for a full board member of Manpower Incorporated. The superb light sculptures in their tailored niches; the walls paneled in the exotic woods of at least a dozen different planets; the old-fashioned, priceless oil and watercolor paintings, some of them dating back all the way to pre-space days on Old Earth; the antique printed books; and the spectacular view across the Mendel Ocean's sugar-white beaches and sparkling blue water all came together to form an inevitably appropriate frame for the power and purpose concentrated in this meeting.

"I believe we're all here now," Detweiler observed as Anisimovna settled into one of the powered float chairs facing his desk, and the side conversations ended quickly.

He smiled again and pressed a button on his desk panel, and the panoramic ocean view disappeared beyond an abruptly opaque wall of windows as he brought up the security systems which made it impossible for any surveillance device to snoop upon this particular meeting.

"I'm sure most of you have at least an idea of why I asked you to drop by the island today," Detweiler said, his smile fading into a purposeful expression. "Just in case I've overestimated the IQ of anyone present, however, the immediate cause for this little get-together is the recent plebiscite in the Talbott Cluster."

Faces tightened, and one could almost feel the combination of anger, tension, and—whether any of them would have admitted it or not—fear his words evoked.

Detweiler certainly felt it, and he showed his teeth in what definitely was not another smile.

"I realize that for most Sollies, Manticore and Haven might as well be Shangri-La or Never-Neverland. They're off somewhere on the edge of the explored universe, full of belligerent neobarbs so primitive and bigoted they spend all their time killing one another. That, unfortunately, falls somewhat short of the truth, as all of us are rather painfully aware. What some of you may not realize, is that in many ways the situation is getting worse, not better, from our perspective."

He tipped back in his own chair and surveyed his guests.

One or two of them looked a bit puzzled, as if they couldn't quite see why the situation was any worse than it had always been. After all, both the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the Republic of Haven had been the openly avowed mortal enemies of Manpower Incorporated and the genetic slave trade literally for centuries. From the viewpoint of Manpower and the Mesa System generally, the last twenty T-years of warfare between the Star Kingdom amd the Republic had been excellent news. At least it had distracted both of them, to greater or lesser extent, from their interference in Manpower's affairs.

"Aldona," he said after a moment, "suppose you and Isabel tell us about what happened at Congo."

"Certainly, Albrecht," Anisimovna said. She was rather pleased her voice sounded so calm and composed. She also managed to avoid breaking out into a nervous sweat, thanks to the last twenty or so generations of genetic modifications to the Anisimov genome.

"As you know, Albrecht," she began briskly, trying not to think about how many such reports had ended . . . badly in this office, "and as some of the other members of the Board and Council are aware, Congo was rather central to certain plans we had for the Manties and Haven. The wormhole junction there offered additional possibilities in that respect, as well as the more obvious, purely commercial opportunities. After discussions here on Mesa, it was decided that the time to put our contingency plans into effect was rapidly approaching, and—"

"Excuse me, Aldona," Jerome Sandusky interrupted. He looked at her, but most of his attention was actually focused on Detweiler. "We're all aware, in general terms, at least, of what happened at Tiberian and Congo. In my own case, the fact that Congo's been added to my bailiwick in Haven means I've become reasonably familiar with previous operations there. But what I'm not quite clear on is exactly why it seemed necessary or desirable to put ourselves into a position where something like that could happen in the first place."

"The decision was made by the Strategy Committee, Jerome," Anisimovna said coolly, and he flushed ever so slightly. "As a member of the Committee," which you aren't, she did not say aloud, "I agreed with the logic, but as you know, the Committee's discussions are privileged."

"In this instance, however, Aldona," Detweiler said easily, "I believe we might make an exception. This is something all of us need to be brought fully up to speed on, so go ahead and answer Jerome's question for all of us." She looked at him, and he nodded. "My authority," he added.

"Very well, Albrecht." Anisimovna returned her attention to Sandusky. She spent a moment or two organizing her thoughts, then leaned slightly forward in her chair, gray eyes intent.

"For most of the last two decades, the Manties and the Peeps have been shooting at each other," she began. "From our perspective, that's been a good thing in many ways.

They've always hated us, and we've never been able to penetrate their military or political establishments the way we have the League or most other star nations. We've managed to . . . enlist certain individual bureaucrats, diplomats, officers, and politicians, but never in sufficient numbers to undermine their dogged devotion to the Cherwell Convention."

More than one of her listeners grimaced at mention of the Cherwell Convention, and Anisimovna smiled thinly.

"For the last seventy T-years, the one thing—the only thing—the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the People's Republic of Haven have agreed on is the suppression of the genetic slave trade. And let's be realistic—historically, their efforts have been much more effective than those of anyone else. We have zero market penetration in either of them, and although we've historically had major penetration in some areas of the Silesian Confederacy and Midgard, the Manties and the Peeps have made life hard on us even there. To be honest, it's really only since the two of them started concentrating on one another that we've been able to regain ground we'd been steadily losing in both of those areas. The Andermani Empire is another sore point, particularly since it happens to lie in such close proximity to the other two, but the Andies have never been as aggressive about attacking our interests outside their own territory.

"While the Manties and the Peeps were actively at war with one another, we managed to expand our influence and markets on the peripheries of their spheres. And their concentration on one another also made it easier for us to acquire a degree of penetration—of influence, not sales—

which we'd never had before in both the Star Kingdom and the Republic themselves. Things, in other words, were looking up.

"Then along came the Manties' 'Operation Buttercup,'

Pierre's assassination, the so-called 'Manpower Incident' on Old Earth, the cease-fire, and the overthrow of the Saint-Just version of the Committee of Public Safety. In combination, they produced three serious consequences for us."

She made a face and shrugged, then began ticking off points on her fingers as she summarized them.

"First, the end of the fighting would have been bad enough all by itself, given the way it was bound to free up their resources and attention for other concerns—like us.

But, second, the overthrow of the Committee of Public Safety and the effective dismantlement of State Security hurt us badly in Haven. Not only did we lose the majority of the contacts we'd managed to make with the SS, but the new régime—Theisman, Pritchart, and their bunch—are almost fanatical in their hatred of everything we stand for.

And, third, the 'Manpower Incident' happened before Theisman's coup, but its main effects weren't felt until afterward, when Zilwicki and Montaigne got back to Manticore with the records Zilwicki managed to hack. We were able to manage at least some damage control in the Star Kingdom, but let's not fool ourselves; we took a real body blow there, too. And the fact that that lunatic Montaigne has managed to pull us and our operations back into the limelight for the Manty public hasn't helped.

"Fortunately, our best and highest surviving contact in Manticore wasn't in Zilwicki's files and remained in place.

She wasn't really what we could consider a reliable asset—

she was using us as much as we were using her, and she definitely had her own agenda—but Descroix was willing to do what she could to mitigate Manty operations against us and assist with damage control domestically in the wake of the 'Manpower Incident' in return for our financial support and the intelligence we could provide her. Unfortunately, she was completely un willing to do the main thing we wanted out of her."

"Which was?" Sandusky prompted, as if he didn't already know the answer to his own question, when she paused.

"Which was to get rid of the damned cease-fire," Aldona said flatly. "We wanted Manticore and Haven shooting at each other again. To be frank, at that time, the Strategy Committee was actually more concerned about Haven than Manticore. Manticore has the bigger merchant fleet, and the stronger tradition of arrogating some sort of interstellar police power to itself, even to the extent of locking horns with the League. But the Republic is much larger, and the new régime there clearly has a 'crusading spirit,' whereas the High Ridge régime in Manticore was about as venal—and shortsighted—as we could have asked for. Unfortunately, neither side, each for its own reasons, wanted to resume hostilities. And initially, at least, it looked like something of a toss-up as to whether or not Theisman and Pritchart could make their new Constitution stand up. For at least a few years, they were going to be involved in what amounted to a civil war, even if they managed to win it in the end.

"About two T-years ago, however, it became evident they were going to win, and quite handily. In addition, one of the handful of contacts we'd managed to hang onto in the Republic— your contact, as a matter of fact, Jerome—

informed us that the Havenite Navy was secretly in the process of some sort of major rebuilding program. The notion of a Theisman-Pritchart government, firmly in control of a star nation and an economy the size of the Republic, with a resurgent navy under its command, didn't make anyone on the Committee happy. Nor was anyone enthralled with what Montaigne and Zilwicki were up to in the Star Kingdom. You may recall the rather spectacular failure of our attempt to remove Montaigne by direct action. That was primarily the result of Zilwicki's active alliance with the Audubon Ballroom, and then Klaus Hauptman and his daughter climbed onto the bandwagon and began building actual light warships for those butchers."

She shook her head.

"So far, it was all straws in the wind, but it was pretty obvious which way the breeze was blowing in both star nations. And they still weren't shooting at each other.

"The only bright spot was the High Ridge Government's total diplomatic tone deafness. They might not want active military operations, but they didn't want a formal peace settlement, either, which produced steadily growing frustration in the Republic. The same source which had warned us about the existence of Bolthole—even though he didn't know exactly what was going on there—also kept us informed about Pritchart's rising anger and the public opinion which agreed with her. While we knew we couldn't get Descroix to actively seek to derail the negotiating process, we were able to feed her certain selected information which helped move her at least a bit in the direction we wanted. So the Committee saw a situation which was growing rapidly less stable and offered the possibility of producing the result we were after.

"That's where Verdant Vista entered the picture. We knew High Ridge had managed to seriously alienate several key allies, including the Republic of Erewhon and, we hoped, Grayson. We didn't have very high expectations where Grayson was concerned, but Erewhon seemed to offer possibilities. In addition, certain of our friends in the League—specifically, Technodyne Industries— really wanted access to the Manties' new technology, and Erewhon had that.

"So the idea was to use Verdant Vista to worry Erewhon.

We knew the Cromarty Government had promised the Erewhonese the Star Kingdom's assistance in their efforts to eject us from Congo. But we also knew the High Ridge Government was completely and totally—one might almost say vehemently—disinterested in the project. And we knew this was an area in which we could count on Descroix's support behind the scenes.

"With all that in mind, we abandoned our relatively low profile and started deliberately drawing attention to our presence there. We planted a few stories in the Erewhonese 'faxes about 'atrocities' on Verdant Vista, and we encouraged an upswing in 'piracy' in the area. The cruisers that were destroyed at Tiberian were part of that strategy. The idea was to draw the Erewhonese Navy into committing additional light units to piracy suppression in the vicinity, then to pounce on those units with modern Solarian heavy cruisers and wipe them out. Whether the Erewhonese decided we were directly involved in backing the 'pirates' or not, they were bound to become even more furious with the Star Kingdom when they started suffering losses among their warships as well as their merchant traffic. Given the peculiarities of the Erewhonese honor code, it was likely that if we continued to provoke them long enough, and if the Manties continued to ignore their demands for assistance, the Erewhonese would eventually withdraw from the Manticoran Alliance."

"Which would be good for us in exactly what way?"

Sandusky asked, frowning intently as he followed her explanation.

"Erewhon's abandonment of the Alliance was bound to shake up even the Manticorans. The Manty woman-in-the-street seemed willing enough to go along with High Ridge as long as there was no clearly perceived external threat to the Star Kingdom's security. If, however, the Alliance seemed to be crumbling, still without any formal peace treaty, that was likely to change, hopefully in the direction of greater militancy directed towards the Republic. And, to be honest, although High Ridge's disinterest in suppressing slavery was good for us, we doubted that he'd be able to ignore the issue much longer, given the way the Winton dynasty's always hated us and how hard Montaigne, Zilwicki, Harrington, and people like the Hauptmans were all pushing it. So we were perfectly willing to see his government fall, especially if that contributed to the resumption of hostilities we wanted.

"From another perspective, once Erewhon withdrew from the Alliance, the Erewhonese were going to suddenly start feeling very lonely, especially if their one-time allies and the Republic did start shooting at each other again. Under those circumstances, it seemed likely they'd feel the need to bolster and maintain their own military, which would probably mean going back to the people who'd built all of their ships of the wall before they joined the alliance.

Which happens to be our good friends at Technodyne.

Which meant Technodyne would be able to get a direct look at the latest and best Manty war-fighting hardware.

Whether or not the League's navy would be interested in it, Technodyne and the Mesan Navy certainly were, and getting access to it for ourselves and the system defense contingents of our friends in the region would have been a very good thing. That's why Technodyne was so cooperative about coming up with the Tiberian-based cruisers."

"But it didn't work out that way, did it, Aldona?"

Detweiler asked. His tone was almost avuncular, but that didn't make Anisimovna feel one bit better. She started to reply, but someone else beat her to it.

"No, Mr. Detweiler, it didn't," Isabel Bardasano said.

The younger woman sat beside Anisimovna, and she met the Mesan Chairman of the Board's eyes levelly, with every appearance of complete equanimity. Which, Anisimovna thought, was probably accurate in her case. She envied Bardasano's composure, yet she was none too certain about the confidence, even arrogance, upon which that composure rested. At the moment, however, she was mostly grateful to Bardasano for intervening. And for reminding Detweiler that Anisimovna had not had primary, or at least solo, responsibility for the Verdant Vista operation.

"It should have," Bardasano continued. "Unfortunately, we hadn't counted on the Battle of Tiberian. Nor had we counted on the Stein Assassination, or on the fact that Elizabeth Winton would decide to send Anton Zilwicki, of all people, as her representative at the funeral on Erewhon. And we certainly hadn't counted on the interference of a Havenite spy and some sort of rogue operation by a Frontier Security governor!"

She shook her head, her expression disgusted.

"We got exactly the break with Manticore that we wanted. Unfortunately, instead of falling into Technodyne's arms, which is what we're almost certain the then current Erewhonese government would have done, left to its own devices, the Havenites and Governor Barregos managed to convince them to run straight into the arms of the Republic of Haven. Worse, Ruth Winton was right there on the spot and actually managed to get the Star Kingdom, however marginally, involved in supporting what was effectively a Havenite-planned operation against Congo. That left the two of them standing as joint sponsors of the 'Torch' régime on Verdant Vista—a relationship which seems to be surviving so far despite the fact that they're shooting at each other everywhere else. And just to make the situation even better, we have strong indications that in the course of his own contributions to generating this fiasco, Zilwicki managed to get his hands on some sort of evidence which led to the disappearance of Countess North Hollow and the destruction of the North Hollow Files, which ultimately played its own part in the fall of the High Ridge Government and Descroix's complete loss of power."

"Speaking of Descroix . . . ?" another of Detweiler's guests inquired.

"No longer a problem," Bardasano replied with a thin smile.


"But eliminating her didn't eliminate the fallout from the entire Congo debacle," Sandusky pointed out.

"No, it didn't," Anisimovna agreed. "It comes under the heading of damage control, at best."

"Agreed," Detweiler said.

He sat back from his desk for a moment, surveying the people he'd assembled. They looked back, and he knew what they were seeing—the culmination of almost five centuries of steady genetic improvement. Much of the rest of the galaxy remained blissfully unaware that what the Ukrainian maniacs of Old Earth's Final War had failed to achieve with their "Scrags" had, in fact, been achieved on Mesa.

But Mesa had learned more than one lesson from the Slav Supremacists, including the need to be cautious. To build a position of security first, before trumpeting the fact of one's superiority to those who would justifiably see in one the hateful image of their future master.

"I didn't gather you all here just so we could recount our failures. Nor, for the record, do I believe that what happened to our Congo operations was the fault of anyone in this room or on the Strategy Committee. No one can allow for all the vagaries of blind chance bound to occur in a galaxy with this many inhabited worlds and competing power blocs.

"But the fact remains that we're entering a period of growing risk . . . and opportunity. The situation vis-à-vis Manticore and Haven is perhaps the most clear-cut, recognizable threat we face. At the moment, that threat is manageable, so long as we take steps to ensure it remains that way. The greater threat—and opportunity—we confront, however, is the fact that we are finally approaching the point towards which we and our ancestors have worked for so long. For now, that remains unrecognized by the vast majority of those who might oppose us. As we begin our final preparations, however, it becomes more and more likely our actual objectives will be recognized. That moment of recognition must be delayed as long as possible, and I believe one of the keys to doing that may be the fashion in which we manage the Manties and Peeps."

Tension had gathered perceptibly in the palatial office as he spoke. Now the big room was utterly silent as he swept his eyes slowly from face to face, searching for any signs of weakness, of wavering commitment. He found none, and he allowed his chair to come back fully upright.

"Fortunately for us, Haven and the Manties have managed to get themselves back into a shooting war despite the failure of our original plans for Erewhon. That's good. But the Manties are clearly intent on expanding into the Talbott Cluster, despite the distraction of the war, and that's bad. Bad for many reasons, but not least for how much closer to Mesa it will bring their advanced naval bases.

"Also on the deficit side of the ledger, we still haven't managed to obtain access to first-line Manticoran naval hardware. No matter how everything else works out, eventually we are going to find ourselves in open conflict with Manticore, unless we can somehow arrange for someone else to handle that chore for us. We'll continue to pursue the option of finding someone else to do the deed, and I'm sure we'd all find it extremely satisfying if we could, indeed, find a way to use Haven and Manticore to neutralize each other. I don't believe we can count on that, however, so it behooves us to continue planning for an ultimate direct confrontation. With that in mind, anything we can do to reduce Manticore's military, economic, and industrial power bases is eminently worthwhile. Which obviously includes keeping them from annexing the Cluster and all the industrial potential those planets represent.

"I happen to know the Strategy Committee is already working on a plan to at least destabilize and hopefully permanently derail the Talbott annexation. Personally, I give it no more than a thirty percent chance of succeeding, but I could be being unduly pessimistic. Aldona and Isabel will be our contacts for that particular operation, and I want it clearly understood by everyone in this room—

whatever we may say or do for the consumption of others—

that while I very much hope for their success, we must all be aware that that success is at best problematical. In other words, there will be no penalties and no retaliation if, through no fault of their own, this plan miscarries."

Anisimovna's expression didn't even flicker, despite the enormous sense of relief she felt at Detweiler's pronouncement. Of course, he hadn't said there would be no penalties if the plan miscarried and he decided the fault was theirs.

"While they deal with that aspect of the problem, Jerome," he continued, turning to Sandusky, " you will be polishing up the final details of our arrangement with Mannerheim. Make it very clear to President Hurskainen that it's almost certainly going to be up to him to provide the military muscle when the time comes for the open move to retake Congo." He grimaced. "We can't afford to postpone that particular necessity very long. We've got some time, but the last thing we need is for an entire planet of Ballroom fanatics to get loose in the galaxy.

Especially not a planet which controls that particular wormhole junction."

"What about the indirect approach we've discussed?"

Sandusky asked in a businesslike voice.

"We'll keep it in reserve," Detweiler directed. "It has a certain appeal on its own merits, but at the moment, Verdant Vista appears to be the only point over which the Manties and Havenites continue to find themselves sharing any common ground. Any move against this so-called

'monarchy' at this time would certainly be seen as our handiwork, however many cutouts we employed, and I don't want us to do anything which might push them closer together where we're concerned than they already are.

"Nonetheless, Isabel," he turned back to Bardasano, "we do need to keep the thought in mind. This is your particular specialty, and I want a detailed operational plan on my desk and ready for implementation before you and Aldona head out to meet with Verrochio. We'll call it . . .

Operation Rat Poison."

An ugly ripple of amusement ran around the room, and he nodded in satisfaction.

"I've done the best preliminary groundwork I could for you and Aldona in Talbott," he continued to Bardasano.

"Technodyne doesn't know everything we're up to, but they've agreed to at least listen to our proposition. I expect you'll probably be hearing from a Mr. Levakonic shortly, and everything I've been able to discover about him suggests he should be amenable. On the minus side, you're also going to have to deal with Kalokainos. The old man is bad enough, but Volkhart is an idiot. Unfortunately, Verrochio and Hongbo are firmly in Kalokainos' pocket, so we're going to have to at least go through the motions of

'consulting' with him. You may actually have to involve him in the initial strategy discussions, although I trust you'll be able to cut him out of the circuit fairly early. I've had our official representative in the area briefed to help you accomplish that—not fully, but in sufficient detail for him to understand what he has to do. He's supposed to be pretty good at this sort of thing."

"Who is it, Albrecht?" Anisimovna asked.

"His name is Ottweiler, Valery Ottweiler," Detweiler replied.

"I know him," she said, frowning thoughtfully. "And he really is good at this kind of thing. In fact, if it weren't for his genome, I'd say he should be brought fully inside."

"Are you suggesting probationer status for him?"

Sandusky asked a bit sharply.

"I didn't say that, Jerome," Anisimovna returned coolly.

She and Sandusky had crossed swords entirely too often in the past, and she wasn't certain whether he really opposed the notion or secretly hoped she would suggest it and be supported over his opposition. It was always risky to nominate a normal for probationer status, and he might be hoping this one would blow up, as others had, with the egg landing on her face this time.

"If this operation succeeds, and if he's as integral to its success as I expect him to be," she continued after a brief pause, "then it might be time for the Council to consider whether or not he should be offered that status. I don't personally know the man well enough to predict how he would react. But he does have a reputation for effectiveness, and he could be even more effective for us as a probationer brought more fully into the real picture."

"We'll cross that bridge when—and if—we come to it,"

Detweiler decreed. "In the meantime, you and Isabel undoubtedly have a lot of details to take care of before you depart. I'll be meeting with both of you—and with some of the rest of you—privately over the next few days.

For now, though, I believe we're done, and dinner is waiting."

He started to push back from the desk, but Bardasano raised one hand in a respectful attention-requesting gesture. She was, by almost any conventional standard, the most junior individual in the room, but her professional competence—and ruthlessness—made her lack of conventional seniority meaningless, and Detweiler settled back.

"Yes, Isabel? You had a question?"

"Not about the Cluster," she said. "I do have one question concerning Rat Poison, however, and I thought I'd raise it while we were all here, since it may affect Jerome's planning, as well."

"And that question is?"

"As you know, most of our current scenarios for Rat Poison are built around the use of the new nanotech.

We've run several test operations to be sure it works—the most prominent was the Hofschulte business on New Potsdam. As you also know," she didn't so much as glance at Sandusky, who had been responsible for that particular

"test operation," "I had my doubts about the advisability of using the new technology in an assassination attempt which was bound to attract as much attention and comment as that one did. In this instance, it appears my concerns were misplaced, however, since there's no evidence anyone as much as suspects what really happened.

"The question in my mind, however, is whether or not we want to consider making additional use of the same technique in the interim. I can foresee several possible sets of circumstances where it could be very useful. In particular, according to Jerome's reports, our primary contact in the Havenite Department of State is almost certainly going to require a completely untraceable weapon sometime in the next few weeks or months."

"Well, this is an interesting change of mind," Sandusky remarked astringently.

"It isn't really a change of mind at all, Jerome,"

Bardasano said calmly. "My concern at the time was that someone would figure out how it was done, but the Andies have run every test they could think of on Hofschulte—or, rather, his cadaver—without, apparently, turning up a thing. If they haven't found anything after looking this long and this hard, then the R and D types may actually have known what they were talking about this time. Which," she added dryly, "always comes as a pleasant and unanticipated surprise for us unfortunate field grunts."

Several people, including Renzo Kyprianou, whose bio weapon research teams had developed the technology in question, laughed.

"If this technique works as well as it did in our tests, and really is this close to impossible to detect," she continued more seriously, "then it might be time for us to begin making judicious use of it in special cases." She shrugged.

"Even if they figure out someone is deliberately triggering the attacks, there's not much they can do about it. Not, at least, without security arrangements which would effectively hamstring their own operations. And I can think of several prominent individuals in both Manticore and Haven whose sudden and possibly spectacular demises could be quite beneficial to us. Especially if we can convince both sides that the other one, not some third party, is responsible."

"I'll have to think about that," Detweiler said, after a moment. "I felt your original arguments for restraint had considerable merit. But what you've just suggested also has merit. Keeping something like this in reserve, as a total surprise, is always tempting. But if you keep it in reserve too long, then you never use it at all."

He pursed his lips for several seconds, then shrugged.

"Jerome, you and I will have to discuss this. Give some thought to the pros and cons and sit down with Isabel before she leaves. Work out a list of potential targets—not a big one, I don't want to flash this capability around any more obviously than we have to, however unlikely it is that someone will figure out how it works. At the very least, though, we can put the groundwork in place and have Renzo's people begin looking for the best . . . vehicles."

"Of course, Albrecht."

"Good!" Detweiler smacked both palms on his desktop and stood. "And on that note, let's get out of here.

Evelina's brought in a brand new chef, and I think all of you are going to be amazed at what he can do with Old Earth rock lobster!"

Chapter Three

The interior of Protector's Cathedral was like some huge, living jewel box.

Honor sat in the Stranger's Aisle to the left of the nave, immediately adjacent to the sanctuary. She, her parents and siblings, James MacGuiness, Nimitz, and Willard Neufsteiler, all of them in Harrington green, shared the Aisle's first pew with the Manticoran and Andermani ambassadors and consuls from each of the other members of the Manticoran Alliance. The two rows of pews behind them were solidly packed with officers in the uniform of the Protector's Own: Aldredo Yu, Warner Caslet, Cynthia Gonsalves, Harriet Benson-Dessouix and her husband Henri, Susan Phillips, and dozens of others who had escaped from the prison planet Hades with Honor. Their uniforms and the diplomats' off-world formal attire, in the styles of more than half a dozen different worlds, stood out sharply, but each of them also wore the dark, violet-black armbands or veils of Grayson-style mourning, as well.

That touch of darkness ran through the cathedral like a thread of sorrow, all the more obvious beside the rich, jewel-toned colors of formal Grayson attire, and Honor tasted its echo in the emotions surging about her. The emotional overtones of the Church of Humanity Unchained were always like some deep, satisfying well of renewal and faith, one she could physically experience thanks to her empathic link to Nimitz. But today there was that strand of sadness, flowing from every corner of the vast cathedral.

Brilliant pools of dense, colored sunlight poured down through the huge stained-glass windows of the eastern wall, and more spilled down like some chromatic waterfall through the enormous stained-glass skylight above the sanctuary. She tasted the grief reaching out from those deep, still pools of light and from the drifting, light-struck tendrils of incense on quiet feet of organ music. It came in different shapes and gradations, from people who had been personally touched by Howard Clinkscales to people who had known him only as a distant figure, yet it was also touched with a sense of celebration. A swelling faith that the man whose death they had come to mourn, and whose life they had come to celebrate, had met the Test of his life in triumph.

She gazed at the coffin, draped in both the planetary flag of Grayson and the steading flag of Harrington. The silver staff of Clinkscales' office as Harrington's regent and the sheathed sword he had carried as the commanding general of Planetary Security before the Mayhew Restoration lay crossed atop the flags, gleaming in the spill of light. So many years of service, she thought. So much capacity for growth and change. So much ability to give and so much kindness, hidden behind that crusty, curmudgeonly exterior he'd cultivated so assiduously. So much to miss.

The organ music swelled, then stopped, and a quiet stir ran through the cathedral as old-fashioned mechanical latches clacked loudly and its ancient, bas-relief doors swung ponderously open. For a moment there was complete and total silence, and then the organ reawoke in a surge of majestic power and the massed voices of the Protector's Cathedral Choir burst into soaring song.

The Cathedral Choir was universally regarded as the finest choir of the entire planet. That was saying quite a lot for a world which took its sacred music so seriously, but as its glorious voices rose in a hymn not of sorrow but of triumph, it demonstrated how amply it deserved its reputation. The torrent of music and trained voices poured over Honor in a magnificent tide which seemed to simultaneously focus and amplify the upwelling cyclone of the emotions all about her as the procession advanced down the cathedral's nave behind the crucifers and thurifers. The clergy and acolytes glittered in rich fabrics and embroidery, and Reverend Jeremiah Sullivan, resplendent in the embroidery and jewel-encrusted vestments of his high office, moved at the center of the procession, with the violet-black mourning stole around his neck like a slash of darkness.

They advanced steadily, majestically, through the storm of music and sunlight and the great, glowing dome of faith which Honor wished all of them could perceive as clearly as she herself did. It was at moments like this—vastly different though they were from the quieter, more introspective services of the faith in which she had been raised—that she felt closest to the heart and soul of Grayson. The people of her adopted planet were far from perfect, yet the bedrock strength of their thousand years of faith gave them a depth, a center, which very few other worlds could equal.

The procession reached the sanctuary, and its members dispersed with the solemn precision of an elite drill team.

Reverend Sullivan stood motionless before the high altar, gazing at the mourning-draped cross, while the acolytes and assisting clergy flowed around him towards their places. He stood there until the hymn ended and the organ music faded once again to silence, then turned to face the filled cathedral, lifted both hands in a gesture of benediction, and raised his voice.

"And his lord said unto him," he said into that silence,

"Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord."

He stood for a long moment, hands still lifted, then lowered them and gazed out over the cathedral's packed pews.

"Brothers and Sisters in God," he said then, quietly, and yet in a voice which carried clearly in the cathedral's magnificent acoustics, "we are gathered today in the sight of the Tester, the Intercessor, and the Comforter to celebrate the life of Howard Samson Jonathan Clinkscales, beloved husband of Bethany, Rebecca, and Constance, father of Howard, Jessica, Marjorie, John, Angela, Barbara, and Marian, servant of the Sword, Regent of Harrington Steading, and always and in all ways the faithful servant of the Lord our God. I ask you now to join me in prayer, not to mourn his death, but to commemorate his triumphant completion of the Great Test of life as today he enters indeed into the joy of his Lord."

* * *

For all its rich pageantry and centuries of tradition, the liturgy of the Church of Humanity Unchained was remarkably simple. The funeral mass flowed smoothly, naturally, until, after the lesson and the gospel, it was time for the Memory. Every Grayson funeral had the Memory—the time set aside for every mourner to recall the life of the person they had lost and for any who so chose to share that memory with all the others. No one was ever forced to share a memory, but anyone who wished to was welcome to do so.

Reverend Sullivan seated himself on his throne, and silence fell once more over the cathedral until Benjamin Mayhew stood in the Protector's Box.

"I remember," he said quietly. "I remember the day—I was six, I think—when I fell out of the tallest tree in the Palace orchard. I broke my left arm in three places, and my left leg, as well. Howard was in command of Palace Security then, and he was the first to reach me. I was trying so hard not to cry, because big boys don't, and because a future Protector should never show weakness.

And Howard radioed for a medical team and ordered me not to move until it got there, then sat down beside me in the mud, holding my good hand, and said 'Tears aren't weakness, My Lord. Sometimes they're just the Tester's way of washing out the hurt.'" Benjamin paused, then smiled. "I'll miss him," he said.

He sat once more, and Honor rose in the Stranger's Aisle.

"I remember," she said, her quiet soprano carrying clearly. "I remember the day I first met Howard, the day of the Maccabeus assassination attempt. He was—" she smiled in fond, bittersweet memory"— about as opposed to the notion of women in uniform and any alliance with the Star Kingdom as it was possible for someone to be, and there I was, the very personification of everything he'd opposed, with half my face covered up by a bandage. And he looked at me, and he was the very first person on Grayson who saw not a woman, but a Queen's officer. Someone he expected to do her duty the same way he would have expected himself to do his. Someone he grew and changed enough to accept not simply as his Steadholder, but also his friend, and in many ways, as his daughter. I'll miss him."

She sat once more, and Carson Clinkscales stood, towering over his aunts.

"I remember," he said. "I remember the day my father was killed in a training accident and Uncle Howard came to tell me. I was playing in the park with a dozen of my friends, and he found me and took me aside. I was only eight, and when he told me Father was dead, I thought the world had ended. But Uncle Howard held me while I cried.

He let me cry myself completely out, until there were no tears left. And then he picked me up, put my head on his shoulder, and carried me in his arms all the way from the park home. It was over three kilometers, and Uncle Howard was already almost eighty years old, and I was always big for my age. But he walked the entire way, carried me up to my bedroom, and sat on my bed and held me until I drifted off to sleep." He shook his head, resting his right hand on the shoulder of his Aunt Bethany. "I never knew before that day how strong and patient, how loving, two arms could truly be, but I never forgot . . . and I never will. I'll miss him."

He sat, and an elderly man in the dress uniform of a Planetary Security brigadier rose.

"I remember," he said. "I remember the first day I reported for duty with Palace Security and they told me I was assigned to Captain Clinkscales' detachment." He shook his head with a grin. "Scared the tripes right out of me, I'll tell you! Howard was a marked man, even then, and he never did suffer fools gladly. But—"

At most Grayson funerals the Memory took perhaps twenty minutes. At Howard Clinkscales' funeral, it took three hours.

* * *

"It's always hard not to feel sorry for myself at a funeral," Allison Harrington said as she stood between the towering forms of her husband and her elder daughter.

"God, I'm going to miss that old dinosaur!"

She sniffed and wiped her eye surreptitiously.

"We all are, Mother," Honor said, slipping an arm around her diminutive parent.

"Agreed," Alfred Harrington said, looking across at his daughter. "And his death is going to leave a real hole in the Steading."

"I know." Honor sighed. "Still, we all saw it coming, whether we wanted to talk about it or not, and Howard saw it more clearly than any of us. That's why he worked so hard getting Austen brought up to speed for the last three or four years."

She looked across the quiet, beautifully landscaped garden at a middle-aged—by pre-prolong standards—man with silvering, dark-brown hair and the craggy chin which seemed to mark most Clinkscales males. Like Howard himself, Austen Clinkscales was tall by Grayson standards, although far short of a giant like his younger cousin Carson.

"I think Austen is going to do just fine as regent," she said. "He reminds me a lot of his uncle, actually. He doesn't have as much experience, I suppose, but I think he's probably a bit more flexible than Howard was. And he's a good man."

"That he is," Alfred agreed.

"And he adores the kids," Allison said. "Especially Faith.

Isn't it funny how all these firmly patriarchal Grayson males seem to go absolutely gooey inside when a little girl smiles at them?"

"You're a geneticist, love," Alfred said with a chuckle.

"I'm sure you realized years ago that the species is hardwired to produce exactly that effect."

"Especially when the little girl in question is as cute as one of my daughters," Allison observed complacently.

"Somehow, Mother, I don't think anyone has applied the adjective 'cute' to me in quite a few years. I certainly hope not, at any rate."

"Oh, you hard-bitten naval officers are all alike!"

Honor started to respond, then stopped as Howard's three wives walked across the garden towards them.

Carson and Austen Clinkscales followed them, and Bethany, the senior of the three, stopped in front of Honor.

"My Lady," she said quietly.

"Yes, Bethany?"

"You know our customs, My Lady," Bethany said.

"Howard's body has already been reclaimed for our Garden of Memory. But he made an additional request."

"A request?" Honor repeated when she paused.

"Yes, My Lady." Bethany extended a small wooden box. It was unembellished by any carving or metalwork, but its hand-rubbed finish gleamed brilliantly in the sunlight. "He requested," she continued, "that a portion of his remains be given to you."

Honor's eyes widened, and she reached out to take the box.

"I'm deeply honored," she said, after a moment. "I never expected . . ."

"My Lady," Bethany said, looking her in the eyes, "as far as Howard—and my sisters and I—were concerned, you truly were the daughter you called yourself today. When you established the Harrington Garden for the armsmen who fell in your service, Howard was more pleased than he ever told you. We've always respected your integrity in refusing to profess faith in Father Church for political advantage, yet you've always demonstrated a personal sensitivity to and respect for our religion no Steadholder could have bettered. I think Howard hoped that one day you would embrace Father Church, if you should decide it was truly what the Tester called you to do. But whether that day ever comes or not, he wanted to be a part of the Harrington Garden." She smiled mistily. "He said that maybe that way he could 'hold your place in line' until you catch up with him."

Honor blinked stinging eyes and smiled down at the shorter, older woman.

"If the day ever comes that I do join the Church of Humanity Unchained, it will be because of the example of people like you and Howard, Bethany," she said. "And whether that day ever comes or not, I will be honored and deeply, deeply pleased to do as Howard asked."

"Thank you, My Lady." Bethany and her sister wives curtsied formally, but Honor shook her head.

"No, thank you, Bethany," she said. "The Clinkscales Clan has served me personally and this Steading with a devotion and a skill far beyond anything I might reasonably have expected. My family and my people are deeply in your debt—in all of your debts—" she raised her eyes to look at Austen and Carson, as well, "and as Howard served me so well, and as Austen has agreed to serve me in his stead, so you've made yourselves family, not simply servants or even merely friends. My sword is your sword. Your battle is mine. Our joys and our sorrows are as one."

Bethany inhaled sharply, and Carson and Austen stiffened behind her.

"My Lady, I never—that is, Howard didn't make this request because—"

"Do you think I could not realize that?" Honor asked gently. She handed the wooden box to her mother and bent slightly to embrace her dead regent's widow, then kissed the older woman on the cheek.

"This is about service that went beyond any formal oath or obligation," she went on as she straightened once more.

"It's about service that became love, and I should have done it long ago."

She looked at Carson again over his aunt's head, tasting his astonishment, and wondered if he'd been aware she even knew the formal phrases by which a Grayson steadholder created a legal familial relationship with another clan. The complex interweaving of clan networks had been integral to the Graysons' survival in their hostile planetary environment, and the creation of what equated to blood relationships between the great houses of the Steadholders and their closest allies and retainers had played a major role in forging those networks. In a sense, what Honor had done subordinated the Clinckscales Clan to the Harrington Clan, but it also bound Honor and her heirs personally to the defense and protection of Howard Clinckscales' descendants forever.

It was not a step to be taken lightly or impulsively, but Honor realized that her decision had been neither of those things. And that she truly ought to have done it much sooner, while Howard was still there to see it done. Well, no doubt he still could, from wherever he was at the moment, she thought fondly. And then her lips twitched as another thought struck her.

As Steadholder Harrington, she was the senior member of the Harrington Clan, which she suddenly realized, made her legally Carson's "Aunt Honor" under Grayson legal practice. And that meant . . .

Her lips twitched again, and she saw a sudden twinkle in Carson's eyes as the same realization hit him. They looked at each other, and then they began to chuckle. Honor felt her own chuckles segueing into full-bodied laughter, and gave Bethany a quick squeeze and stepped back.

"I'm sorry, Bethany!" she said. "I didn't mean to laugh. It's just that, I suddenly realized that—"

She broke off with another laugh, and Bethany shook her head with a fond smile.

"My Lady, I can think of many things that might have upset Howard. Having you laugh on the day of his funeral would never be one of them, though."

"That's a very good thing," Honor said with a smile,

"because there's going to be more laughter before this is all over, you realize."

"My Lady?" Bethany looked at her quizzically.

"Of course there is," Honor said around another bubble of laughter of her own. "Faith and James were used to calling Howard 'Uncle Howard,' and I've heard them calling Austen 'uncle,' as well. But now she's going to be 'Aunt Faith' to him and Carson!" She shook her head. "We're never going to hear the end of this."

Chapter Four

"Welcome back, Your Grace."

"Thank you, Mercedes."

Honor followed Simon Mattingly through the private arrivals gate and held out her hand to the sturdy, plain-faced woman waiting for her in the Landing City VIP

shuttle pad concourse. Mercedes Brigham still wore the commodore's uniform of her Manticoran rank rather than the rear admiral's star she would have been entitled to in Grayson's service. For that matter, she really ought to have traded in the double planets of her commodore's insignia even in the RMN. Honor knew perfectly well that Brigham had quietly made it clear to BuPers that she preferred her position as Honor's chief of staff, and promotion to rear admiral would have made her too senior for the slot. Honor had tried to convince her otherwise, though not as hard as she really felt she ought to have, but Mercedes had only grinned.

"If I really want command, Ma'am," she'd said, "all I have to do is go back to Grayson. At the moment, I think I'm more useful where I am. So unless you want to fire me . . ."

"And welcome back to you, too, Stinker," Brigham said now, reaching up to offer Nimitz her hand in turn. The treecat shook it solemnly, then flirted his tail and bleeked a laugh. Brigham chuckled, then turned back to Honor, her expression sympathetic.

"You look a bit frazzled, Your Grace."

"It's been a busy ten days," Honor conceded.

"Was it as hectic as you were afraid it would be?"

"No," Honor said. "Honestly, it wasn't. Not quite, at any rate. Austen's confirmation as regent went very smoothly.

There was a little opposition, mostly from Mueller. I don't think the present Lord Mueller is quite as reconciled to his father's execution as he tries to make it seem, and he's starting to regain a little of his steading's old influence in the Opposition. But Benjamin, Owens, Yanakov, and Mackenzie steamrollered the nomination through."

"I assume," Brigham continued as LaFollet and Spencer Hawke came through the gate to hover watchfully at Honor's back and four more armsmen in Harrington green appeared, heavily laden with baggage, "that you had an opportunity to discuss the general situation with High Admiral Matthews?"

"I did. Not that either one of us was able to add a great deal to the other's understanding." Honor grimaced. "At the moment, the 'situation' at least has the advantage of a certain grim simplicity."

"The other side is still trying to complicate it, though, Your Grace," Brigham said. "Did you hear about the raid on Alizon?"

"Yes." Honor looked at her sharply. "The preliminary dispatch came in just before Tankersley broke Grayson orbit, but there weren't any details. How bad was it?"

"Nowhere near as bad as what McQueen did in their Operation Icarus," Brigham said quickly. "Not that it was exactly good, you understand. We lost a couple of our own freighters, and they blew the hell out of a respectable chunk of the asteroid extraction platforms and mining boats. But human casualties were very low and they never got close enough to hit the main industrial platforms. None of our people even got scratched, and the Alizonians only lost a half-dozen or so miners." She twitched one shoulder in a half-shrug. "Even that looks like it was an accident.

From everything I've seen, they appear to have done their dead level best to play it according to the rules."

"They used LACs? No hyper-capable units?"

"Only LACs, Your Grace." If Brigham was surprised by Honor's questions, she showed no sign of it. "According to Alizon Defense Command, they lost between thirty and forty of them, too. All to the missile pods."

"Did our LACs engage at all?" Honor asked, and Brigham gave her a thin smile.

"By the strangest turn of fate, no, Your Grace. I know what you're thinking, and Alizon Defense Command thought the same thing. This was a probing attack, testing our defenses. If they'd wanted to do serious damage to the system infrastructure, they'd have attacked in much heavier strength. So when Defense Command realized we were up against a raid that probably wasn't even going to try to penetrate the inner defenses, not a serious assault on the system, all our Shrikes and Ferrets and—especially—

Katanas stayed covert. So did the outer-system pods, for that matter. ONI gives us ninety percent-plus odds that the Peeps never even saw them."

"Good," Honor said, then nodded towards the concourse exit where the armored air limo in Harrington livery waited. Mattingly had already taken up his post beside it, and her entire party flowed into motion towards him.

"It's not very likely someone like Theisman isn't going to figure the LACs, at least, were there, anyway," she continued, "but at least he wasn't able to confirm it." She frowned thoughtfully. "Have you heard anything about Alizon's reaction to the attack?"

"Not officially." Brigham stood aside to let the baggage-toting armsmen load their burdens into the limo's luggage compartment. "We only got Defense Command's preliminary report five days ago. The Admiralty copied all of Admiral Simon's dispatches and after-action reports to us, but I haven't seen anything on the civilian side.

According to certain sources of mine in Sir Thomas' shop, though, the Alizonians aren't what you might call pleased about it."

"As if that's a surprise," Honor snorted.

"Well, they did get the piss blown out of them the last time around, Your Grace," Brigham observed. "And after the way High Ridge and his bunch treated them, we've probably run our store of goodwill pretty close to rock bottom. Do you know Admiral Simon?"

"Not personally." Honor shook her head. "I know he's young for his rank, that he's a Saganami graduate, and that he's got a good reputation with us, as well as his own people. That's about it."

"Actually, that sums him up pretty well, except that I'd add that he's always been one of the stronger supporters of the Alliance. But even the dispatches from him I've seen make some pretty pointed references to how understrength the system defenses would have been against a real attack." She grimaced. "I'm guessing the civilians are going to be even more pointed about it, and I can't blame them. They're going to want some concrete demonstration of our willingness—and ability—to protect them from an Icarus repeat."

"Which is exactly why Theisman did it." Honor sighed. "I liked it so much better when Pierre and Saint-Just didn't trust their navy enough to let it do its job properly."

"At least we've managed to get back our own first team at Admiralty House," Brigham said encouragingly. "That's something."

"Quite a bit, actually," Honor agreed. "I'm looking forward to getting a firsthand brief from Sir Thomas."

"And Earl White Haven?"

Brigham's tone could not have been more natural, but Honor tasted the commodore's sudden spike of combined curiosity and concern.

"I'm sure we'll also discuss the situation," she replied after the briefest of pauses. "I know the Queen wants to see both of us tomorrow. I feel confident she's going to want a current briefing of her own, then, and it's pretty obvious Eighth Fleet is going to be a politically sensitive command, as well as a military one. I'm sure he'll have quite a bit to say in that regard as First Lord, probably both on and off the record. In fact, the Earl and Lady Emily have invited me to spend a few days as their guest at White Haven. Probably at least in part so that we can spend the time discussing all the ramifications."

"I see." Brigham gazed at her for a moment, then smiled.

"It still seems odd to have him stuck on the civilian side instead of commanding a fleet, doesn't it?" She shook her head. "Still, I guess he's where we need him most right now. Ah, will you be taking any of the staff to White Haven with you, Your Grace?"

"Probably just Andrew, Spencer, and Simon," Honor said offhandedly. "Oh, and Mac. I'd like to take Miranda, as well, but I'm not going to pull her out of the Bay House for a stay this short. I need her staying on top of things right where she is."

"Of course, Your Grace," Brigham murmured, and gestured for Honor to enter the limo in front of her.

"Please remember to give the Earl my respects."

* * *


Honor looked up quickly, with a huge smile, as the husky contralto called her name. The frail-looking, golden-haired woman in the life-support chair just inside the main entry of the Alexander family seat at White Haven smiled back, and her deep-green eyes gleamed with welcome.

"It's wonderful to see you back—you and Nimitz," the other woman continued. "How long can you say this time?"

"It's wonderful to see you, too, Emily," Honor said, striding quickly across the entry hall. She'd never been one to bestow easy public kisses, but she bent and kissed Emily Alexander's cheek. The older women reached up with her right arm—the only portion of her body below the neck that she could move at all—and laid the palm of her hand against Honor's cheek, in reply.

"Are you keeping her in shape, Sandra?" Honor asked the tallish, square-shouldered brunette standing beside the life-support chair.

"We try, Your Grace," Sandra Thurston, Lady Alexander's personal nurse, said and favored Honor with a welcoming smile. "I suspect seeing you again is going to do more for her than I ever could, though."

"Oh, nonsense!" Honor replied with a slight blush, then straightened to look at the man standing directly behind Lady Alexander's chair.

"It's good to see you again, too, Nico," she said.

"And you, Your Grace," White Haven's majordomo murmured with a slight bow. "Welcome back to White Haven."

"Thank you," Honor said, and smiled at him. The edge of defensive resentment Nico Havenhurst had felt the first time he saw her here had vanished, and he returned her smile, then he looked past her to the armsmen carrying in her baggage.

"If you'll excuse me, Your Grace, Milady," he said, with another small bow, this time to both women, "I'll attend to Her Grace's things." Emily nodded agreement, and he turned to Honor's armsmen. "I've arranged to lodge Her Grace in the Blue Suite, Colonel," he told LaFollet. "You and her other armsmen will be in the Bachelor's Wing. The billiard room is between that and the main house, directly adjacent to the only direct access stair to the Blue Suite, so I thought it might provide you with a relatively comfortable guardroom. I hope that's satisfactory?"

He looked innocently at Honor's senior personal armsman, and LaFollet gazed back for just an instant, then nodded.

"Perfectly," he replied. He looked at Honor's other two personal armsmen. "Simon, you and Spencer go ahead and get things organized. Then get some sleep. I'll cover things here through dinner, and you two lucky fellows will get the night shift."

"Rank, you see," Mattingly said to Hawke, "hath its privileges. He gets a good night's sleep."

"And well deserved it will be, too," LaFollet agreed equably as the youngest member of Honor's personal detachment grinned. "Now, move along." He made shooing motions with both hands. "There's a good lad," he added with a wicked grin.

"You know," Emily said as Honor's armed retainers trooped past her in Nico's wake, "I'd forgotten how much more . . . placid it is around here when your myrmidons are away."

"They do have a tendency to liven the place up, don't they," Honor said dryly, regarding LaFollet with an expression which combined amusement and resignation in near-equal measure. The armsman returned it with a look of total innocence, and she shook her head and turned back to Emily. "Mac went on to the Bay House to collect the mail, check in with Miranda, and get her report on things generally. He'll be arriving in another couple of hours."

"I know. He screened me from Landing with his schedule.

Nico's already made arrangements for his arrival, too."

Emily smiled crookedly. "One thing we've got plenty of in this rambling edifice is bedroom space."

Honor tasted the mingled affection, humor, and small, lingering trace of sorrow which accompanied Emily's last sentence and reached out again, almost involuntarily, to rest one hand on the other woman's shoulder. As always, the fragile delicacy of the invalid's flesh and bones under her hand was almost shocking, so totally at odds with the inner vitality of the woman trapped within it.

"I know," she said softly, and Emily reached up to lay her working hand briefly atop Honor's.

"Yes, I imagine you do," she said more briskly, still smiling. "And Hamish will be here shortly, as well. He screened to say he's been delayed by some Admiralty House business. Nothing critical, just details that have to be dealt with. And, yes, Nimitz," she said, looking directly at the 'cat on Honor's shoulder, "Samantha is just fine. I'm sure she'll be just as eager to see you as you are to see her when she and Hamish get here."

Nimitz rose higher, true-hands flashing, and Emily chuckled as she read the signs.

"Yes, I think you could say she's missed you as much as she would have missed celery. Possibly even a little more than that."

Nimitz bleeked with laughter, and Honor shook her head.

"You two are bad influences on each other," she observed severely.

"Nonsense. Both of us were completely beyond salvage before we ever met, Honor," Emily replied serenely.

"I'm sure." Honor glanced over her shoulder at LaFollet, and the colonel smiled faintly.

"If you'll pardon me for a moment, My Lady," he said, "I need to speak to the limo driver before he parks the car.

With your permission?"

"Of course, Andrew," she said and watched fondly as he stepped back outside.

"Ah, I think I might just go and check with Tabitha about the supper menu, Milady," Thurston said to Emily. "You'll keep an eye on her till I get back, Your Grace?" she added innocently to Honor.

"Of course I will," Honor said gravely, and Thurston smiled and disappeared, leaving her alone with Emily and Nimitz.

"My goodness," Emily murmured as the door closed behind her. "She did that very neatly. And I didn't think anything could overcome that professional paranoia of his!

For all he knows, assassins are lurking in the great hall right this moment."

"Andrew does more than simply protect me physically, Emily," Honor said. "He also does his best to let me cling to at least the illusion of a little bit of privacy." Her smile was more crooked than the one the artificial nerves in the left side of her face normally produced. "Of course, we both know it's only an illusion, but that doesn't make it any less important to me."

"No, I don't suppose it does," Emily said gently. "We Manticoran aristocrats think we live in fishbowls, but compared to you Grayson steadholders—" She shook her head. "I suppose it really is necessary, in your case, at least, given how many people seem to have tried to kill you over the years. But I often wonder how you can stand it without going mad."

"There are times I wonder, too," Honor admitted.

"Mostly, though, it's my armsmen themselves who keep me sane. Graysons have had a thousand years to adjust to the peculiarities of their own traditions, and it's amazing how

'invisible' an armsman can make himself. But it's more than that, too. They just . . . become a part of you. I suppose it's like your relationship with Nico or Sandra, or mine with Mac, but with an added dimension. They know everything about me, Emily, and every single one of them will go to his grave without ever betraying a confidence of mine.

That's what Grayson armsmen do."

"Then I suppose I envy you as much as I pity you," Emily said.

"You might want to keep some of that sympathy for yourself," Honor said. Emily arched an eyebrow, and Honor gave her another off-center smile. "If things go on as they have, you and Hamish are going to find my armsmen interfering in your lives almost as much as they do in the lives of my mother and father. Andrew will be as discreet about it as he possibly can, but it will happen."

Emily gazed at her for several seconds, then sighed.

"Yes," she said finally. "I can see that. In fact, I realized it while you were still in Sidemore. But I think I'm discovering that adjusting to the reality is a little more . . . complicated than I'd anticipated."

"I don't doubt it, and I'm sorry," Honor said softly. "You don't deserve all the complications I've inflicted on your life."

"Nonsense!" Emily shook her head firmly. "Just desserts don't come into it. Or, as Hamish has always been fond of saying—when he thinks I don't hear him, of course—shit happens."

Honor's mouth twitched, and Emily smiled at her as she smothered a giggle.

"You didn't plan any of this, Honor," Emily continued,

"any more than Hamish did. In fact, if memory serves, the two of you were busy making everyone—Nimitz, Samantha, and myself included—thoroughly miserable because of your absolute determination not to 'inflict' any complications on my life. I may not like having to deal with all of them, but I don't regret any of them. You know that."

She looked Honor straight in the eye, and Honor nodded slowly. Emily was one of the small number of people who knew her empathic link with Nimitz was so deep, so intense, that she'd actually developed something very like the treecats' ability to sense the emotions of those about her. Which meant she did know Emily was being completely honest with her.

"Then Hamish and I are remarkably lucky people," she said. Emily made a small throwing away gesture with her mobile hand, and Honor inhaled a deep breath. "However, the question I'm sure Andrew stepped outside so I could ask you was whether it was genuine Admiralty business that detained Hamish, or simply good strategy on a more personal level."

"Both, I think," Emily said, green eyes twinkling.

"Admiralty House has been keeping him late quite a bit these past few months," she went on more soberly, "and I don't doubt for a moment that he really is busy trying to club the latest batch of pseudogators to crawl out of the swamp. But it's also true we both thought it might be a bit more . . . politic if he stayed busy with routine matters while I got my friend Honor settled in here at White Haven instead of rushing home to greet you himself. Not," she added dryly, "that I don't expect his 'greeting' to be about as enthusiastic as you're likely to survive when he does get here."

Honor felt herself actually blushing, and Emily laughed delightedly.

"Oh, Honor! You really are so, so . . . so Sphinxian!"

"I can't help it," Honor protested. "I mean, Mother's from Beowulf, so I suppose I ought to be more, well, liberated, or whatever, but I'm not, all right?" She gave the older woman's shoulder a gently cautious shake. "You and Hamish may be from decadent old Manticore, but you're right, I am from Sphinx. And, just to make things worse, for the last eighteen T-years I've been from Grayson, too. Can you think of a planet less well suited to developing a sophisticated attitude about this sort of thing?"

"Actually, I'd think the Grayson element might help, really," Emily said, only half humorously. "I mean, they do have that tradition of multiple wives."

"That's multiple wives, Emily," Honor said dryly. "They're not so big on unmarried lovers. Especially when one of the lovers in question is married to someone else."

"I wonder if they might be just a bit more understanding than you think they would." Emily shook her head quickly, and continued before Honor could open her mouth. "I'm not suggesting you run home to find out, Honor! You're a steadholder. I understand that, and I understand you're not free to run the risks as Steadholder Harrington that you might run as simply Honor Harrington, just as you and Hamish can't openly display your feelings here in the Star Kingdom after the way those bastards tried to smear both of you last year. But I really do think you're both still being harder on yourselves for feelings neither of you sought than most other people would be."

"You're a remarkable woman, Emily Alexander," Honor said after a moment. "I see exactly why Hamish loves you as much as he does." She touched the older woman's cheek gently. "And I don't deserve to have you understand so deeply."

"You're not a very good judge of what you deserve, Honor," Emily said. "But," she went on more briskly,

"before we get too maudlin, why don't we take ourselves off to the conservatory?" She grinned mischievously. "If we hurry, we can disappear before Colonel LaFollet comes back inside and see how long it takes him to find you again. Won't that be fun?"

Chapter Five

"Mr. Secretary, Colonel Nesbitt is here for his three o'clock."

"Hm?" Secretary of State Arnold Giancola looked up from the correspondence on his display with a bemused expression. He gazed at his administrative assistant for a second or two, then blinked. "I'm sorry, Alicia. What did you say?"

Alicia Hampton suppressed a temptation to shake her head in fond exasperation. Arnold Giancola was by far the most satisfactory boss she'd ever had. He had a reputation for ambition, and she could believe it, but he was unfailingly courteous to his staffers, charismatic, and generally thoughtful. And he'd also become increasingly absentminded as the interstellar diplomatic situation darkened. He was working far too hard these days, and he'd taken to leaving the security systems in his office up all the time so he could be certain no one would interrupt him while he did it. Which only helped him forget things even more thoroughly.

"I said Colonel Nesbitt is here for his three o'clock, Sir,"

she repeated.

"Oh?" Giancola frowned, then, "Oh! Nesbitt. I'd forgotten all about him. Ask him to come in, please, Alicia!"

"Of course, Mr. Secretary." Alicia smiled at him and stepped back into the outer office.

"The Secretary will see you now, Colonel," she told the tallish, gray-eyed, broad shouldered man in civilian clothing.

"Thank you," Nesbitt said, pocketing the reader he'd been perusing while he waited for the appointed time.

"Oh, Colonel," she said quietly as he started to step past her, "please do remember that the Secretary's calendar is very tight. He has another appointment scheduled in twenty-five minutes." Nesbitt looked at her quizzically, and she smiled apologetically. "He's been a bit more absentminded and forgetful the last couple of days. He's likely to forget, and I don't want to cut you off before you're done when I announce his next visitor."

"Oh, I see!" Nesbitt's expression cleared, and he smiled back at her. "I'll try to keep him focused, Ms. Hampton.

And he's lucky he's got someone like you looking after him."

"We all try, Colonel," Alicia said. "It would be a lot easier if he didn't drive himself as hard as he does."

Nesbitt smiled again, sympathetically, and walked past her into the inner office. He glanced casually at his wrist chrono as the doors closed behind him, and noted the inconspicuous green telltale on the instrument's face with satisfaction. That little device was of Solarian manufacture, not Havenite, and it confirmed that Giancola's security systems were all up and running.

"Mr. Secretary," he said, advancing across the deep carpet towards the half-hectare or so of desk behind which Giancola sat.

"Jean-Claude," Giancola said, in a brisk, no-nonsense tone which went very oddly with the preoccupied façade he was so careful to project for his staff . . . among other people. "Come in. Sit down. We haven't got much time."

"I know." Nesbitt seated himself in the indicated, comfortable chair, and crossed his legs. "Your charming assistant is rather concerned about you, you know, Mr.

Secretary. She reminded me of the short window we have for this meeting because she was afraid you're getting absentminded enough you wouldn't remember."

"Good." Giancola smiled.

"Really?" Nesbitt cocked his head. "Actually, I'm wondering if it's really good tradecraft, if you don't mind my saying so."

"I don't mind your saying it, although that doesn't necessarily mean I agree with you. Why do you think it might not be?"

"Kevin Usher's no fool, whatever public image he chooses to project," Nesbitt said. "I don't know whether there's any truth to the rumors about his wife and Cachat—I think a lot of people wonder exactly what's going on there—but I do know the rumors about his drunkenness are just that: rumors. Unsubstantiated ones."

"And?" Giancola prompted just a bit impatiently. "It's not as if I hadn't figured that out for myself, Jean-Claude."

"And a man who's busy presenting that kind of false image to the rest of the universe is likely to wonder if someone else, especially someone who seems to have changed as much as you have, isn't doing the same thing.

And if you are, he's going to wonder why."

"Oh." Giancola sat back, drumming lightly on his desktop with the fingers of one hand, then shrugged. "I see where you were going now. You may even have a point. On the other hand, it doesn't much matter what I do; Usher's going to think I'm up to something however I act. So I'm basically playing a shell game. I'm leaving my security systems up most of the time, no matter who I'm seeing, which means there's no way for him to tell whose conversations I really want to be certain he can't overhear. I'm sure he understands that; my little charade is to help explain to my staff and everyone else why I keep 'forgetting' to switch the jammers off. It isn't really directed at him at all, except, possibly, in a very secondary sort of way. I do like to spend the occasional minute thinking about how incredibly irritating he must find the entire thing, though."

"I see." Nesbitt regarded him narrowly, then shrugged. "If it amuses you, I don't imagine it's really going to do any harm. Personally, I'd find the entire thing much too exhausting to maintain, but that's up to you."

"If it starts getting tiring, I can always stop. Usher will probably find that even more irritating." Giancola smiled nastily. "But we're going to have to talk about that some other time. Right now, I need your report."

"Of course." Nesbitt folded his hands over his raised knee and tilted his head thoughtfully to one side. "I'm happy to say Grosclaude wasn't quite as clever as he thought," he said. "You're right—he did retain a complete file of the correspondence.


sets of correspondence.

Unfortunately for him, he knew he wouldn't be able to get the file off Manticore with him when he was expelled.

They weren't going to be very concerned with observing all the niceties of diplomatic immunity after we'd just launched what amounted to a sneak attack against them, and Manty surveillance is too good for him to get anything by it if they pulled out all the stops. And even if they didn't find it, there was always the possibility the security types waiting for him at our end might. So he piggybacked the information through the diplomatic bag several days before the balloon went up and had it remailed to a private account in Nouveau Paris after the bag got here."

"And?" Giancola said when he paused.

"And, also unfortunately for him, it was an account I already knew about. Courtesy of a few backdoors the new management still hasn't found yet, I was able to track the file to his account and also when he pulled it back out after his own arrival from Manticore and lodged it in the secure database of his attorney's law firm. Along with a cover letter directing that the file in question be sent to Kevin Usher's personal attention should anything . . .

unfortunate happen to him."

"Damn." Giancola's mouth tightened. "I was afraid he'd done something like that."

"Only sensible thing for him to do," Nesbitt agreed.

"Although, if he really knew what he was doing, he never would've used this sort of approach. He'd have buried it on an old-fashioned record chip under a mattress somewhere and used someone he'd never had any traceable relationship with before as his bagman. This way, he might as well have left me an engraved invitation."

"What do you mean?" Giancola asked intently.

"I mean that the central net is still riddled with StateSec backdoors, Mr. Secretary. To really nail them all shut, they'd have to slag the old system down and start from scratch. Oh," Nesbitt shrugged, "they actually did a fairly good job when LePic and Usher set things up over at Justice. I'd guess they probably managed to find and close a good ninety percent of them. But there were so many in place that they never had a prayer of getting all of them.

I'm sure they're still looking, and of course not knowing for sure whether or not they've found my little keyholes does tend to make life a bit more exciting. There's always the chance they have found them and they're just sitting there, monitoring, letting me tie the noose around my own neck before they pounce."

"I hope you'll pardon me if I, for one, don't find the image particularly amusing," Giancola said tartly.

"I might as well find it amusing." Nesbitt shrugged again.

"I'm taking every precaution I can think of, but if the precautions don't work, there's not much I can do about it.

I guess it's the equivalent of your amusement at the notion of pissing Usher off with your silly little mind games."

Giancola looked at him steadily for a few seconds, then snorted.

"All right," he said briskly. "Let's cut to the chase. Should I assume from what you've said that you've got access to Yves' file at his attorney's?"

"Yes." Nesbitt smiled. "I can make the file—and his letter of instruction—disappear without a trace any time I want to."

"I'm sure you could," Giancola said with a slow smile of his own. "But if you've got the access to disappear it, then you've also got the access to change it, don't you?"

"Well, yes," Nesbitt said slowly, smile transforming into a slight, thoughtful frown. "Why?"

"I feel quite certain Yves would vastly prefer not to blow the whistle on our little . . . modifications. After all, if I go down, he goes down, and I rather suspect—given all the people who have been killed in the meantime—that Usher and Pritchart would make sure both of us went down rather messily. So what he's got is entirely in the nature of insurance, state's evidence he can use to bargain with if someone else figures out what the two of us did, not anything he really wants to use. Which means he's not going to do anything with it unless he starts to feel threatened. Or, of course, unless something really does happen to him."

"Which is essentially what you're thinking in terms of, no?" Nesbitt said.

"Unfortunately, yes," Giancola said, and Nesbitt was almost certain the regret in his voice was genuine. Not enough to dissuade him for a moment, but genuine. "But my point is that there's no need for us to hurry. We can take the time to make sure we do things right."

"Unless something happens to him which really is an accident," Nesbitt pointed out. "He could get run over by a ground car, you know, or break his neck skiing. He spends enough time doing that he could even die of sheer physical exhaustion. Hell, he could get hit by lightning! In which case his letter of instruction would be opened even though we—you—genuinely hadn't had a thing to do with it."

"Not very likely," Giancola replied. "I think the odds are fairly heavily in our favor in that respect. Still, you're right. It does behoove us to move expeditiously."

"Which I could do much better if you'd tell me exactly where we're moving to."

"Well, if Yves has gone to such lengths to be certain incriminating evidence against me will surface if something happens to him, then I think it's only fair for us to see to it that the incriminating evidence is there."

"What?" Nesbitt didn't raise his voice. Indeed, it went flatter. But there was no amusement at all in his suddenly intent gray eyes.

"Relax, Jean-Claude. I realize it sounds bizarre, but consider this scenario. Here you are, my senior internal security officer, responsible for finding leaks anywhere in the Department. Eventually, as you and I are both painfully aware, the current unpleasantness with Manticore is going to come to an end, one way or the other. When it does, there are going to be some very hard questions asked about the discrepancies between their version of our diplomatic correspondence and our own. Original documents are going to be compared by the victors, whoever they are, and neither side is going to be particularly amused by what they find. So, all things being equal, I think it would be a very good thing if you—

efficient, hard-working person that you are—were the one who discovered that the documents had been tampered with from our end."

"I hesitate to suggest that you might be out of your ever loving mind, Mr. Secretary," Nesbitt said. "On the other hand, the possibility does present itself to my keen intellect."

"Don't worry, I'm not." Giancola leaned forward in his comfortable chair, his expression suddenly very intent.

"The problem is that the documents were tampered with from our end. With access to both sets of originals, it wouldn't take Usher very long at all to prove that, and I'm confident the Manties could do it even more quickly. So our best defense is to make the discovery ourselves and be properly horrified to learn that my trusted colleague of many years, Yves Grosclaude, was responsible for the manipulation which led to the current, horrible bloodshed."

"And just how did he accomplish that?" Nesbitt asked in a fascinated tone.

"Why, by way of one of those StateSec backdoors you were just telling me about. After all, he was associated with the old Foreign Ministry's internal security services.

Apparently, he was closer to StateSec than we ever suspected, and he used one of the old StateSec access programs to hack into my secure database and acquire copies of my personal and official encryption keys. That's how he was able to forge doctored versions of the correspondence and pass them off as genuine to the Manties."

"And the alterations in the Manties' notes?"

"He did that the way it was actually done," Giancola said with a smile. "He stole the Manticoran Foreign Office's encryption key from my secure database, as well."

"He did what?" Nesbitt asked very carefully.

"So, StateSec did manage to bury one or two skeletons in Nouveau Paris without your knowing about it, did they?"

Giancola chuckled. "You know InSec and StateSec—all of the old régime's intelligence services, really, except possibly NavInt—were always more focused on political espionage than military intelligence. I think that's one reason Saint-Just was always so ready to embrace political operations, like that attempt to assassinate Elizabeth and Benjamin. And why, frankly, StateSec did such a piss-poor job on military intelligence all the way through the last war. They weren't very good at it because their institutional mindset just didn't work that way. But they were quite good at political and diplomatic espionage. I found some fascinating things in the Foreign Ministry archives when they were handed over to State after the Constitutional Convention. Including a few notes which suggest that Queen Elizabeth's father's grav-skiing

'accident' wasn't quite as accidental as everyone thought it was. Which, coupled with what happened in Yeltsin, might just help explain why she hates us with such outstanding virulence.

"At any rate, among StateSec's accomplishments was the corruption of one of Foreign Secretary Descroix's senior staffers. Someone senior enough, in fact, to have physical access to her official files."

"My God," Nesbitt said, finally startled out of his normal air of amused cynicism, "they actually stole Descroix's encryption key?"

"Not her personal key, no, but her departmental key.

Which is another of the reasons I'm fairly confident the Manties would quickly figure out who did what if they got a chance to compare the raw originals. I'm going to be dreadfully embarrassed when I realize no one here in State realized we never saw Descroix's personal key on any of the correspondence. Of course, there was no reason why we should have felt unduly suspicious, since all of it had the official Manticoran Foreign Office codes, but still—"

He shrugged self-deprecatingly.

"So," Nesbitt sat back in his chair once more, drawing his normal persona back about himself, "Grosclaude stole both sets of keys from your database?"

"Exactly. It's going to be up to you to actually set up the access he would have used. On the other hand, you're also the efficient and dedicated security agent who will discover the security breach, so be sure you set it up in a way that makes discovering it plausible."

"I can do that," Nesbitt said thoughtfully. "It'll take some time, though. Especially to establish that all of this happened months ago."

"I assumed it would." Giancola nodded. "That's why I'm so pleased by the realization that Yves isn't going to be in any hurry to start blowing whistles. We've got some time to work with. But just to be on the safe side, we should probably deal with his insurance file first."

"Yes, tell me what you've got in mind for that, if you don't want me to simply make it go away."

"Two things," Giancola said. "First, we need a substitute letter of instruction to his attorney. One which has nothing at all to do with the contents of that particular file. Can you do that?"

"No problem," Nesbitt said, after a few seconds' thought.

"He used a standard self-generated legal e-form for it.

Probably didn't trust attorney-client privilege to hold if his lawyer knew what he had in mind ahead of time. Since no flesh-and-blood knows what should be in it, no one's going to ask any questions if I alter its content."

"Good. Go ahead and get that done immediately. And once we've defused that particular landmine, we need you to go into his existing file and make some judicious alterations. I don't want you to get rid of it entirely. I don't even want you to make it incriminate someone else.

Instead, I want you to turn it into a forgery."


"Yes. It's going to have to be carefully done, but I want that file to prove Yves planned on setting me up as the fall guy for his manipulation of the notes. I want it to be good, but I want there to be a provable flaw in it, something a good security type like yourself can spot."

"You're figuring that if the fellow who really did it all also manufactured evidence that you were responsible for it, it will demonstrate that, in fact, you didn't have a thing to do with it," Nesbitt said slowly, gray eyes beginning to gleam.

"Exactly. The only way to 'prove' I didn't do it is to provide someone else who obviously did. And if the someone else who did it also manufactured evidence to implicate me in order to divert suspicion from himself, he obviously wouldn't have tried to divert it to someone who was really his accomplice and might have evidence of his own to prove his guilt as part of a deal with prosecutors."

"Neat," Nesbitt said after several moments of consideration. "Complicated. And I can see a half-dozen places right off the top of my head where the entire thing could go off the rails. But it's doable. It really is. And it's so damned Byzantine and filled with double-think and possible failure points that it would never have occurred to a professional like Usher—or me, for that matter. I think I can pull it all together for you, but putting all the pieces in place is going to take even longer than I'd thought. I don't like having that long for something to go wrong in."

"Not a problem," Giancola disagreed, waving one hand in a dismissive gesture. "As soon as you've dealt with the lawyer's instructions, Yves can go ahead and suffer that accident. It will have to be a very accidental accident, you understand?"

"That I can handle," Nesbitt said confidently.

"Then as soon as that's out of the way, you can move on to putting all of the other bits and pieces together. Once everything's been neatly tied to Yves, we can 'discover' the evidence anytime we want to. For that matter, we might even decide the thing to do is to steer Usher and his FIA to the evidence. Let Kevin turn it up. In fact, if I weren't afraid we'd be getting too fancy, I'd almost prefer for him to find Yves' evidence falsely implicating me and accept it initially, until State's own security types detected the fact that it was a forgery. Having him suspect me, or even formally accuse me, when I turn out to be totally innocent, would help me tilt the balance in the Cabinet against LePic."

He gazed thoughtfully at the ceiling for several heartbeats, then shook his head regretfully.

"No. We've got enough balls in the air without adding that one to it."

"You have no idea how glad I, as the wizard charged with conjuring all these minor miracles for you, am to hear you say that," Nesbitt said dryly.

"I'm always pleased when I'm able to make my associates happy," Giancola assured him. Then the Secretary of State's eyes narrowed once more. "But now that you're a happy wizard, do you really believe you can pull all of this off?"

"Yes. I'm not absolutely positive of it—not with it all coming at me cold, this way. But as I said, I think it's doable. I'm going to have to sit down and look at it very carefully, probably for several days, at least, before I can tell you more than that. At an absolute minimum, though, I'm certain I can disappear Grosclaude's evidence if it turns out we have to do that, instead. And I feel reasonably confident I can arrange the database hack you want and make it crystal-clear he was behind it. As for the rest, I'm going to have to see how it all comes together before I can tell you positively one way or the other."

"Take your time—within reason, of course." Giancola grimaced. "One thing I think we can count on is that this war isn't going to end tomorrow, or even next week. We've got time to do it right . . . and we'd damned well better not do it wrong."

Chapter Six

"That was delicious, Jackson," Honor sighed appreciatively as Jackson McGwire, White Haven's butler, oversaw the removal of the dessert dishes. Or, more precisely, of the dessert dish, singular, since the only one on the table was the one in front of Honor. "Please tell Tabitha that she outdid herself on the chocolate mousse."

"I'll be happy to, Your Grace," McGwire said, with a small half-bow and a twinkle. Honor's genetically modified metabolism's need for calories was phenomenal, and Tabitha Dupuy, White Haven's cook, and her staff had taken it as a personal challenge. So far, they had yet to repeat themselves with a single dessert offering, despite the recent frequency of her visits to the Alexander family's seat, and Honor and her hosts had a small betting pool going on how long they could keep it up.

Honor started to say something else, then paused as Nimitz sat up straighter in his treecat-sized highchair. He and Samantha, his mate, sat between their adopted humans, and now the male 'cat raised both true-hands to the top of his head, palms turned inward, raised first and second fingers on both hands signing the letter "U" and wiggling backward. From there, the right true-hand slid down, the palm facing his body, fingers extended and facing left, and moved from left to right. Then his true-hands crooked in the sign for the letter "C," with the tip of its thumb resting on the upturned first finger of his other true-hand before both true-hands came together in front of him, index fingers extended and held together, and moved across his body, fingers separating and coming back together again as they traveled. And, finally, the second finger of his right true-hand touched his lips before the hand moved down and out a bit, while his thumb rubbed over the same finger.

"Of course, Nimitz," McGwire said with a smile. "I'll inform Ms. Dupuy personally."

"Please do," Honor reinforced, reaching out to rub the treecat's ears affectionately. "While I'm not a connoisseur of rabbit and celery stew, Stinker here certainly is. If he says it's delicious, Tabitha could probably get rich operating a treecat restaurant chain!"

"I'll certainly tell her that, too, Your Grace," McGwire assured her.

"I think that's probably all we'll need, Jackson," Hamish Alexander, Thirteenth Earl of White Haven, said from his place at the head of the table. "If we do discover we need anything—or if Her Grace should discover she has a hollow ankle somewhere that still needs filling—we'll buzz."

"Of course, Milord," McGwire replied with a smile, and followed the footman with the tray of dishes out of the dining room.

The dining room in question was one of the smaller ones White Haven boasted. The formal dining room was big enough for the massive parties a Manticoran aristocrat—

even one with as little time for "social fripperies" as Hamish Alexander—was expected to host from time to time. Since he, Emily, and Honor were the only humans at the table, that cavernous chamber had not been called upon. Instead, Emily had directed that supper be served in the far tinier dining room off her personal suite. It was an intimate little room, built into the side of one of White Haven's older wings, with floor-to-ceiling windows which looked out over the landscaped east lawn, lovely under the light of Thorson, Manticore's single moon. The red ember of Phoenix, otherwise known as Manticore-A II, rested on the horizon, just above the tips of the Old Earth spruces fringing the lawn, and the gleaming gems of at least a dozen orbital platforms moved visibly against the stars.

Emily and Hamish often dined there, because of its proximity to her rooms, but it was rare for them to invite anyone else to join them.

The door closed behind McGwire and the footman, and silence fell for a moment. Despite everything, Honor still felt a bit awkward, and she tasted a slight, answering spike of awkwardness from Hamish. The earl took a sip from his wine glass, and his wife smiled slightly. Emily was genuinely and affectionately amused, Honor knew, and that was important to her.

"Well," Hamish said after a moment, setting his glass down precisely, "I'd say Samantha was probably as happy to see Nimitz as Emily and I were to see you, Honor."

It was his turn to reach out and caress the ears of the small, dappled treecat sitting beside him. Nimitz's mate pressed back against his fingertips, and the loud buzz of her purr made the use of any signs totally unnecessary.

Emily and Honor chuckled, and Nimitz bleeked a laugh of his own before he jumped lightly from his own highchair to join Samantha in hers. The two 'cats draped their prehensile tails about one another, and Nimitz's happy, bone-deep purr mingled with Samantha's.

"I think that's probably a safe statement, dear," Emily observed dryly.

"Actually," Honor said more seriously, "it's really hard on them to be separated." She shook her head. "I've come to suspect that one reason they're the only mated pair that ever both adopted humans is the separation factor.

Treecats are literally almost a part of one another, especially mated pairs, and it's almost . . . physically painful for them to be apart from one another as much as these two have been since Samantha adopted Hamish."

"I know," Hamish sighed, looking at Honor, and she tasted the multiple layers of meaning in his tone.

"Sometimes I'm afraid she'll come to regret having done it."

"Oh, no," Honor said, returning his gaze. "It's awkward, and neither one of them likes all the consequences, but

'cats don't look back over decisions of the heart, Hamish.

As Emily pointed out to both of us once upon a time, they're remarkably sane in that respect."

"As well they should be," Emily pronounced. She looked back and forth between husband and Honor and started to say something, but Honor felt her change direction before she spoke. "On the other hand, it's not as if Samantha hasn't been able to find things to occupy her while the two of you were away, Honor."

"No?" Honor looked at Samantha, who returned her gaze and groomed her whiskers with an undeniable air of smugness.

"Oh, no. She and Dr. Arif formally opened the conference day before yesterday," Emily said.

"They did?" Honor sat a bit straighter, her eyes brightening. "How did it go?" she demanded eagerly.

"Well," Emily said with a fondly amused smile. "Very well, in fact. Of course, it was only the first day, Honor.

You do understand that it's going to take a long time for them to make any real progress, don't you?"

"Of course I do." Honor shook her head, her own lips twitching as she tasted Emily's response to her own eagerness. "But the entire idea is incredibly exciting to a Sphinxian, especially one who's been adopted. After so many centuries when none of the experts could even agree on how intelligent the 'cats really were—or weren't—seeing them sit down with humans to formally discuss ways treecats can integrate themselves into human society as full partners is—Well," she shook her head again, "it's something there aren't really words to describe."

"And it was all your idea, wasn't it, love?" Hamish said to Samantha, reaching out to stroke her silken pelt.

"My impression is that Samantha has a rather forceful will," Emily observed dryly, and Honor laughed.

"From what the other 'cats have had to say since they learned to sign, that's probably as big an understatement as to say the Queen has a rather negative view of the Republic of Haven," she said.

"Which," Hamish said, his tone and his emotions both suddenly darker, "is apt, but not as amusing as it might have been a day or so ago."

"What do you mean?" Honor asked with abrupt anxiety, but Emily interrupted before he could reply.

"Now that is enough, Hamish," she said sternly. Her husband looked at her, and she waggled her right index finger in his direction. "We haven't seen Honor— you haven't seen her—for almost two weeks," she continued. "During that time, you've been wrestling with affairs at the Admiralty, and she's been dealing with the affairs of her Steading. Neither of you, however, is on duty tonight. You will not discuss the military situation, the diplomatic situation, or the domestic political situation—Manticoran or Grayson—tonight. Do I make myself sufficiently clear?"

"Yes," Hamish said after a moment, blue eyes smiling at her. "Yes, you do."

"Good. And don't forget, either of you, that my furry spies," she waved at the treecats, "will report faithfully to me if my instructions are violated."

"Traitors that they are," Hamish muttered with a grin.

"Treason, my dear, is often simply a matter of perspective." Emily told him, and her life-support chair moved silently back from the table on its counter-grav.

"And now, why don't the two of you run on? I've had a long day, and you do have a lot of catching up to do. But no shoptalk!"

"No, Ma'am," Honor agreed meekly.

She and Hamish rose, and Hamish opened the door for Emily's chair. He bent and kissed his wife, and she reached up to run her working hand lightly over his dark hair. Then she was gone, and Hamish and Honor looked at one another.

"You know," Honor said very softly, "neither one of us deserves her."

"I don't know anyone who could," Hamish said simply.

He crossed the room to her, and she folded into his arms. Despite her own height, Hamish was slightly taller than she was, and his arms felt incredibly good about her.

She leaned into his embrace, savoring the taste of his emotions, his welcome, and his love. The "mind-glow,"

treecats called it, and as she felt its bright power and savored once again the way the two of them fitted together on so very many levels, she knew exactly where the term had come from.

His mouth met hers, and her own arms went about him.

Their lips clung together for what seemed a very long time, and then, reluctantly, she leaned back and looked across at him.

"I've missed you," she said quietly. "But you do realize that this is crazy?"

"Not crazy," he disagreed with a small, crooked smile.

"Just . . . politically unwise."

"And arguably in violation of the Articles of War," Honor pointed out.

"Nonsense." He shook his head. "You know Article One-Nineteen only applies to personnel in the same direct chain of command."

"And you're First Lord and I'm a fleet commander designate."

"And the First Lord is a civilian, my dear." Hamish's mouth quirked in combined amusement and very real and bitter disappointment. "If I were First Space Lord, you might have a point. As it is, I couldn't legally give you a direct order even if I wanted to. Besides—"

A crisp, loud bleek interrupted him, and he looked down. Samantha returned his look sternly. Her right true-hand rose, its first two fingers closing onto her thumb in the sign for the letter "N," before both true-hands moved in front of her, right true hand in the palm-out sign for the letter "B" arcing from side to side in front of her to hit the back of her left true-hand, closed in the sign for the letter

"S" before opening back into the sign for "N" and sliding down her left true-hand's fingers and palm.

"All right," Hamish said with a laugh. "All right! No more business, I swear."

Samantha sniffed, flirting her tail, and Honor echoed Hamish's laughed.

"Have you ever noticed how thoroughly our lives are managed for us?" she asked. "It was bad enough when it was just Nimitz. Then along came Mac, then Andrew, and Miranda, and Simon and Spencer, and Samantha. And now Emily."

"We're obviously outnumbered and outgunned," Hamish agreed. "In which case, it looks like our only real option is to surrender."

"Well, between them and Emily, Nico, Sandra, and Andrew have all conspired to see to it that no one is going to disturb us," Honor said gently, reaching out to cup the side of his face in her right palm. "And since they've all gone to such pains for us, I suppose we'd best be about it."

* * *

The buzz in her ear woke her.

Forty-five years of naval service had trained her to awaken instantly and fully alert but, this morning, her eyes opened slowly, luxuriously as Nimitz's gentle amusement filtered into her mind over their link. Hamish's body was warm, pressed against her spine, his left arm flung across her. She'd almost forgotten how comforting it could be to wake up that way, and she smiled as she roused further, tasting Hamish's sleeping mind-glow.

He was dreaming, and it was obviously a good dream.

Honor had been surprised, although she realized she shouldn't have been, when she discovered she could taste a sleeper's emotions as well as those of someone who was awake. She couldn't actually tell what Hamish was dreaming about, the way a treecat could have done with another 'cat, but the way he stirred slightly, fingers of his left hand tightening, suggested at least the subject.

Nimitz bleeked at her softly and leaned forward to touch her nose with his own. Then he sat up, and his right true-hand formed the sign for the letter "C" and touched his right shoulder, then tapped the back of his left true-hand's wrist with the first finger of his right true-hand.

Honor frowned, then twitched the muscles of her left eye socket in the pattern which brought up the time/date display in her artificial eye's field of view. The numbers obediently appeared, and she sat up abruptly.

"Hmmm? Whazzat?" Hamish mutter-grumbled as she slid out from under his arm and swung her feet onto the floor.

"Wake up!" she said, turning to bend back over him. His eyes opened, and she tweaked the tip of his nose gently.

"We're late!" she continued.

"We can't be," Hamish protested, sitting up in bed himself. His eyes lit as he completed the waking up process, and as she tasted his emotions, she was abruptly reminded that she didn't have a stitch on.

"Oh, yes we can be," she told him, and swatted his right hand when he reached for her. "And despite all the lascivious things going through your head right now, we don't have time to do anything about them."

"Nico will get us up in plenty of time," Hamish objected.

"Unless, perhaps, somebody suggested to him that he shouldn't," Honor replied. His eyes widened suddenly, then narrowed, and she nodded. "The same thought had occurred to me," she said.

"She did seem rather insistent on our staying away from shoptalk," Hamish conceded, climbing out of bed on the other side. "On the other hand, she also knows we're both supposed to be seeing Elizabeth this morning."

"Who happens to be her cousin and probably won't have her beheaded if we happen to be late because she didn't happen to wake us up in time," Honor pointed out.

"Unfortunately for that polite fiction all our henchmen are working so hard to maintain for us, however, Nimitz says Andrew's sense of duty is about to cause him to knock on your door. At which point it will be rather difficult to pretend I spent the night in the Blue Suite where I was supposed to be!"

"These contortions aren't really necessary, you know,"

Hamish said reasonably, watching her slip into the kimono which had somehow ended up on the floor. "As you just pointed out, all our people know what's really going on."

"Maybe. No, certainly. But it's going to make Andrew feel awkward the day he finally admits to both of us what he already knows."

"And what about you?" Hamish asked more gently, and she shrugged as she belted her sash.

"I don't really know," she admitted. She smiled. "Mind you, despite a few lingering spasms of guilt, I'm delighted with the way things are working out, so far, at least. And given the fact that I already know that he knows that I know that he knows—well, you get the picture. Given that, I really don't expect it to be particularly uncomfortable when the day finally comes. But I'm not quite sure." Her smile turned wry. "Like I told Emily, there's still a lot of Sphinx and Grayson in me, and the fact that my love-life's been remarkably similar to a nun's since Paul was killed doesn't really help."

"I can see that," he said, and she smiled again, pleased by the fact that neither of them felt awkward using Paul Tankersley's name. "Still," he continued, "you do realize that sooner or later this is going to come out?"

"At the moment," Honor scooped Nimitz up in her arms and held him, since her kimono lacked the specially padded shoulders built into her uniform tunics and Grayson-style civilian dress, "I'd prefer later, if you don't mind. I don't have any idea at all how Grayson is going to react when it finds out. And given what we all went through with the Opposition trying to insist we were already lovers when we weren't, I don't even want to think about what the political press would do if the word that now we are got out."

"Might be the best time," he suggested, climbing out of bed and pulling on his own robe as he escorted her to the bedroom door. "There's so much going on on the war front, and in Silesia and the Talbott Cluster, that it might even pass relatively unnoticed."

"And just what episode in our past suggests to you that anything about a relationship between you and me could

'pass relatively unnoticed'?" she inquired tartly.

"A point," he admitted, and drew her close to kiss her before she opened the door. "I tend to forget sometimes what good copy 'the Salamander' makes."

"That's one way to put it," she said, and poked him in the navel with two fingers, hard enough to make him "oof."

Then she slipped through the door, with a cautious glance up and down the hall to assure herself LaFollet wasn't already on his way. "Now get yourself up and dressed," she told him sternly, and scurried down the hall to the discreet cross passage which connected the Blue Suite to the private family section of White Haven.

She let herself into the suite the back way, and Nimitz bleeked with laughter as the terminal on the table beside the bed which hadn't been slept in chimed gently.

"Shut up, Stinker!" she said, dumping him on the bed, and he laughed harder as she accepted the com call voice-only.

"Yes?" she said.

"We're running late, My Lady," Andrew LaFollet's voice said. He was too far away for her to actually taste his emotions, but she didn't need to in order to recognize the relief in his voice. "Ah, this is the third time I've screened you, My Lady," he added.

"Sorry," she replied. "I'll try to make up for the lost time."

"Of course, My Lady," he said, and she threw off her kimono once again and dashed for the shower.

* * *

"You look lovely this morning, Honor," Emily observed as Honor stepped into the sunlit dining room with LaFollet on her heels. She wore uniform today, complete with the Star of Grayson on its crimson ribbon, and "lovely" was not the precise adjective she would have chosen herself. "And so well rested," Emily continued with a certain gently malicious relish.

"Thank you," Honor said as LaFollet pulled her chair out for her and she seated herself. "Perhaps that's because I seem to have missed my wakeup call this morning."

"Goodness," Emily said placidly. "I wonder how that could have happened? Nico is usually so efficient about these things."

"Yes," Honor agreed affably. "For that matter, so is Mac .

. . usually."

"Oh, well, don't feel too flustered," Emily told her. "I screened Mount Royal and spoke to Elizabeth. I told her you and Hamish both seemed to be running a bit late this morning, and she asked me to assure you that timing isn't that critical. She just requested we screen her again when you actually leave."

"I see." Honor regarded her across the table for a moment, then shook her head in surrender. "Why am I not surprised that you can snag even the Queen of Manticore in your nets?"

"You make me sound so devious, my dear," Emily reproved her gently.

"No, not devious—just . . . capable."

"I suppose I could accept that as a compliment, so I will,"

Emily said graciously. "Now eat."

Honor looked up as one of the White Haven servants entered the dining room with a tray of food. It was a fairly typical breakfast for someone with her enhanced metabolism—a thick stack of pancakes, eggs Benedict, tomato juice, croissants, melon, and a steaming carafe of hot chocolate—and her stomach rumbled happily at the sight. But then the tray was set before her, and she felt an abrupt stab of queasiness as the smell of the food hit her.

She grimaced, and Emily cocked an eyebrow at her.

"Are you all right, Honor?" she asked, with none of the teasing edge of banter of their earlier conversation.

"Fine, fine," Honor said, suppressing the flicker of almost-nausea firmly, and reached for her fork. "I'm just not as hungry as usual this morning. Possibly because despite your efforts to rearrange our schedule, I'm still feeling a little flustered at the notion of arriving late for a formal audience with my monarch."

"Only one of your monarchs," Emily pointed out.

"True," Honor conceded, and decided to start with the pancakes, whose aroma seemed more congenial than the scent of the eggs. Her stomach heaved rebelliously at the first bite, but it apparently decided to settle down quickly after she swallowed.

"Sorry I'm late," a deep voice said, and she and Emily looked up as Hamish Alexander stepped into the dining room. "I seem to have missed my wakeup call," he added, then blinked as both women burst into laughter.

Chapter Seven

The sting ships in Winton blue and silver which had escorted them from White Haven banked gently away to either side as the armored limousine in Harrington Steading livery came in across the sparkling waters of Jason Bay and crossed the threshold into Mount Royal Palace's defensive envelope. Honor suspected that very few citizens of Landing ever really considered the fact that Mount Royal was one of the most heavily defended pieces of dirt on any of the Star Kingdom's three inhabited planets. She was aware of it primarily because of the necessary interfacing between her own armsmen, the Queen's Own, and Palace Security, and even as a serving naval officer, she'd been astonished at the amount of firepower hidden away under the various innocuous-looking weather domes and secondary structures scattered over the immaculate grounds.

None of that firepower was directed at her, however, and she glanced at Hamish as Mattingly settled the limo lightly onto the semiprivate pad near the old-fashioned, squat spire of King Michael's Tower. Spencer Hawke opened the passenger door and stepped out first, sweeping the immediate area in the automatic threat search of a Grayson armsman even here. LaFollet followed him, and Honor watched her personal armsman give the uniformed Army captain waiting for them a sharp glance.

When no crazed assassins hurled themselves out of the shrubbery, LaFollet stepped to one side so she and Alexander could climb out of the vehicle. Hamish was in civilian court dress trimmed in the maroon and green of the earls of White Haven, as befitted the civilian head of the Admiralty on his way to a formal meeting with his monarch, but Honor was in mess dress uniform, complete with the archaic sword that demanded. In her case, the ancient weapon was no mere prop, either, and the jeweled hilt of the Harrington Sword glittered as she settled the scabbard at her side.

"Your Grace." The captain wore the Griffin-headed shoulder patch of the Falcons End Rangers, the Griffin-recruited battalion of the Queen's Own, and saluted sharply, then turned to Alexander. "My Lord."

He saluted again, and Honor chuckled mentally, wondering exactly how the Palace Protocol Office had decided to resolve the question of precedence between two officers who were both Manticoran admirals and Grayson fleet admirals. The fact that she was junior to Hamish as a Manticoran admiral but senior to him as a Grayson officer offset those two points, she supposed. And the fact that she was both a duchess and a steadholder ought to have given her precedence over his mere earldom, even if it was one of the Star Kingdom's oldest titles while both of hers were less than twenty T-years old.

But he was also First Lord of the Admiralty, which, despite his earlier technically correct argument, made him her ultimate civilian superior—short of the Queen herself—as CO (Designate) Eighth Fleet. It looked as if her aristocratic titles had outweighed his, but she was just as glad she didn't have to keep track of who ranked who.

"If you'd be so good as to follow me?" the captain requested without specifically addressing it to either of them, and the two of them fell into step behind him, trailed by LaFollet, Mattingly, and Hawke.

It was a relatively short walk, and one Honor had made before. The gardens about her were peaceful, drowsing in the sunlight which lay heavily across her shoulders. As a Sphinxian, Honor always found Landing's summer weather unnaturally warm, and the late morning sunlight was almost uncomfortably hot, despite her uniform's smart fabric. The scent of Old Earth roses and Manticoran crown blossom mingled in the still, humid air, and the buzz of Old Earth bees and Manticoran rainbow bugs was improbably loud in the quiet. It was hard to imagine a more placid, comforting setting . . . or one more totally at odds with the reality confronting the Star Kingdom and its allies.

They reached the tower, and the captain escorted them up the old-fashioned elevator. A lieutenant with the shoulder flash of the Copper Wall Battalion came to attention—and dropped one hand to the butt of her holstered pulser—as they approached the door outside which she stood.

"Her Grace, Duchess Harrington, and Earl White Haven to see Her Majesty," their escort announced. Quite unnecessarily, Honor felt certain.

The lieutenant keyed her com without removing her hand from her weapon.

"Her Grace, Duchess Harrington, and Earl White Haven to see Her Majesty," she repeated into the com, and listened a moment to her earbug, eyes still riveted to Honor and Hamish. Then she removed her hand from her pulser.

"Her Majesty is expecting you, Your Grace, My Lord," she said, and pressed the door button.

The door swung open, and Hamish stood back to allow Honor to precede him. She removed her uniform beret, tucked it properly under her left epaulette, and stepped through it.


Queen Elizabeth III stood in front of the comfortable armchair from which she'd risen, holding out both hands with a huge smile of welcome. Her pleasure at seeing Honor again was like a crackling fire on an icy night, and Honor smiled back, reaching out to take Elizabeth's hands.

The treecat on Elizabeth's shoulder flirted his tail, radiating his own pleasure, and his hands flashed in a signed welcome to Nimitz and Samantha as the Queen turned to welcome Hamish, as well. Honor watched the three 'cats and felt an inner bubble of amusement at the contrast between today and her first, almost timorous visit to this room with its simple, comfortably-used furnishings and rust-red carpet.

"Sit down, both of you," Elizabeth commanded, pointing at a pair of chairs arranged around the coffee table. Honor obeyed, taking one of the chairs, and her mental antennae twitched as she noticed the white beret on the table.

"I realize we're running a bit behind schedule," Elizabeth continued as she seated herself once again, "but when Emily screened me, I was able to flip a couple of functions, so we've got time. Besides, I'm going to take the time for a personal visit with you before we get bogged down in all the formalities, no matter what my appointments secretary thinks." She grimaced. "Before things got rearranged, I'd allowed time for it between the audience and dinner, but we've squeezed this morning's briefing from the Admiralty into that slot, so there's not going to be long enough now."

"I'm sorry, Elizabeth," Honor said contritely.

"Don't be." Elizabeth waved the apology aside. "These formal receptions and dinners are important—I know that.

And, to be perfectly frank, we need to show you off to the Allied ambassadors, Honor. Given what happened at Sidemore, most of our allies seem to regard you as something of a talisman." She smiled. "For that matter, so do I, I suppose. You do seem to keep doing three impossible things before breakfast every day for me, don't you, Your Grace?

"I've just been in the right place at the right time . . .

and with the right people," Honor protested.

"I don't doubt it, although I suspect you personally have probably contributed a bit more to your string of successes than you're prepared to admit. But even at this level of diplomacy, Honor, it's still more of a game of perceptions than anything else. And what our Allies perceive right this minute is that you're the only Allied commander who won an unambiguous victory when the Peeps jumped us. They believe you're lucky, as well as good, and that gives you a stature in their eyes which I intend to capitalize upon to the maximum. The fact that it also gives me the opportunity to publicly thank someone who's done far more than most in the service of my kingdom, and who I happen to regard as a personal friend, is simply icing on my cake."

Honor felt her cheeks heat slightly, but she nodded.

"Good. Now," Elizabeth continued, sitting back in her chair with a broader smile, "there is one other small detail I wanted to deal with before the formal audience. Oh," she raised one hand and wiggled it back and forth in a dismissive gesture, "we'll have to cross the 't's and dot all the 'i's during the audience, but that's mostly for public consumption."

Honor regarded her monarch warily. Elizabeth Winton was a remarkably good card player, and her expression revealed only what she chose for it to reveal, but she couldn't conceal the anticipation bubbling within her from Honor. She was up to something, and Honor recognized that wicked zestfulness. She'd tasted it before when Elizabeth looked forward to opening the box of toys the Queen of Manticore got to bestow on people who had served her well. It was one of the perks of her office which Elizabeth most treasured, and she took almost childlike delight in exercising it when the opportunity arose.

"You needn't look so worried, Honor," the Queen scolded now. "This isn't going to hurt a bit, I promise."

"Of course, Your Majesty," Honor said even more warily, and Elizabeth chuckled. Then she leaned forward, scooped up the white beret on the coffee table, and flipped it across to Honor.

"Here," she said as Honor caught it reflexively. "I think this is yours."

Honor arched her eyebrows, then looked down at the beret in her hands. It looked exactly like the black one tucked under her epaulette, except for its color—the white color, reserved for the commander of a hyper-capable warship of the Royal Manticoran Navy. It was the emblem of a captain of a Queen's ship, a mistress after God, which Admiral Honor Harrington would never be again.

"I don't see exactly where you're going with this, Elizabeth," she said after a moment.

"Well, you've already got the Parliamentary Medal of Valor, a knighthood—although, now that I think about it, we're going to be promoting you to knight grand cross this afternoon, I believe—a duchy, a mansion, a baseball team

—whatever that is—your own personal starship, a multibillion-dollar business empire, and a steading."

Elizabeth shrugged. "With all that, deciding what to give you is getting a bit complicated. So I decided to give you back your white beret."

Honor frowned. In theory, she supposed, Elizabeth could issue whatever directives she wanted. She could permit Honor to wear the white beret even if she were no longer a ship's captain. She could even order Honor to wear it. But that wouldn't make it right. She opened her mouth, but before she could speak, Hamish put a hand on her knee.

"Wait," he said, then looked at Elizabeth. "I told you, didn't I?" he said to the Queen.

"Yes, you did. And I owe you five dollars." Elizabeth shook her head, grinning at Honor. "You really don't have a clue where I'm headed, do you?" she asked cheerfully.

"No, I don't," Honor admitted.

"Well, it happens that Admiral Massengale retired month before last," Elizabeth said slowly, watching Honor's expression carefully. Honor felt her eyes widen, and the Queen nodded. "Which means," Elizabeth continued, her voice much more serious, "that Unconquered needs a captain."

"Elizabeth, you can't," Honor protested. She shook her head. "I'm honored, flattered—delighted—you'd consider me, but there are too many people senior to me who deserve the berth at least as much as I do! You can't just jump me over their heads this way!"

"I can, I want to, and I have," Elizabeth told her flatly.

"And, no, this isn't just politics, not a matter of waving my

'talisman' under everyone's noses. And, before you continue to protest, I remind you that the choice of Unconquered's captain is not solely up to the Crown. I may get to make the final decision, but you know the tradition. I can choose only from the list of names submitted to me by the Navy.

And not," she added, glancing at Hamish, "by the Admiralty. The list of candidates comes solely from the serving officers of the Queen's Navy. You know how it's generated, and you also have to know you were nominated for it after Cerberus."

"Well, yes, but—"

Honor broke off. HMS Unconquered was the oldest starship still in commission in the Royal Manticoran Navy.

She had been commanded at the very beginning of her lengthy career by Edward Saganami when he was a commander, and her last commanding officer on active deployment had been Lieutenant Commander Ellen D'Orville. Unconquered was unique, the only ship to have been commanded by both of the Star Kingdom's greatest naval heroes, which was why she had been rescued from the breakers by the Royal Naval League after a century in reserve.

The League had organized a massive fund-raising project to repair and refurbish the ship, then convinced the Crown to return her to commissioned status as a combination memorial and living museum. Restored to her exact condition when she was Saganami's first cruiser command, she was maintained in permanent orbit around Manticore.

Membership in her official "crew," which was maintained at the exact number of officers and ratings which had served under Saganami, was a high honor, reserved as a way of recognizing the achievements of the Navy's best and brightest. None of them actually served aboard her, because the tradition also required that they be personnel on the active duty list, and her captain, by long tradition, was an admiral. Nominated by majority vote by all of the Navy's serving officers, selected by the Queen from the list of elected candidates, Unconquered's captain was the single serving flag officer of the Royal Manticoran Navy who was permitted to wear the white beret of a starship commander.

"I didn't put your name on the list, Honor," Elizabeth said quietly. "Your peers did that. And, while I might have been tempted to jump you to the top of the list if I'd had to, your name was already there."


"No buts, Honor," Elizabeth said, shaking her head. "I have to admit this pleases me from an enormous number of perspectives. And, if I'm going to be honest, 'waving my talisman' is one of those perspectives. But much more important to me than that, it's an indication of the respect in which you are held by the officer corps of my Navy. If anyone in the galaxy is in a position to properly appreciate all you've done for me and for my Star Kingdom, it's that officer corps, and they saw fit to nominate you for this honor. You will not reject the judgment of my officer corps, Your Grace. Is that clear?"

Honor gazed at her, clutching the soft fabric of the beret, then, finally, nodded slowly.

"Good. And now, we've got about forty-five minutes before that audience, after which Willie will be turning up with Sir Thomas and Admiral Givens. We'll discuss all those depressing military details then. For now, I do intend to spend some time just visiting with you. Not with Admiral Harrington, not with Duchess Harrington, and not even with Steadholder Harrington. Just with you. All right?"

"Fine, Elizabeth," Honor said. "That's just fine."

* * *

"So the raid on Alizon didn't help a bit," Sir Thomas Caparelli said. He, Patricia Givens, Honor, Nimitz, Hamish, Samantha, Elizabeth, Ariel, and Lord William Alexander, the newly created Baron Grantville and Prime Minister of Manticore, sat around a conference table of brilliantly polished feran wood. Hamish, the Queen, and Baron Grantville still wore their formal court attire, but Caparelli and Givens, like Honor, were in mess dress uniform. Three sheathed swords lay across one end of the conference table, and a holographic star map was projected above it, spangled with the icons of friendly units and enemy units'

reported positions. There seemed to be considerably more of the latter than of the former, Honor noticed.

"We're badly strapped for deployable assets everywhere," the First Space Lord continued, turning back from the map to face the Queen. "Obviously, we're going to have to reinforce Alizon, if only to make our commitment to their defense clear, and that's going to stretch us even thinner, but there's no quick fix for that, Your Majesty. We're reactivating superdreadnoughts from the Reserve as quickly as we can, of course. They may be obsolete compared to the pod-layers, but some waller is better than no waller, and the Republic still has quite a few of the older ships in its own order of battle. But we're not going to be commissioning very many new ships in the foreseeable future. After what they did to Grendelsbane, we have only thirty-five SD(P)s under construction. They should be commissioning within the next six to ten months, but we won't see any more than that until the ships we're laying down right this minute commission. Which means our total available pod-laying wall will consist of no more than a hundred and ten units for at least another two T-years."

"Excuse me, Sir Thomas," Honor said, "but what about the Andermani?"

"Unfortunately, they don't have as many pod-layers as we'd estimated they might when it looked like they were going to be shooting at us," Caparelli said, and nodded to Givens. "Pat?"

"Essentially, Your Grace," Givens said, "the Andies were estimating the number they'd need if push came to shove between us on the basis that at least half our available strength would be required closer to home to keep an eye on Haven. They projected a total build of roughly a hundred and thirty SD(P)s, but they have only forty-two currently in commission. The other ninety are all under construction at various states of completion. Some of them won't be completed for at least another eighteen months."

"And even the ones they've completed are going to require fairly substantial refits before we can make best use of them," Hamish put in. Elizabeth cocked her head at him, and he shrugged. "Their multi-drive missiles are considerably cruder than ours. In fact, they're less sophisticated than the ones Haven is currently deploying.

They're almost as big as Havenite three-drive missiles, but they incorporate only two drives. Tactically, they're a lot more like the Mark 16s we're deploying aboard the new Saganami-C s. They've got heavier warheads than the Mark 16, but their range is very similar. And because they're capacitor-fed, without the Mark 16's fusion plant, their EW

is less effective. They simply can't match our birds' power budgets. And while their pods are bigger than ours are, they actually carry fewer birds than the Republic's currently do, which means their salvo density is thinner than ours, as well.

"We've put BuWeaps and BuShips on to the problem, and Admiral Hemphill and Vice Admiral Toscarelli have come up with a minimum-modification solution. They can't operate the new fusion-powered MDMs from their pods, but we can load their launcher cells with our own older-style, capacitor-fed three-stage missiles. It won't give them any greater salvo density, and the EW will still be less capable, but it will significantly improve their range.

It's going to require some modifications to their pods, which they're going to be making at their end, but that part of the process should be completed within the next sixty days. After that, it's just a case of their building the new pods.

"The longer-range fix is to modify their existing SD(P)s to accept the Keyhole platforms and fire our new 'flat-pack'

pods with the all-up fusion-powered birds. That's going to take considerably longer, because each ship will have to spend at least ninety days in yard hands to carry out the modifications. Toscarelli's people have just about completed the blueprints for the necessary alterations, and they've been working with the Andies' architects to provide a fix which can be incorporated into the ships still under construction. At best, though, that's going to impose an additional delay on those units' completion."

"So," Caparelli said, "looking at every pod-laying waller we can scrape up between us, Grayson, and the Andies, and including all of the Andy SD(P)s currently in commission as fully effective units, we have a total of two hundred and thirty-two. Assuming our construction times hold up, and allowing for working up time, we can have a total of just over four hundred within the next eleven to eighteen months. We can add about a hundred and sixty pod-laying battlecruisers to that total, but they can't stand in the wall against proper superdreadnoughts. That's an impressive number, but the Havenites have some pretty impressive numbers of their own."

"Yes," Elizabeth said, looking intently at Admiral Givens.

"I saw a precis of your revised strength estimates last week, Admiral, but it didn't include the basis for your revisions. Is the situation really that bad?"

"That's impossible to say with certainty, Your Majesty,"

Givens replied. "I'm not trying to cover myself, and I stand by the numbers in the most recent report, but until the shooting's over, we can't do an actual nose count to prove it. I'm sorry it's taken this long to produce the report in the first place, but we still have a certain amount of reorganizing to do over at ONI."

Elizabeth grimaced, her eyes hard, at the oblique reference to Admiral Francis Jurgensen's disastrous tenure as Second Space Lord.

"Our human-intelligence sources in the Republic are considerably weaker than they used to be," the admiral continued. "Partly, that's due to the political changes there. Quite a few of the people supplying information to us were doing so because of their opposition to the old régime, and their motivation to continue to work with us largely disappeared along with Saint-Just. Others, who we'd managed to buy or suborn, lost their access when they were purged by the new management. And, unfortunately, under the Janacek Admiralty, ONI hadn't assigned a high priority to building new networks. In fairness, doing so under the new circumstances would have been difficult, time-consuming, and probably expensive."

Elizabeth's agate-hard eyes flickered, but she didn't seem disposed to entertain any excuses for the unfortunate Jurgensen's failures.

"At any rate," Givens went on, "there are serious holes in our information-gathering capabilities. And I have to admit that Pierre and Saint-Just managed to build this entire shipbuilding complex of theirs, wherever it is, on my watch, without my getting so much as a sniff of it. We're looking for it hard, scouting every system we can think of, but so far, we haven't found it. Which is more than mildly irritating, given the resources we're committing to the effort. On the other hand, the way they've spread out their building capacity since Theisman first went public about the Peep pod-layers, Bolthole is becoming steadily less of an absolutely critical node for them.

"But bearing in mind the limits on our intel ability, and counting only the new ships we've actually observed, and making allowances for errors in post-battle reports, we're estimating that they must have a minimum of three hundred pod-layers currently in commission. We know they had at least two hundred old-style superdreadnoughts in service, as well, plus another hundred or so in reserve, but it's the pod-layers that pose the critical threat. If they do have three hundred in service at this time, then they have approximately one and a half times as many as we and the Graysons do. It drops to about one-point-three-to-one in their favor if we include all of the completed Andermani SD(P)s. By our best estimate of the differences between their current hardware and our own, that equates to near parity between the two sides, but they've got much more strategic depth than we do."

"That depth tips the strategic balance significantly in their favor, Your Majesty," Caparelli put in. "They can afford to concentrate their forces for offensive operations to a far greater extent than we can. We can't afford to allow them the opportunity to take out the industrial capacity here in the Star Kingdom or in Grayson, and that means we're forced to maintain sufficient strength in those systems to deter a serious attack. As Pat says, we don't even know where this 'Bolthole' of theirs is, so there's no way we could do the same thing to their infrastructure. We could hurt them badly in several places, if we uncovered enough to go after them, but without at least Bolthole's location, we can't cripple them the way they could cripple us."

"I understand," Elizabeth said, nodding, and reached out to scratch Ariel between the ears. "But you're estimating an enormous growth in their total numbers, Admiral Givens."

"Yes, Your Majesty, we are," Givens admitted bleakly.

"The problem is that we've uncovered evidence that even before Theisman shot Saint-Just, they'd been stockpiling huge numbers of components. We'd picked up on that before Buttercup, but we'd never been able to figure out where they were going or why. Then, after the Cromarty Assassination and the cease-fire—" if Elizabeth's eyes had been hard before, they could have been used to cut diamonds now "—the Admiralty stopped worrying about it.

We'd never been able to confirm it was happening in the first place, and it seemed irrelevant in light of our technical and tactical superiority.

"However, after examining the wreckage from Her Grace's victory at Sidemore, we've determined that even though the SD(P)s Haven deployed for the attack were new-build, new-design ships, they used existing, off-the-shelf components wherever possible. Obviously, many of their systems had to be new-construction, but the truth is, that probably at least eighty-five percent of the design was based on existing hardware. Exactly what they appear to have been stockpiling. Our numbers for what they squirreled away are nowhere near as precise as I'd like, but allowing for a twenty-five percent overestimate, and assuming the stockpiled items represent only seventy percent of the new ships' total requirements, they could still have an additional four hundred to four hundred and fifty under construction at 'Bolthole' alone. And, of course, there's no way for us to estimate how far along in the construction process those ships might be."

Chill silence hovered in the conference room. Honor tasted the grim awareness of what those numbers meant radiating from her fellow naval officers. Elizabeth and the Prime Minister were deeply concerned, but the full impact didn't appear to have hit them yet.

"Excuse me, Pat," she said, after a moment, "but I noticed you said they could have that many ships under construction 'at Bolthole alone.'"

"Yes, I did, Your Grace." Givens nodded. "Obviously, until they announced the existence of their own pod-layers, all their construction was carried out under conditions of maximum secrecy—the entire rationale for Bolthole in the first place. But as soon as Theisman announced they had SD(P)s of their own, they began preparations to lay down additional units in other shipyards. Our estimate is that they're probably looking at longer construction times in the older yards, not to mention the fact that they had to set up all of the long-lead items and get organized before they could begin construction there at all. Nonetheless, we have indications from various sources that they have somewhere in the vicinity of an additional four hundred new units under construction at Nouveau Paris and two or three other of their central systems. That's the bad news.

The good news is that although the Pritchart Administration authorized their construction the better part of a T-year ago, they only really hit their stride about four months ago. Which means it's going to take them at least another two and a half T-years to complete any of them. So they're not a factor in the immediate gap between our numbers and theirs."

"That may be, Pat," Hamish said, "but the thought of looking at twelve hundred SD(P)s in a couple of years doesn't exactly fill me with joyous enthusiasm."

"But, with all due respect, Admiral Givens," his brother said, "how realistic is your estimate in fiscal terms?" Givens looked at him, and Grantville smiled thinly. "As Duke Cromarty's Chancellor of the Exchequer I enjoyed quite a bit of experience of just how difficult it was for us to pay for hundreds of new superdreadnoughts, and the Havenite economy is still a long way from anything I'd call healthy.

They may have laid down all the ships you're talking about, but will they be able to sustain the building program without an economic collapse?"

"That, Prime Minister, is outside my own area of expertise," Givens admitted. "The financial analysts attached to ONI believe they can, indeed, complete all or a high percentage of the total projected current program—

or, rather, our estimate of what that program is. They're going to have to make some hard decisions about what not to build to pull it off, but they have many times the star systems we do. Despite our much higher per capita income, their absolute budgets are at least as big, or bigger, than our own, and their manpower costs are far lower. It's certainly possible that trying to complete this program would indeed lead to the economic collapse of the Republic. Which, on a long-term basis, could be good or bad from our perspective. My own feeling, however, is that we dare not count on that outcome. Especially not given how much of Havenite strategy under the Legislaturalist régime was based on seizing Manticore and our wormhole junction specifically as a revenue source.

The new régime might well be willing to go deeply into debt if it believes that by doing so it can succeed where Harris, Pierre, and Saint-Just failed."

Baron Grantville nodded, but he clearly wasn't fully convinced, and Honor tasted his deep reservations about Givens' estimates.

"So what do we do?" Elizabeth asked simply after silence had lingered for several seconds.

"For the immediate future, we're effectively forced to stand primarily on the defensive," Hamish said. "I don't like it, and neither does Sir Thomas, but that's simply the reality we face. We're still working on ways in which we might be able to modify that defensive stance in order to put at least some pressure on Haven, and we'll be discussing those possibilities with Admiral Harrington and her staff over the next several days. Hopefully, we'll come up with something that will prevent the other side from retaining sole possession of the strategic initiative, but we'll probably still be forced to adopt a mainly reactive stance until our own new construction begins to come forward in large numbers."

Something else flickered behind his thoughts. Honor caught just a trace of it, too little to even begin to estimate what it was, but it seemed to carry a flavor of wariness and apprehensive disappointment. Whatever it was, no trace of it shadowed his voice as he continued.

"We're also engaged in a comprehensive evaluation of our building options. One of the very few things the Janacek Admiralty did right—by accident, I'm sure—was to leave Vice Admiral Toscarelli at BuShips. I doubt they would have done it if they'd realized what he was actually up to over there, although I may be doing Chakrabarti a disservice. He may have known exactly what Toscarelli was doing.

"At any rate, despite the official Janacek position that there was no need to build anything other than LACs and commerce-protection units, Toscarelli and his people managed to get the Saganami-C approved as a

'modification' of the existing Saganami design, rather than as a totally new class which represents as significant a tactical departure for cruisers as the Medusa-class represented for superdreadnoughts. He also managed to get the design for the new Nike-class battlecruisers and Agamemnon-class BC(P)s approved. We only have the lead ship of the Nike-class about to commission, and only six of the Agamemnons, but there are six more Agamemnons already in the pipeline. Almost more importantly, most of the construction kinks have been worked out of both designs, and they can be put into rapid series production quickly. Then there's the new Medusa-B-class SD(P). It was authorized by Chakrabarti solely as a paper study, but Toscarelli took it to the detailed blueprint stage. It's a significant improvement on the Invictus design, but we'd be looking at an additional delay of six to ten months to put a completely new design into production rather than simply building repeat Invictus-class ships."

"If we're looking at a two-year window of vulnerability,"

the Prime Minister asked, "why not consider building smaller units? I know we haven't built any dreadnoughts since before the first war, but given that were talking about pod-laying designs, shouldn't it be possible to build an effective DN(P)? Units that size could be built much more rapidly, couldn't they?"

"Yes, and no, Prime Minister," Caparelli said formally.

"Construction time on a dreadnought runs about eighty percent of the construction time on a super dreadnought.

In theory, that means we could build one in about eighteen months rather than twenty-three. Unfortunately, we don't have a DN(P) design. We'd have to produce one from scratch, then get it into construction, with all the delays always attendant on the introduction of a completely new class. We'd probably be looking at a minimum of three T-years from the moment we began work to the moment we completed the first unit, which means it would take six months longer to build the first of the smaller ships.

Thereafter, we could, indeed, build them faster, but if we're prepared to use dispersed yards and build 'Grayson-style,' we can build as many superdreadnoughts simultaneously as we can fund. So it doesn't seem to us over at Admiralty House that there's any advantage in designing a smaller, less capable unit when it would actually delay our building programs."

"There's no way we can speed construction?" Grantville asked. All of the uniformed officers—and his brother—

looked at him, and he shrugged. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to question your professional judgment, but the Graysons managed to get their first SD(P) built in under fifteen months."

"Yes, they did," Hamish replied. "But to complete her to their new schedule, which had a little something to do with Honor's supposed execution, they pulled out all the stops. In fact, they diverted major components from older-style SDs to the new designs. The Harrington's fusion plants, for instance— all of them were diverted from two of their Steadholder Denevski-class ships, which delayed their completion by almost eight months. We can't do that here because we don't have the new construction to divert components from. But that's pretty much what ONI is saying the Havenites have been doing with those stockpiled components Admiral Givens was just talking about."

"I understand," William said. He grimaced—in disappointment, not in anger—as Caparelli and his brother demolished his suggestions. "I hadn't considered the dreadnought notion from the aspect of design time," he added.

"We do have some additional potential force multipliers in the pipeline," Hamish said after a moment, with a slight edge of caution. "I've been very impressed with what Sonja Hemphill and Toscarelli have been coming up with ever since Sonja took over at BuWeaps."

He shook his head, his expression somewhat bemused, as if he couldn't quite believe what he was saying about the Admiral who had been his personal bête noire for literally decades.

"I don't want anybody counting on miracle weapons," he continued, the note of caution in his voice stronger than before. "Specifically, at this time, we don't see anything on the horizon that will equate to the sort of quantum leap in capabilities Ghost Rider and the MDM represented. It's always hard to project the impact of new technologies until you actually have them in hand, so I could be wrong about that, but I'd prefer to err on the side of caution at a time like this. And don't forget that any improvements we may make will be offset, at least to some extent, by Havenite improvements based on the examples of our own hardware they must have captured during their offensive and, I'm sure, ideas all their own. Their Admiral Foraker, for example, appears to be a fiendishly clever innovator.

Having said all of that, however, Sonja and Toscarelli are looking at several developments which could have at least as significant an impact on our relative combat capabilities as the introduction of the Keyhole platforms."

"And while we're talking about things the Janacek Admiralty did right for the wrong reasons," Caparelli put in, "his mania for using LACs as a panacea has at least guaranteed that the LAC assembly line was in full swing when the penny dropped. We foresee no bottlenecks in LAC or missile pod production, including the new system-defense pods and setting up our own lines to produce the Grayson's Vipers. There may be some problems we haven't foreseen with the new munitions BuWeaps has in the pipeline, but production of our existing weapons should be ample for our needs. It's going to take us a while to build up to full speed for the system-defense units, but we can probably build LACs faster than we can train crews for them. They won't help us out a lot against an intact wall of battle, but they'll give us a high degree of scouting and rear area coverage which should at least allow us to economize on hyper-capable pickets."

"Which just about sums up the military side of our options," Hamish said, and Honor tasted another flash of that disappointment from him. This time there was an answering flicker, one of stubborn exasperation, from Elizabeth. And an echo of it from William Alexander, as well.

"Yes, I suppose it does," Elizabeth agreed, with a very slight but unmistakable note of finality. Then she glanced at her chrono.

"And it sums it up just in time," she said more briskly, with a wry grimace. "Honor, you and Willie and I—and you, Hamish—have a dinner appointment in the Crown Chancery in about twenty minutes. So," she smiled at Honor, "let's be about it, you three!"

Chapter Eight

"Anything from Admiral Duval, Serena?" Rear Admiral Oliver Diamato, Republic of Haven Navy, asked quietly.

"No, Sir." Commander Serena Taverner, his chief of staff shook her head.


Diamato nodded to her, rose from his command chair, and crossed to the master plot on the battlecruiser William T. Sherman's flag bridge. Sherman was no longer

"his," and he'd already discovered just how much he missed the hands-on command of a ship. But at least the Octagon had 0let him keep her as his flagship.

He examined the plot carefully, hands folded behind him. By now, the posture was so familiar that it had become truly his, no longer an affectation deliberately copied from Captain Hall. He studied the icons, then nodded once in approval and turned away. This was the first time he'd served with Rear Admiral Harold Duval, CO

of the 19th CLAC Division, and Duval had a reputation as a bit of a worrywort. Diamato had been half afraid he might come up with some last-minute alteration of the plan, but it seemed he'd been doing his superior an injustice, and that was good. He hated last-minute surprises.

Now he gazed at the pair of CLACs—RHNS Skylark, the flagship, and her sister Peregrine—his own squadron was escorting, then checked the time display ticking down in the corner of the plot. The combined force would translate out of hyper in another twenty-seven minutes, right on the hyper limit of the Zanzibar System's G4 primary.

After which, he thought, things will get . . . interesting."

* * *

"We have a hyper footprint, Ma'am."

Rear Admiral of the Green Dame Evelyn Padgorny looked up from her routine paperwork at her ops officer's announcement. Commander Thackeray stood in the flag briefing room's hatch, his voice a bit deeper than usual, and Padgorny cocked an eyebrow at him.

"I assume from the fact that you're telling me this that it isn't a scheduled footprint, Alvin," she said dryly.

"No, Ma'am. It isn't." Thackeray gave her a tight grin.

"The outer reconnaissance platforms make it twelve units.

At the moment it looks like a pair of either superdreadnoughts or their CLACs, with a battlecruiser squadron riding shotgun and a couple of light cruisers or big tin-cans for scouting."

"Another raid, then," she said.

"That's what it looks like to CIC and System Defense Command," Thackeray agreed. "The question, of course, is whether they are CLACs . . . or SD(P)s."

"You do have a way of cutting to the nub of a matter, don't you, Alvin?"

Padgorny smiled humorlessly, logged off her terminal, and stood. Thackeray stepped back to let her precede him through the hatch, then followed her across the deck to HMS Prince Stephen's master plot. At least the plot's details were clear, she thought. The FTL links to the reconnaissance platforms planted around the system periphery were real-timing their take to Prince Stephen, and she pursed her lips thoughtfully as she studied the crimson icons.

Assuming they were, indeed, Havenite units—and Padgorny couldn't think of any reason for anyone else to be coming in without identifying themselves this way—

Thackeray's question was well taken. Prince Stephen and the other four units of the understrength Thirty-First Battle Squadron weren't precisely cutting-edge. Although the oldest of Padgorny's ships was less than eight T-years old, none of them were pod-layers. All five were surrounded by shoals of missile pods, waiting to tractor themselves to their hulls upon command, but they weren't really optimized for pod-based combat. They simply lacked the sophistication of the fire control built into ships of the wall which had been intended from the outset for the new operational environment. Prince Stephen could "tow" as many as five or six hundred of the new pods, whose internal tractors glued them limpet-like to a ship's hull, but loading up with that many would seriously compromise her combat ability by blocking sensor and firing arcs.

Worse, the maximum number of missiles she could actually simultaneously control effectively at range was no more than a hundred. One of the Invictus-class SD(P)s could control two or three times that many birds, even without the new Keyhole platforms, and she had to assume Peep pod-layers would also have several times the missile telemetry channels her ships had.

On the other hand, she reminded herself, if these people really want to shoot at us, then they've got to come to us.

Which means, in this case, not simply us, but all the rest of Zanzibar System Defense Command.

Unless, of course, the Peeps in question were prepared to simply flail away at extreme range. It was unlikely they would choose to risk even accidentally violating the Eridani Edict, but they were Peeps, after all. The bastards hadn't been at all shy about killing thousands of Padgorny's fellow naval officers and ratings in their goddamned sneak attack, so they might not lose any sleep about the odd civilian mega-death or two, either.

"Any communication from them yet?"

"No, Ma'am," the com officer of the watch replied. "Of course, they've just come over the Alpha wall."

"Yes, they have," Padgorny agreed. "But by now, even the Peeps know our sensor platforms are out there and that they're FTL. Don't you suppose they might have figured out that a light-speed omnidirectional broadcast would be picked up and relayed to us?"

"Ah, yes, Ma'am," the hapless communications officer said. Obviously the Old Lady was not in a good mood, he noted.

"Sorry, Willoughby," Padgorny said a moment later, lips twitching in a wry smile. "Didn't mean to bite your head off."

"Yes, Ma'am," Lieutenant Willoughby said in a somewhat different tone, and returned her smile.

Padgorny nodded and turned away from him. She didn't really require any self-identifications from the intruders.

The lack of any transmissions from them meant they had to be Peeps, since any Allied units most definitely would have identified themselves by now. So there was no point in taking out her frustration on Willoughby. Still, she would dearly love to know exactly what—

"LAC separation!" a voice announced. "We have LAC

separation on Bogeys Alpha and Bravo! Estimate six hundred-plus inbound at six-eight-zero gravities!"

Well, it seemed that sometimes wishes came true. At least she knew, now, and it was unlikely the Peeps intended any Eridani violations if they were sending in LACs armed with short-ranged missiles.

"What about the battlecruisers?" she asked.

"They're maintaining constant decel with the CLACs, Ma'am," Thackeray replied. "Looks like this is more of a probe than a serious attack. The battlecruisers are hanging back to cover the CLACs while their birds are away."

Padgorny nodded in agreement with Thackeray's assessment.

"They're going to get hurt," another voice said, and Padgorny looked up as Commander Thomasina Hartnett, her chief of staff, arrived on the flag bridge. "Sorry I'm late, Ma'am," Hartnett continued with a grimace. "My pinnace was on final approach when these people turned up."

"Inconvenient of them," Padgorny replied with a thin smile, "but what can you expect out of Peeps?"

"Anything from Defense Command?" Hartnett asked Willoughby even as she accepted a memo board with a full situation update from Thackeray.

"Not after the initial alert, Ma'am," Willoughby said.

"Probably waiting to see whether or not they launched LACs," Padgorny said with a shrug, when Hartnett looked at her.

"Well, Ma'am," the chief of staff said, eyes scanning the memo board as she spoke, "I stand by my own initial assessment. These people are gonna get seriously hammered if they keep on coming in."

"A point which I suspect has occurred to them, as well,"

Padgorny said. "But it all depends on how deep in they want to get, Tommy."

"True, Ma'am." Hartnett nibbled on a thumbnail, eyes intent as she studied the master plot. "I really wish that bastard Theisman hadn't shot Saint-Just," she said, after a moment.

"Really?" Padgorny cocked her head inquiringly, and Hartnett shrugged.

"At least State Security kept their admirals looking over their shoulders all the time, Ma'am. They were too busy watching their own asses to think up inventive things to do to us. And they'd have thought two or three times about proposing probes like this one. They'd have been afraid they'd be expected to carry through with a serious attack."

"I don't know if it's really that much of an improvement,"

Padgorny objected in her best, approved devil's advocate tone. "McQueen did a number on us when she did carry through with 'a serious attack,' StateSec or no StateSec."

"Oh, she certainly did that," Hartnett agreed. "But that was a heavy-duty, full-press fleet operation. These people

—" she jabbed an index finger at the plot's icons "—aren't here to hurt Zanzibar. They're here probing for information, and they're willing to take significant losses to get it. Which means they're planning on doing something with whatever info they can get, and, frankly, that could be a hell of a lot more dangerous to us than a serious attack on the system might have been."

Padgorny nodded thoughtfully. There was a new, tough-minded professionalism behind the Peeps' operations in this new and more dangerous war. The clumsy amateurism the previous régimes' civilian masters had imposed on their uniformed subordinates had disappeared, and it was painfully obvious the new management was working from a cohesive, carefully thought-out playbook. And Hartnett was right. Providing that sort of navy with the information needed to accurately assess just how threadbare the Alliance's defenses really were—everywhere, not just in Zanzibar—came under the heading of Really Bad Ideas.

"Well," she said after a moment, "in that case, I suppose we ought to get busy seeing these people off without giving them any better look at us than we can help."

"Yes, Ma'am," Hartnett agreed. "Flush the LACs?"

"Not all of them." Padgorny shook her head. "Let's keep at least one pulser up our sleeve. Alvin," she turned back to the ops officer, "launch just the in-system platforms.

Have them form up on the squadron. We'll move out together."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," Commander Thackeray acknowledged. "Should I inform System Defense that we're executing Hildebrandt?"

"Yes, of course you should." Padgorny grimaced. "I should have thought of it myself. In fact, before you pass the orders, contact System Defense. Inform them that I intend to put Hildebrandt into operation unless otherwise instructed."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Padgorny gave the expressionless operations officer a quick smile. The diplomatic management of allies had never been one of her own strong suits, and managing those allies had become both more important and much more difficult in the wake of the High Ridge Government's disastrous foreign policy. Stepping on the Zanzibaran System Navy's sensibilities by ignoring it in its own star system would have been less than brilliant. Especially after the system's industry and economy had been so brutally shattered by the Peeps "Operation Icarus" barely eight T-years ago. And extra especially, in the wake of the High Ridge Government's incredibly incompetent foreign policy, when the Treaty of Alliance specifically assigned command authority to the ZSN. Existing doctrine and previous discussions with the Zanzibarans made it obvious which system defense plan was called for, but that wasn't really the point . . . diplomatically speaking.

"Good catch, Ma'am," Hartnett said very quietly, cutting her eyes sideways to indicate Thackeray as the operations officer and Lieutenant Willoughby put the com call through to Zanzibar System Defense Command.

"Agreed," Padgorny replied, equally quietly, nodding her head. "Alvin does have his moments."

The admiral shoved her hands deep into her tunic's pockets, lower lip protruding slightly as she studied the plot, waiting for System Defense's response.

The Peeps were still boring steadily in, but there was plenty of time to show a little sensitivity to inter-allied coordination. Zanzibar was a G4, with a hyper limit of just over twenty light-minutes. The planet of the same name orbited its primary at just under eight light-minutes, which put it 12.3 light-minutes inside the limit, and most of the system's manufacturing and commercial infrastructure (rebuilt with the very latest technology and the aid of massive Manticoran loans and subsidies after Icarus) orbited the planet. The intruders were already inside both of the system's asteroid belts, and even if they hadn't been, Zanzibar's extraction industry was less centralized than most. There were very few belter nodes for them to hit, which meant any truly worthwhile targets had to be deep in-system.

They had arrived with a fairly low normal-space velocity

—less than twelve hundred kilometers per second—and they were over two hundred and twenty million kilometers from any of those worthwhile targets. Even at their LACs'

rate of acceleration, it would have taken them over two hours—132.84 minutes, to be precise—just to reach the planet, at which point their velocity would have been well over fifty-four thousand kilometers per second. And if they'd wanted a zero/zero intercept, flight time would have been roughly fifty-six minutes longer.

Of course, they weren't going to do either of those things. As Hartnett had observed, this was a probe, not a serious attack. They wouldn't commit that many LACs to a flight profile that would force them to enter the engagement envelope of Zanzibar's orbital defenses. Those tiny craft had nowhere near the firepower to tackle the orbital defenses, and there were six or seven thousand men and women aboard them. Sending them to their deaths for no meaningful return was something the Pierre régime or Saint-Just might have done. Theisman wouldn't.

No, they were here to drag their coats behind them. To be just threatening enough to provoke the system's defenders into revealing at least a part of their capabilities. Even relatively tiny pieces of data could be combined, massaged by computers and human analysts, to reveal far more about the state of Zanzibar's defenses and, by implication, the status of the Alliance as a whole, than anyone wanted Theisman to know.

But probes of the defenses were precisely what System Defense Plan Hildebrandt was intended to prevent. With BS

31 and the inner-system LACs anyone but an idiot already knew were present advancing to meet them, the Peep LACs would be forced to withdraw without the defenders having revealed their full capabilities. Which—

"Excuse me, Admiral."

Padgorny turned her head and looked up, frowning slightly as Alvin Thackeray's tone registered.

"Yes?" she said.

"Ma'am, Admiral al-Bakr is on the com." Padgorny's eyebrows rose, and Thackeray gave a very slight shrug. "He says he's not prepared to authorize Hildebrandt, Ma'am."

Padgorny's raised eyebrows lowered, and her frown deepened.

"Did he say why not?" she asked, quite a bit more crisply than she'd intended to.

"He feels the Peeps' approach is too obvious," Thackeray said expressionlessly. "He thinks it may be a feint intended to draw us out of position."

Padgorny's lips compressed tightly, and the hands shoved into her tunic's pockets clenched into fists.

"A feint?" Commander Hartnett's voice was sharp as she asked the question Padgorny had kept herself from voicing.

"And what does he think the system surveillance arrays are for?" she demanded.

"Calmly, Tommy," Padgorny said. The chief of staff looked at her, and the admiral let her eyes sweep around the flag bridge, reminding her of all the listening ears. Not that Padgorny didn't agree completely with Hartnett's response.

"Sorry, Ma'am," Hartnett said, after a moment. "But there's no way they're going to sneak another attack force into the system without our spotting a hyper footprint when they arrive, and the remote platforms have these people right under their eye. There's no way anyone else is lurking around out there to take advantage of any diversion the LACs might represent. This has to be exactly what Hildebrandt is supposed to stop."

"I'm inclined to think you're right," Padgorny replied. She was faintly surprised by how calm she managed to sound, and she looked past Thackeray to Willoughby.

"Please put the Admiral through to my display," she requested, striding across to her command chair and settling herself into it.

"Yes, Ma'am," Willoughby said, and Admiral Gammal al-Bakr's face appeared on the flatscreen display deployed from the left arm of Padgorny's command chair.

"Admiral al-Bakr," she said courteously.

"Admiral Padgorny," he responded. Al-Bakr wore the ZSN's visored cap, maroon tunic, and black trousers, with the doubled crescent moons of his rank glittering on his color points. Like most Zanzibarans, he was dark-haired and eyed. He was also of medium height, with a lean, hawkish face and a neatly trimmed beard and mustache streaked with white around his lips.

"I understand you're opposed to the activation of Hildebrandt, Admiral?" Padgorny said as pleasantly as possible.

"I am," al-Bakr replied levelly. "I believe it's possible this attack represents a feint, intended to draw your units out of position and clear the way for a direct attack on the planet and its orbital installations."

"Sir," Padgorny said, after a brief pause, "we've detected no indications of any force waiting to exploit any diversion the LACs might manage to create. I feel confident your surveillance arrays would have detected any such force upon its arrival."

"They may have taken a page from Admiral Harrington's Sidemore tactics," al-Bakr countered. "They could very well have an entire task force waiting in hyper. If you activate Hildebrandt and move away from the planet, they could send a messenger into hyper to bring those reinforcements in at any point around the hyper-limit sphere of their choice."

Padgorny managed not to stare at him. It wasn't easy.

"Admiral," she said instead, controlling her tone carefully, "the incoming forces we know about are on Zanzibar's side of the primary. They're coming in on the shortest, least-time approach. If we move towards them, we'll remain between them and the inner system. Forces approaching from other directions will have much further to travel, and I think it's unlikely we could be drawn far enough out of position to prevent us from responding if and when they make their alpha translation and we detect their footprints."

And even if that weren't true, she thought, why in the world would they be bothering with diversions if they have an all-up task force or fleet out there in the first place? If they've got that kind of firepower, they certainly don't need to "distract" a single understrength battle squadron!

"Overall," al-Bakr said, "I agree that your assessment is logical. However, if you advance far enough from the planet under Hildebrandt, they could execute a polar translation and effectively cut in behind you. Particularly since your base velocity would be directly away from the planet at the moment they made translation."

Padgorny's jaw muscles tightened. What al-Bakr was suggesting was at least theoretically feasible. But it wouldn't be easy, and she couldn't conceive of any rational reason for the Peeps to attempt any such complicated maneuver.

"Sir," she said, "given the range of our MDMs, they would have to time things very, very carefully if they intended to remain outside our engagement envelope. Moreover, they would be attacking directly into your own orbital defenses and the fire of our inner-system defense pods. They would have to be present in overwhelming strength to crack those defenses, even without the presence of my own battle squadron. In my estimation, this represents another probing attack, precisely the scenario Hildebrandt is designed to defeat. They're looking for information on your star system's defensive capabilities for future reference.

And if we don't execute Hildebrandt—don't move out to engage these LACs short of the inner-system—they'll be able to get much deeper in and get a far better look at those defenses."

"They can do that with recon drones, if they wish to," al-Bakr countered. "There's no need for them to risk their LACs doing the same job. So, with all due respect, Dame Evelyn, I believe the reason they are using LACs is specifically to draw you out of position."

"I doubt very much, Sir, that Peeps are going to be able to sneak recon drones deep enough in-system to obtain the sort of information they need without our detecting them.

Their drones simply aren't as stealthy as ours, and their sensors aren't as good. They couldn't pick up our concealed units . . . unless those units go active. Which is why they're using LACs. They may well have a drone screen out, but they want us to engage the LACs—or at least move to do so

—because their drones can't pick our units up unless and until we bring them on-line."

"Havenite technology has clearly improved greatly since the previous war, Admiral," al-Bakr said. "I believe it may be good enough to accomplish the task even if our defenses remain covert—or that they believe it is, at any rate. And it is, after all, their own assessment of their technology's capabilities which will govern their choice of tactics."

"Sir, I'm afraid I can't share your interpretation of their intentions." Padgorny kept both her tone and her expression as nonconfrontational as she possibly could.

"But whichever one of us is correct, we're faced with the fact that almost seven hundred hostile LACs are headed in-system and accelerating at over six and a half KPS squared.

And while they're already inside most of your asteroid industry, there are—" she checked the CIC sidebar on the main plot "—twenty-three of your extraction freighters directly in their path. In addition to one Manticoran, one Solarian, and two Andermani merchantmen. If we don't respond, most of those extraction vessels and at least one of the Andermani freighters will find themselves in the Peeps' attack range before they can reach the cover of your orbital defenses."

"I'm aware of the shipping movements, Admiral Padgorny," al-Bakr said a bit frostily. "This, after all, is not the first time the Peeps have visited this system," he added pointedly. "And I haven't said you can't engage these intruders. I've simply said that I won't authorize Hildebrandt. Your vessels, and the inner-system LACs, must remain in position to cover the planet and our most vital space infrastructure. I would point out to you that it was for precisely this sort of circumstance that the outer-

system LACs and pods were deployed in the first place."

Padgorny discovered that her teeth ached from the force her jaw muscles were now exerting.

"Admiral al-Bakr," she said after a momemt, "at this time, we have no reason to believe the Peeps realize the outer-system defenses are present. If we use them against this attack, however, that will change. Which will provide their planners with valuable intelligence in the event that they do decide to execute a serious attack on Zanzibar in future. I strongly urge you to allow me to use Hildebrandt rather than reveal that capability."

"I'm afraid I can't do that," al-Bakr said flatly. "I realize you continue to have a great deal of faith in the superiority of our—and, particularly, your Star Kingdom's—

technology over that of Haven. However, I—and my Caliph

—are no longer in a position to place complete trust in that superiority, especially in light of the price the Caliphate has already paid. I believe it's probable Haven already knows from its own recon drones or other intelligence sources that we've been deploying LAC tenders and pods in the outer system. Which is one reason I believe this is a feint."

Padgorny tried hard not to goggle at him. If the Caliph and his military advisers thought anything of the sort, why the hell hadn't they said so sooner than this? From the hardening of his expression, she realized she hadn't fully succeeded in controlling her own.

"At any rate, Admiral Padgorny," his voice was flatter than before, "I am not prepared to further debate my decision as the commander of this star system's defenses.

You will not execute Hildebrandt and uncover the inner-system. And you will use the outer-system defenses to deal with this attack. Is that understood?"

Padgorny inhaled deeply, nostrils flaring, and reminded herself diplomacy wasn't her forte.

"It is, Admiral al-Bakr," she said, her voice almost as flat as his. "For the record, however, I strongly dissent from your analysis of the situation and of the enemy's intentions. I wish for my objection to the orders you've just issued to be made part of the official record. And I will be reporting that objection to my own superiors in my next dispatch."

Their eyes locked in the com display. It was hard to say whose were harder, and tension hovered between them.

"Both your dissent and your objection are noted, Admiral," al-Bakr replied. "And, you are, of course, free to state whatever objections you choose to your superiors.

Nonetheless, at this time, my orders stand."

"Very well, Admiral," Padgorny said coldly. "With your permission. Padgorny, clear."

Chapter Nine

"You're kidding."

Commander Eric Hertz looked in disbelief at Captain Everard Broughton's face on his com screen.

"No," Broughton said with commendable restraint. "I am not kidding. Neither is Dame Evelyn."

"But there's no need," Hertz protested. "I thought the entire idea was for us to be a hole in space until they really needed us!"

"Plans, apparently, have changed."

Broughton turned away from Hertz to glare disgustedly at the tactical plot. The oncoming Havenite LACs had been inbound for almost thirty minutes. They were up to a velocity relative to the system primary of 12,788

kilometers per second, and they'd traveled over twelve million kilometers. They were also only about twenty minutes from bringing the closest extraction ships under long-range missile fire.

"Whatever we may think of it, we've got our orders," he said, turning back to his com pickup. "And under the circumstances, since there's no way you're going to be able to actually intercept them before they hit the extraction ships, we might as well go for the whole enchilada."

Hertz's expression tightened.

"What do you mean?" he asked in the tone of a man who suspected he'd already guessed.

"The only way we're going to be able to do anything to save the extraction ships is to use the pods," Broughton said bitterly. "So since we're going to give away our presence, anyway, we might as well get the best return we can."

He looked across his command deck at his tactical officer.

"Activate the pods," he said. "Target the LACs with—" he glanced at the plot's data bars "—the gamma platforms that have the range. Then bring up the delta platforms and designate the CLACs for any of them that have the reach."

* * *

"Anything from the drone screen?" Oliver Diamato asked.

"Uh, no, Sir," Commander Robert Zucker, his ops officer said quickly, and looked a silent question at his admiral.

"There ought to be," Diamato said. "Look at it. The LACs are going to run right over those extraction ships. And it's going to take some sort of miracle for that merchantman to slip away. They've got to know we're here—for that matter, the fact that the extraction ships are scattering the way they are proves they know. So, where's the response? There ought to at least be a flock of Manty LACs coming out to meet us by now!"

"You think they're up to something sneaky, Sir?"

"I think there's a pretty good chance of it, yes," Diamato replied. "Manties can screw up just like anyone else, but counting on them to do that isn't exactly the smartest thing you can do."

He frowned at the master plot for a few more seconds, then wheeled around to face his communications officer.

"Get me a link to Admiral Duval."

"Yes, Sir."

Diamato crossed towards his command chair. He was just about to sit down in it when a strident alarm sounded.

"Missile launch!" a taut voice from CIC announced sharply. "Multiple hostile missile launches along the belt!

Many missiles inbound at four-five-one KPS squared! Time to first impact four-zero-niner seconds!"

* * *

"Well, there they go," Hartnett observed bitterly as the firefly icons of multi-drive missiles suddenly speckled the master plot. They streaked across it, moving visibly even on the plot's scale, and the smaller, far more slowly moving light codes of LACs began to blossom as well, as the




squadrons lit off their impellers.

"Yes." Padgorny's single-syllable reply sounded as if she'd bitten it out of a sheet of hammered bronze. She found it difficult to believe just how angry she actually was, and she forced herself to lean back in her command chair and swallow all the other words she badly wanted to say.

"Broughton is targeting their CLACs with the delta platforms, Ma'am," Thackeray reported, and Padgorny nodded in acknowledgment. She hadn't specifically dictated targets, but she'd known Broughton would have to use at least some of the pods. His own LACs were much too far astern of the Peeps to overhaul them, after all. And he was right to go after the CLACs, as well. If they had to do this, then they might as well do it as effectively as possible. If he could pick off the CLACs, or even just hammer them badly enough to force them to withdraw into hyper, all the LACs the Peeps had committed to their probe would be doomed, whatever else happened. And killing a couple of the Peeps' superdreadnought-sized LAC

carriers would be worthwhile in its own right.

"He's using the gamma platforms on the LACs," Hartnett observed. The chief of staff snorted. "I know it's the only way he can engage them short of the freighters, but his target solutions on them are going to be lousy at this range!"

"Better than he'd have on our LACs," Padgorny pointed out. "Their EW still leaves quite a bit to be desired."

* * *

Rear Admiral Diamato listened to the eruption of sharp, staccato combat chatter as the Manty missiles roared towards the task group.

The voices on the command circuits were harsh, strained, but not panicky. Communications discipline never really faltered, and the orders came crisply and quickly.

He felt himself settling back into his command chair, nodding in satisfaction despite the suddenly altered tactical situation as he listened to his people responding to it. There was no need for him to give any orders; they were already doing exactly what they needed to do.

Captain Hall would be proud of them, he thought.

* * *

"Oh, shit," Captain Morton Schneider said almost conversationally as the sudden ugly rash of crimson missile icons erupted behind him. His LAC formation had been just about to reverse acceleration when the hundreds of impeller signatures sprang into malevolent life.

"Range is approximately five-one million klicks,"

Lieutenant Rothschild, his tactical officer reported in a hard-edged voice. "At constant acceleration on our part, actual flight distance will be five-seven-point-five million klicks. Flight time approximately eight-point-four minutes."

"Acknowledged," Schneider replied.

"We have LACs lighting off as well," Rothschild continued. "Estimate approximately fourteen hundred MDMs targeted on us. Looks like somewhere between four and five hundred of their LACs accelerating to come in behind them."

"They're not a threat . . . yet," Schneider said, concentrating on the far more immediate danger.

"Formation Mike-Delta-One. And prepare to implement Zizka."

"Aye, Sir!"

The LAC formation altered abruptly, each tiny vessel accelerating on its own, carefully preplanned vector change. Zizka was new—a variant of the "Triple Ripple" the Fleet had employed so successfully against the Manties'

LACs. It was wasteful, in some ways, but with that many Manty MDMs coming towards them, they needed the best defense they could get.

Not that circumstances were perfect for Zizka. With the hostile missiles already launched and incoming, there was less response time than the doctrine's formulators had hoped there would be, but Schneider's battle-hardened squadron commanders had learned their trade well. He watched his plot—necessarily far less detailed than that available in a larger, more capable warship—as his strike formation transformed itself into a defensive one, designed to provide the maximum number of clear sightlines for his units' sensors and flight paths for their counter-missiles.

"They're targeting the task group, too, Sir," the tac officer said. "Looks like they're concentrating on Skylark and Peregrine."

"Makes sense," Schneider grunted. "Kill the carriers, trap the LACs."

"And they're firing a lot of missiles, Sir," Rothschild said quietly.

* * *

"Launching counter-missiles!" Commander Zucker reported, and Diamato nodded.

The range was still long, but Republican warships carried a lot of counter-missiles these days. They had to, given their weapons' individually poorer capabilities. Now all eight of his battlecruisers, both the carriers, and his two light cruisers, were pumping out every CM they could.

Targeting solutions were marginal, at best, at such a distance, but just over eight hundred MDMs were headed for the two CLACs, and any kills were better than none.

The counter-missiles streaked outward, and the EW

platforms accompanying the attack missiles brought up their onboard systems. Jagged cascades of jamming erupted all across the wavefront of Manty missiles, blinding the counter-missiles' rudimentary seekers and seriously degrading even the performance of the starships'

far more capable fire control. Then the platforms the Manties had designated "Dragon's Teeth" lit off, and the threat sources abruptly multiplied impossibly.

They must have deployed hundreds—thousands—of pods around the periphery, Diamato thought coldly. That had to cost them a pretty credit. But I don't think they've got as many of them as they'd like to have.

Sherman quivered as a second wave of counter-missiles erupted from her tubes. The Republican Navy had refitted its battlecruisers heavily, doubling their original number of counter-missile tubes at the expense of a sizable percentage of their energy armament. More energy weapons tonnage and volume had gone into additional telemetry links, and Sherman and her consorts were tossing canisters of counter-missiles out of their standard missile tubes, as well.

"First wave intercept in twenty-three seconds," Tactical announced tersely as yet a third wave of CMs launched.

* * *

"Jesus," somebody muttered behind Everard Broughton.

It was hardly a professional comment, but it summed up the captain's own reaction quite nicely.

The heavily stealthed reconnaissance platforms which had been observing the Peeps since their arrival were close enough to see the individual counter-missiles being launched, and Broughton had never seen so many CMs from so few launch platforms.

"They've got to be cutting their own control links to the first wave," Lieutenant Commander Witcinski said quietly.

Broughton looked at him, and the LAC tender Marigold's captain grimaced. "They can't have clear transmission paths to them, Sir. Not with that many impeller wedges between them and the birds."

"They could be relaying through deployed platforms,"

Broughton countered, in the interest of considering all alternatives, not because he really disagreed with Witcinski.

"Then their platforms would have to be a lot more capable than anything they're supposed to be able to build, Sir," Witcinski returned, and Broughton nodded.

"Can't argue there, Sigismund," he conceded. "On the other hand, this looks like a straight evolution of the same basic missile defense doctrine they apparently employed at Sidemore. They're throwing everything they can at the birds, and it looks to me like they must have refitted heavily with additional counter-missile tubes and control links. It's the only way that few ships could produce that volume of defensive fire."

"I suppose it makes sense, especially if they can't deploy their version of the MDM aboard something as small as a battlecruiser," Witcinski said.

"And it's going to play hell with our calculations of the necessary salvo density for effective system defense,"

Broughton agreed.

* * *

Morton Schneider watched the Manticoran missiles knife towards his LACs like so many space-going sharks. A blizzard of counter-missiles raced to meet them, but the attack missiles' accompanying electronics warfare platforms were far too capable. CM after CM lost its target, wandering hopelessly off course. The first wave intercept killed only twenty of the incoming MDMs. The second wave of counter-missiles did better—over a hundred and fifty of the Manticoran missiles disappeared—

but that left over twelve hundred, and he wasn't going to have time for more than another two or three CM

launches. Only, if he took those launches, there wouldn't be time for Zizka, and in the face of that massive missile storm . . .

"Implement Zizka now!" he snapped.

"Aye, Sir. Implementing Zizka," Rothschild replied instantly, and smacked the heel of his hand down on the big, red button beside his tactical panel.

Two hundred Cimeterre-class LACs launched their full missile loads. Six thousand far-shorter ranged missiles, launched in three slightly staggered waves, went streaking to meet the incoming Manticoran MDMs, and Broughton watched his display narrowly as they spread apart, each bird positioning itself precisely to play its part in the

"Triple Ripple." Designed to knock back the sensors and EW

of Manty LACs, it ought to do a real number on missile sensors which had to be pointed directly towards their target at this point.

The lead wave of his missiles was almost into position when the MDMs abruptly changed heading. Schneider's jaw muscles clenched painfully as the attack missiles' vectors changed. Half of them were "climbing" sharply, while the other half "dove" equally sharply, and he swallowed a venomous oath as he realized what they were doing.

So one of their pickets who saw the Ripple did get home, he thought. And the bastards decided to do something about it. Worse, they figured out the possibilities for missile defense and did something about them, too..

The maneuver had to be the result of a preprogrammed attack profile. There was far too little time for whoever had fired them to change profiles that quickly on the fly.

But whoever had done the preprogramming had timed it well. The change in attitude interposed the floors and roofs of the MDMs' impeller wedges between them and the Cimeterres' missiles just as the powerful, dirty warheads of the Republican missiles began to detonate. The solid wall of blast fronts and EMP which was supposed to blind and burn out the Manticoran missiles' seekers wasted itself against sensors which couldn't even see it.

All three Zizka waves detonated, and the flood of attack missiles which had parted around the Triple Ripple's roadblock, altered heading once more. Their noses swung back towards their targets, and there wasn't time for another counter-missile launch.

Laser heads began to detonate in deadly sequence. X-ray lasers, designed to engage superdreadnoughts, ripped and tore at mere LACs, and space was abruptly ugly with broken and dying craft. Light attack craft shattered, vomiting hull splinters and bodies. Fusion bottles flashed like funeral pyres, and a tsunami of fire washed over Schneider's formation.

The evasion maneuver programmed into the Manticoran missiles as a counter to the Triple Ripple had blunted the defensive maneuver, but it had also broken the attack missiles' locks on their designated targets. They had to reacquire on their own, without guidance from the ships which had launched them, and their onboard targeting systems were far less capable than the fire control of their motherships.

Twelve hundred missiles reached attack range, but over half of them never managed to relocate a target before their overtake velocity carried them clear past the Havenite LACs. Of the five hundred-plus which did see a target, the vast majority concentrated on the most exposed, clearly visible targets. "Only" one hundred and seventy-five of Schneider's LACs were actually attacked. Of that number, seventeen survived.

* * *

"Well, that sucks," Lieutenant Janice Kent observed.

The youthful, dark-haired lieutenant was the tactical officer aboard HMS Ice Pick, the command LAC of Captain Broughton's strike. Commander Hertz, Ice Pick's commanding officer and Broughton's COLAC, glanced sideways at her.

"It's better than a twenty percent kill of their entire formation," he pointed out, and she made a face.

"Sure it is, Skip," she agreed. "But it's less than a ten percent kill ratio for the launch as a whole. Against targets we're supposed to be killing with a single hit each."

"True," Hertz conceded. "But I'll bet you it came as a nasty surprise to them. And at least we know the pop-up maneuver works. Not well, maybe, but well enough to get at least some hits through."

"And now they know we know," Kent said. "Which means they're going to be thinking of another new wrinkle of their own."

"If you can't take a joke, you shouldn't have joined,"

Hertz told her, and she chuckled sourly.

* * *

Oliver Diamato watched his plot as the counter-missiles tore into the cloud of attacking missiles. Despite their relatively poor targeting solutions and limited tracking capability, the sheer mass of Republican CMs had to have some effect, and dozens of Manticoran missiles began to disappear.

Unfortunately, there were hundreds of them.

Next time, a distant corner of Diamato's brain thought, we hold some of the LACs back. We need their point defense.

The second and third waves of counter-missiles killed still more of the attackers, but the Manticoran electronic warfare platforms were fully active, now, and intercept accuracy plummeted.

The torrent of MDMs slammed across the outer and middle intercept zones, and shipboard point defense laser clusters began to fire. Broadside energy weapons joined them, blazing away in defiant fury as the heavy warheads thundered down upon them.

Everard Broughton had fired eight hundred and thirty missiles at Diamato's squadron and the CLACs he was escorting. Counter-missiles killed two hundred and eleven of them. The close-in energy weapons killed another two hundred and six. Of the remaining four hundred and thirteen, fifty-one were EW platforms, and another hundred and six were defeated by Republican ECM and simply lost lock and wandered off course until they self-destructed at the end of their run.

But that meant that two hundred and fifty-six reached attack range and detonated.

The long range had aided the Republic's defenses by giving them longer tracking time and a deeper engagement envelope. The capability of Manticoran EW had gone a long way towards offsetting that, but nothing the Manticorans could do could magically erase the fire control problems inherent in targeting a maneuvering starship at a range of almost three light-minutes. Every one of the attack missiles had been initially targeted upon one of the CLACs, but a third even of those which reached attack range had lost their original targets and took whatever they could find in replacement.

Some of them reacquired one or the other of the CLACs.

Others didn't.

William T. Sherman staggered as a dozen X-ray lasers gouged at her. Half of them wasted their fury against her impeller wedge, and her sidewalls caught at the other half-dozen, bending and deflecting them. Only two actually struck the ship, but they blasted deep into her, shattering her relatively light armor with contemptuous ease.

"Heavy damage starboard forward! Graser Three and Five are gone—heavy casualties on both mounts! Missile One, Three, and Seven are out of the net! We have a breach in the core hull between Frame Sixty and Frame Seventy!"

Diamato heard the damage reports, but his eyes were riveted to the icons of RHNS Skylark and Peregrine as the full brunt of the Manticoran attack slammed down upon them.

Skylark heaved as the X-ray lasers blasted into her. Over half the total surviving laser heads went after her, and the big ship shuddered in agony as laser after laser ripped into her. The carrier division's flagship was big—bigger than most superdreadnoughts—but she



superdreadnought. She was a CLAC, her flanks studded with launch bays which simply could not be as massively armored as a superdreadnought's hull. Her core hull, wrapped around her fusion plants, her magazines, her life-support and other critical systems, could be and was, but it lacked the layer upon layer of defenses built into the outer structure of a ship of the wall.

Hull plating shattered. Glowing splinters—some bigger than one of her own LACs—flew like sparks from some hideous forge. Counter-missile tubes and point defense stations were blasted away, along with their crews, and the stilettos of bomb-pumped fury tore deeper and deeper into her.

Diamato would never know exactly how many of them stabbed into her, but, in the end, it was one too many.

Her entire forward impeller room exploded in a chain reaction of arcing capacitors. Her wedge faltered, letting still more lasers through to rend and tear, and power surges blew through her systems like demons.

One of them reached her inertial compensator. It failed, and the two hundred-plus gravities of acceleration from her still-active after impeller ring killed every man and woman aboard her in the fleeting seconds before it broke her back. The white-hot flare of her failing fusion bottles simply punctuated her destruction.

The light cruiser Phantom went with her, victim of at least three MDMs intended for her betters, and Peregrine was severely damaged. All of Diamato's battlecruisers took at least some damage of their own, but Peregrine was far more badly hit.

"She's down two alphas and five betas out of her after ring, Sir," Zucker reported. "Half her starboard bays are out of action, and she's lost at least thirty percent of her missile defense. Her starboard sidewall's down to about forty percent, and Captain Joubert reports very heavy casualties."

"Thank you, Robert," Diamato said, projecting a calm he was far from feeling.

He looked back at his master plot. With Duval—and Skylark—dead, the full responsibility of command had just landed squarely on his shoulders, and he forced himself to draw a deep breath. As Captain Hall had once said, there was always time to think. Maybe not a lot, but there was always some time . . . or else you were already so screwed it didn't matter what you did.

His mouth quirked mordantly at the thought, and his brain began sorting through the situation.

Sherman was hurt, but still combat capable . . . except for the minor fact that he couldn't see anything to engage other than the Manty LACs who were far, far out of his range. And while it seemed likely that the torrent of missiles which had ravaged the task group had come from independently deployed pods, it was entirely possible they hadn't. There might well be Manty battlecruisers—or even a couple of ships of the wall—out here. A couple of old-style wallers, without onboard MDM capability, would make mincemeat out of his remaining strength without breaking a sweat, and if there were even a single pod-layer in range . . .

Captain Schneider's LACs were shaking back down into formation, he saw, and made his decision. The Republic's FTL communications ability continued to lag far behind that of the Manticorans, despite the tech windfall from Erewhon. It was better than it had been, and there were promises of better still, but the new Havenite systems were more massive than their Manty counterparts, and they were difficult to refit to an existing ship's impeller nodes. New-build ships would come from the yards with vastly improved capabilities, but older ships—like Sherman

—remained far more limited. Still, what Diamato had was going to be enough for what he had to do.

"We've got to get Peregrine clear, Serena," he said flatly.

"Instruct Captain Joubert to translate out immediately.

He's to take his ship to the Alpha rendezvous and wait for us there. If he hasn't seen any of us within forty-eight hours of his own arrival, he's to return independently to base. Instruct Specter to escort Peregrine."

"Yes, Sir," Commander Taverner said quietly, and Diamato's mouth twitched in a bitter almost-smile at the chief of staff's tone. Detaching Peregrine meant Diamato was writing off all of his LACs, but the rear admiral had no choice. The ship was simply too badly damaged, and the Republic couldn't afford for him to lose her as he'd already lost Skylark.

"Send a message to Captain Schneider," Diamato continued, turning to Communications. "Inform him that Plan Zulu-Three is in effect."

"Aye, Sir."

Diamato sat back in his command chair, watching his plot with hard blue eyes, as his orders went out.

Peregrine's icon turned away, accompanied by the surviving light cruiser, and disappeared into the concealing safety of hyper-space.

At least I got her safely out of here, he thought. He knew his bitter self-recrimination was undeserved. He and Harold Duval had done exactly what their orders had specified, and the people who'd written those orders had known something like this might happen. The entire point of the attack had been to discover how the Manties' system defense doctrine was evolving, and in the callous calculus of war, the price the Republic had paid to achieve that goal was not excessive. Or, at least, it was far lower than the price the same sort of defenses might have exacted against a heavier, serious attack in force which didn't know about them.

But that made him feel no better about Skylark's destruction. Even with her LACs away, there had been over three thousand men and women aboard that ship, and not one of them had survived. That was a bitter price, excessive or not. And it did not include the eight thousand-plus Republican naval personnel aboard the task group's LACs. Too many of them were already dead, more of them were going to die, and Oliver Diamato had just ordered the only ship which could have recovered their LACs out of the system.

He watched the impeller signatures of Schneider's LACs breaking down into three- and four-squadron formations, scattering on individual evasion courses. This, too, had been planned for, however little anyone had actually expected the plan to be needed. Under Zulu-Three, Schneider's units would make for half a dozen widely separated rendezvouses beyond the hyper limit, where Diamato's battlecruisers would recover as many of their crewmen as possible.

It was going to be tight, and difficult. The odds were that Schneider's escape courses would take his LACs into the reach of still more of the deployed system defense pods. It was possible none of his ships would survive to reach a rendezvous, or that the Manties would manage to deduce the rendezvouses locations and get something into position to interdict them. Or that the faster, more capable Manty LACs would intercept the Cimeterres short of the limit.

But Oliver Diamato was grimly determined that anyone who did reach one of the rendezvous points would find someone waiting there to take him home.

"All right," he said. "Take us into hyper. Astrogation, start your update on the Zulu-Three positions."

Chapter Ten

"Everyone is here now, Your Grace."

Honor looked up from the report she'd been reading.

James MacGuiness stood in the open door of her Jason Bay mansion's office, and she shook her head wryly at his expression and the taste of his emotions.

"You needn't sound quite so disapproving, Mac," she said.

"I'm not really overworking myself, you know."

"That depends on your definition of overwork, doesn't it, Your Grace?" he responded. "I've certainly seen you work harder and on less sleep. But I don't recall ever having seen you with a stomach bug that's lasted as long as this one.

Neither," he added pointedly, "does Miranda."

"Mac," she said patiently to the man who had once been her steward and remained her keeper, "it's not that bad.

It's just a little stomach upset. For that matter, maybe it's nerves." Her lips twitched. "It's not like my new assignment is stress free, you know!"

"No, Ma'am, it isn't." Honor's eyes narrowed as MacGuiness reverted to the old, military form of address.

He was careful not to use it these days, for the most part.

"But I've seen you under stress before," he continued.

"After you were wounded on Grayson, for example. Or after the duel. And with all due respect, Ma'am," he said very seriously, " nerves have never put you off your feed the way you've been lately."

Honor regarded him thoughtfully for several seconds, then sighed.

"You win, Mac," she surrendered. "Call Doctor Frazier.

Ask her if she can see me Monday, all right?"

"Perfectly, Your Grace," he said, rationing himself to only the slightest flicker of satisfaction.

"Good," she told him, "because I'm going to be up pretty late, and I don't want you hovering disapprovingly outside the door. We've got a perfectly capable staff who can feed us and bring us things to drink if we need them, and you can take yourself off to bed at your usual time. Is that understood?"

"Perfectly, Your Grace," he repeated with a slight smile, and she chuckled.

"In that case, Mr. MacGuiness, would you be so good as to ask my guests to join me?"

"Of course, Your Grace."

He bowed slightly and withdrew, and Honor climbed out of her chair, walked to the opened crystoplast wall, and stepped out onto the office balcony.

Jason Bay gleamed before her under the light of Thorson. The moon's disk drifted in and out of breaks in the thin, high overcast, a brisk breeze pushed waves across the bay, and the lights of Landing glittered in sprawling heaps across the water. She felt the wind pressing against her and smelled salt, and longed suddenly for her sailboat.

She could almost feel the spokes of the wheel pressing against her palms, the spray on her cheeks, the simple pleasure of watching the sharp-edged sails stealing the wind's power. Moonlight, stars, and freedom from care and responsibility all beckoned to her, and she smiled wistfully. Then she turned her back on the night-struck bay's seduction and stepped back into her office as MacGuiness ushered in her visitors.

A brown-haired officer in the uniform of a rear admiral led the procession, followed by a tall, youngish-looking captain of the list, Mercedes Brigham, and the other key members of the staff Honor was profoundly grateful she'd managed to retain intact from Task Force Thirty-Four.

"Alistair," she said, stepping forward with a warm smile as she offered the flag officer her hand. "It's good to see you again. Mercedes told me you'd gotten in this morning."

"It's good to see you, too," Alistair McKeon said, squeezing her hand with an even bigger smile. "Nice to know you were satisfied enough to want me again, for that matter!"

"Always, Alistair. Always."

"That's what I like to hear," he said, looking around the office. "Where's your furry little shadow?"

"Nimitz is visiting Samantha at White Haven," she said.

"Oh. At White Haven, eh?" He looked at her, gray eyes glinting. "I hear it's nice up north this time of year."

"Yes, it is." She gripped his hand for a moment longer, then looked at the dark-haired, improbably handsome captain who had accompanied him.

"Rafe." She held out her hand to him in turn, and he shook it firmly.

"Your Grace," he said, inclining his head.

"I'm sorry about Werewolf," she said in a quieter tone.

"I won't pretend I'm not going to miss her, Your Grace,"

Captain Rafe Cardones replied. "But a brand new Invictus-

class superdreadnought is nothing to sneeze at when you haven't been on the list any longer than I have. And another stint as your flag captain isn't going to hurt my résumé any."

"Well, that's going to depend on just how well we all do, isn't it?" she responded, then looked at Brigham and the other staffers.

Captain Andrea Jaruwalski, her operations officer, was as composed-looking as ever, but Honor tasted the combination of anticipation, eagerness, and trepidation behind Jaruwalski's hawklike profile. George Reynolds, her staff intelligence officer, promoted to full commander from lieutenant commander after Sidemore, wasn't quite as good at concealing all of the questions bubbling through his active brain. Her staff astrogator, Lieutenant Commander Theophile Kgari, also recently promoted, followed Reynolds through the door. Kgari was only a second-generation Manticoran, and his complexion was as dark as Honor's friend Michelle Henke's. Timothy Meares, Honor's flag lieutenant, brought up the rear, and his fair hair and gray-green eyes might have been specifically designed to contrast with Kgari's dark coloring.

"All right, people," she invited, gesturing at the comfortable armchairs scattered around the large office,

"find seats. We've got a lot to talk about."

Her subordinates obeyed, settling quickly into place.

Honor took one last look through the opened crystoplast wall, then pressed the button that closed the sliding panels. Another command rendered the outer surface opaque, and a third activated the anti-snooping systems installed throughout the mansion and its grounds.

"First," she began, turning her own chair to face them all, "I want to say that I asked the Admiralty to let me keep all of you because of how satisfied I am with your performance at Sidemore. I couldn't have asked for better from you there . . . but it looks like I may have to in our new assignment."

She tasted the way nerves tightened after her last sentence, and she smiled without any humor at all.

"The bottom line is that Eighth Fleet is something of a paper hexapuma at the moment. The Admiralty doesn't have the ships to make it anything but a shadow of what it was under Admiral White Haven. Your battle squadron, Alistair—all six ships worth of it—will constitute our entire

'wall of battle' for at least the immediate future."

"Excuse me?" McKeon blinked. "Our entire wall?"

"That's what I said," Honor replied grimly. "Not only that, but any additional wallers we receive for the next few months will almost certainly be old-style, pre-pod ships from the Reserve."

"Your Grace," Mercedes Brigham said quietly, "that's not a 'fleet'; it's a task force. Or maybe only a task group."

"It's a little better than that, Mercedes," Honor said. "For example, we'll have two full squadrons of CLACs under Alice Truman. That's over a quarter of the total we have in commission, including—" she smiled at Cardones "—

Werewolf. And they're giving us all of the Manticoran pod-battlecruisers. We'll have first call on additional Agamemnons as they commission, as well. And we should be seeing the majority of the Saganami-C s, as well."

"Excuse me, Your Grace," Jaruwalski said slowly, "but that sounds like a peculiar force mix, if you'll pardon my saying so. My impression from the media reports, at least, was that Eighth Fleet was being reactivated as our primary offensive command, just as it was during Operation Buttercup. But you're talking about primarily light units, aren't you?"

"That's exactly what I'm talking about," Honor confirmed.

She drew a deep breath and leaned back in her chair.

"The other day, the Queen referred to me as her 'lucky talisman,'" she said, with a slight grimace. "I might quibble with the accuracy of that label, on several levels, but thanks to the media coverage of Sidemore, there's some truth to it. At least in terms of public perception. At the moment, Admiralty House is rather hoping the Havenites will read those reports at face value.

"The truth is that the deployment cupboard is bare, people. We're scraping the bottom of the barrel just to maintain the fleets we've got to have to cover our critical core systems. We simply can't reduce them any further, even with all of the system-defense pods and other fortifications we can put into position. But bad as the situation is, it's going to get worse before it gets better.

We'll get to the exact figures ONI is projecting shortly, but what matters for our purposes right this minute is that the Havenites' wall of battle is already bigger than ours is, and it's going to grow faster than ours is for at least the next two T-years.

"Which means that, if they're prepared to take the losses, they probably have—or shortly will have—the combat power they need to hammer Manticore or Grayson."

Her office was deathly still and silent.

"Needless to say, all of that is highly classified information," she continued after a moment. "We don't know if the Republic is as well aware of those numbers as we are, but we have to assume they are. After all, our prewar strength was pretty much a matter of public record; theirs wasn't, so they started with an intelligence advantage. However, we're hoping they won't want to take such massive losses if they can possibly avoid it. And the job of Eighth Fleet, at this moment, is to persuade them to disperse as much of their fleet strength as possible, so that it won't be available for offensive operations."

"So they're giving us units optimized for raiding operations," McKeon said.

"Exactly." Honor nodded. "The idea is for us to wreak a fair amount of havoc in the Republic's rear areas. They can't have built up and maintained a fleet the size of their present navy without having weakened themselves somewhere. For example, ONI's best estimate, from all the intelligence sources we still have in the Republic, is that one thing they did was to scrap all the old battleships the Old Regime was using for rear-area defense. Even if they hadn't needed the manpower anywhere else, those ships would have been sitting ducks for MDMs and LACs, so it would make a lot of sense to retire them. But it's unlikely they've been able to replace them out of new construction, either. It's more probable they're relying on light units and, possibly, LACs of their own for normal security.

Undoubtedly, they also hope the damage they did to us in their opening operation knocked back our offensive capability badly enough we won't be in any position to take advantage of the weakness of their secondary systems'

defenses. Our job is to convince them they're wrong."

"And they gave you Eighth Fleet, and played up its role as our 'primary offensive force,' to help convince them of that," McKeon said. Honor looked at him, and he shrugged.

"It's not that hard to figure out, Honor. If the Admiralty gave you the assignment after Sidemore, then clearly it regards Eighth Fleet as a critical command which it will reinforce as rapidly as possible. Which means the Peeps are going to have to assume that whatever we do to them with raids will only grow steadily in intensity and weight.


"Something along those lines," she said. "And, as much as possible, they'll be right. It's just that the degree to which anyone can reinforce us is going to be limited."

She let her chair come fully upright once again, laying her folded forearms on her desk and leaning forward over them.

"So, that's the bottom line, people. We'll have essentially a free hand in selecting our objectives and timing our operations. We'll base out of Trevor's Star, so we can also serve as a ready reinforcement to Admiral Kuzak's Third Fleet. And we'll do everything we can to convince the media—and the Republic—we have a lot more tonnage and firepower than we actually do."

"Sounds . . . interesting," McKeon said.

"Oh, it'll be ' interesting,' all right," she said grimly. "And now, the floor is open for suggestions about ways to make it even more interesting for the Republic than it is for us."

* * *

"Have you got a minute, Tony?"

Sir Anthony Langtry, Foreign Secretary of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, looked up in faint surprise as the Earl of White Haven poked his head into Langtry's private office.

"I suppose I do," the Foreign Secretary said mildly. He watched quizzically as White Haven stepped fully into the office, treecat on his shoulder, then pointed at a chair and cocked his head. "May I ask just how you got through the dragon's den without tripping any alarms?"

White Haven chuckled as he took the indicated chair and lifted Samantha down into his lap. Early morning sunlight poured in through the office windows to his left, splashing over his chair, and Samantha buzzed in pleasure as its warmth soaked into her.

"It's not really all that hard," the earl said, stroking the

'cat's silken pelt. "I just walked into the outer office, told Istvan you were expecting me this morning, and that there was no need to announce me."

"Interesting." Langtry tilted his chair back. "Particularly since Istvan's been with me for over ten T-years, and he happens to be the person who keeps my schedule. Ah, I wasn't expecting you, was I?"

"No," White Haven said, much more seriously. "A point, judging from Istvan's expression, of which he was quite well aware."

"I thought I wasn't." Langtry regarded his unexpected visitor thoughtfully. "As it happens, there's nothing else on my calendar just at the moment—except, of course," he added a bit pointedly, "for this position paper I'm supposed to be studying before I meet with the Andermani ambassador for lunch. So I suppose Istvan may have decided to humor you. And now that he has, why are you here?"

"For a private conversation."

"It wouldn't be a bit more of an end run than just a get together of two old friends, now would it?" Langtry asked.

"As a matter of fact, it is," White Haven admitted, now without a trace of humor, and the treecat in his lap sat up to regard Langtry with grass-green eyes.

"Hamish, it's not going to do any good," the Foreign Secretary said.

"Tony, she's got to at least get them talking again."

"Then I suggest you convince her of that. Or at least your brother." Langtry regarded White Haven very levelly. "He is the Prime Minister, you know."

"I certainly do. But on this particular point, he's almost as . . . focused, let's say, as Elizabeth herself. He knows how I feel. He disagrees with me. And, as you say, he is the Prime Minister."

"As it happens," Langtry said slowly, "I find myself substantially in agreement with him and the Queen on this one, Hamish."


"Hamish, there's not really anything substantively new in any of Pritchart's so-called proposals. She's still flatly denying her government falsified our diplomatic exchanges. She's still asserting that she attacked us because of High Ridge's refusal to negotiate in good faith, and that our publication of our 'forged' diplomatic traffic indicates that the leopard—that's us, Hamish, in case you hadn't noticed—hasn't changed its spots just because of his fall from power. And she's insisting the plebiscites to be held on the previously occupied Havenite planets be conducted under her exclusive supervision. Where's anything new in any of that?"

"What's 'new' is that she's proposed a cessation of hostilities while we negotiate on the basis of her most recent round of proposals," White Haven said sharply.

"Trust me. We need that cessation a lot worse than they do right now!"

"Why?" Langtry demanded bluntly. "Unless you've forgotten, we had a cease-fire in place—as far as we knew, anyway—the last time the Peeps launched a sneak attack on us. You are familiar with the old proverb that goes 'Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,'

aren't you?"

"Of course I am. But do you really think she's going to make that sort of proposal just so she can violate the cease-fire a second time? The whole point of the squabbling over who forged whose diplomatic correspondence is that she's trying to convince her own public, the rest of the galaxy, and possibly even a significant portion of our public opinion, that we were the ones who violated the accepted standards of diplomacy.

That she attacked us only because we'd demonstrated we couldn't be trusted. If she offers to sit down and talk with us, then attacks us a second time while the talks are still in progress, she gives us the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that she's the one whose interstellar word can't be trusted."

"You could be right," Langtry acknowledged. "At the same time, she can always officially announce she's breaking off talks before she hits us again. And if she's careful to observe all the diplomatic niceties this time around, wouldn't that tend to strengthen her claim that she tried to observe them the last time?"

"That's so Machiavellian it makes my head hurt just thinking about it," White Haven complained. "Given the military situation, why should she try anything that complex?"

"How the hell should I know?" Langtry demanded testily.

"All I can tell you is that she's already acted in ways that are at least that 'Machiavellian.' And as far as the military situation is concerned, I can actually see some logic from her side in calling a temporary halt to the war."

"I know," White Haven said wearily. He shook his head, sitting back and cradling Samantha against his chest. "I've had exactly the same conversation with Willie."

"Well, he has a point. At the moment, according to your own analysts, we've still got something close to effective military parity. But that balance is going to shift steadily in their favor over the next year or so. Wouldn't it make sense for them to use diplomacy to neutralize our military forces without firing another shot until they've built their own up to a point which gives them a decisive superiority?"

"Of course it would. And I'm not trying to suggest the Peeps are the most trustworthy people in the explored galaxy. Or, for that matter, even that Pritchart is remotely interested in negotiating in ultimate good faith. It may be significant that she's at least offering the possibility of third-party monitoring of the plebiscites on the disputed planets, but I'll freely acknowledge that even that could be nothing more than window dressing. But the point is that if they hit us again as hard as they did the last time, if they go for a single vulnerable point and they're willing to take the losses, they can punch right through us tomorrow. Give me eight months—six; hell, give me four months!—and I'll make the price they'd pay for an attack like that so high even Oscar Saint-Just would've hesitated to pay it! That's what negotiating with them can buy us. The time to get our feet back under us."

"Hamish, it's not going to happen," Langtry said, shaking his head. "It's not going to happen for a lot of reasons.

Because we can't trust them after they've already lied so comprehensively. Because even the reports from Admiral Givens admit that at this moment we can't be certain a cease-fire would help us militarily more than it would help them. Because the fact that they're offering it in the first place suggests it would help them militarily, at least in their opinion, more than it would help us. Because we're not going to allow them to rehabilitate themselves diplomatically and take back any of the moral high ground in interstellar public opinion. And, frankly, because the Queen hates their guts with a pure, burning passion. If you want her to sit down and talk with these people, after everything that's happened, then you've got to be able to demonstrate that it will provide us with a significant advantage without improving the Peeps' position simultaneously. And the truth is, Hamish, that you can't demonstrate that."

"No," White Haven admitted after a moment, his voice and expression both weary. "No, I can't. To be perfectly honest, there's a part of me which genuinely believes they mean it. That the demands they're still making are really pretty damned minimal, given the fact that they currently occupy all the planets in question. But I can't prove they are. And I can't prove that my awareness of our own weaknesses isn't causing me to overestimate how valuable a few months of relative operational inactivity would be for us."

"I know." Langtry regarded him with something almost like compassion. "And I also know," he added in an oddly gentle tone, "that Duchess Harrington continues to believe the Peeps' current leadership—or at least some elements of it—can be trusted to keep its word."

Samantha's ears twitched, and White Haven looked up quickly, eyes narrowed, at the reference to Honor, but Langtry only looked back levelly.

"As it happens," the Foreign Secretary continued, "I, also, have a very lively respect for Duchess Harrington's judgment. And I realize the two of you—and Emily, of course—have become close allies, politically, as well as militarily. But in this particular instance, I think I have to agree with the Queen and Willie that she's wrong. The Peeps' actions aren't those of the honorable people she thinks they are. There could be a lot of extenuating circumstances which account for that, but it's true. And we have to make our decisions based on their demonstrated behavior, not on what we think their internal character is really like."

White Haven started to reply, then clamped his jaw tightly. Whether he liked it or not, everything Langtry had just said made sense. It all hung together, and the Foreign Secretary was certainly right about the Havenites'

demonstrated behavior.

And Langtry's tactful suggestion that he might be allowing Honor's view of Thomas Theisman—who, after all, was only one man—to influence his own analysis of the situation could well have merit. He didn't think he was, but it wasn't impossible.

He drew a deep breath, ran his hand gently down Samantha's spine, and forced his jaw muscles to relax. It really was possible he was being influenced by the fact that the woman he loved— one of the women he loved—

found her view so profoundly at odds with that of virtually everyone else in the current government. She didn't make a point of her disagreement, but she didn't back away from it, either. The Queen, and his own brother, for that matter, knew exactly what she thought. Which was one of the reasons they didn't discuss that particular aspect of the war with her at the moment.

And, he admitted to himself, it's the reason you haven't told her about Pritchart's "new" proposals, either, Hamish.

"All right, Tony," he said finally. "Maybe you're all right and I'm wrong. And maybe I am reacting this way because I'm too well aware of where we're in trouble and not aware of where they might be, or think they are. At any rate, I've given it my best shot with Willie and Elizabeth, and now even with you."

"You have that," Langtry agreed wryly. "Emphatically, one might almost say."

"All right, all right!" White Haven repeated, this time with a hint of a smile. "I'll go away and leave you in peace."

He stood, lifting Samantha back to his shoulder, and started for the door. But he stopped, just short of it, and looked back.

"It all makes sense the way you interpret it. And Elizabeth, and Willie," he said. "And you may all be right.

But I can't help thinking, Tony—what if you're not? What if I'm not? What if this isn't just a chance to buy time to organize our defenses, but a genuine opportunity to end the war without anyone else getting killed?"

"In that case, a lot of people are going to be killed who wouldn't have to be," Langtry said levelly. "But all any of us can do is the best we can do and hope at the end of the day we can live with our choices."

"I know," Hamish Alexander said softly. "I know."

* * *

"We're ready for you now, Your Grace."

Honor switched off her pad, rose from the comfortable chair in the private waiting room, scooped Nimitz up from the chair beside her, and followed the nurse. Andrew LaFollet trailed along behind her, and she hid a smile as she remembered his expression the first time he'd accompanied her on a visit to her physician and she'd innocently invited him to accompany her into the examination room. She hadn't done that to him again, but she tasted his own memory of the event as he followed her down the hallway. And, to be honest, she was tempted to do it again this time, since it was only too obvious LaFollet strongly supported MacGuiness' insistence on this nonsense.

"Through here, Your Grace," the nurse said. He opened the exam room's door, and Honor glanced mischievously at LaFollet, who returned her gaze stoically, then looked at the nurse.

"Thank you. Ah, would it be all right if my armsman stands in the hall here?" she asked him.

"Quite all right, Your Grace," the nurse assured her.

"We're aware of the Grayson security requirements."

"Good," she said, and smiled at LaFollet. "This shouldn't take too long, Andrew," she told him. "Of course, if you'd like to—"

She gestured at the examination room, one eyebrow arched, and treasured his long-suffering expression.

"That's all right, My Lady. I'll be fine right here," he assured her.

* * *

Honor checked the time again, and Nimitz bleeked a question as she frowned.

"Sorry, Stinker," she said, reaching out to scratch his chest as he reclined comfortably beside her on the examining table. "Just wondering what's become of Doctor Frazier."

Nimitz flipped his shoulders in an unmistakable shrug, and she chuckled. But she didn't stop wondering.

Both her parents were physicians, and she'd spent enough time undergoing repairs to be more familiar with the medical profession than most. There was a rhythm and a timing to examinations, and a routine physical shouldn't be taking this long. Doctor Frazier's nurse had run all the diagnostics and departed with the results almost ninety minutes ago. Frazier should have evaluated them and put in her own appearance within fifteen or twenty minutes at the outside.

"Wait here, Stinker."

Honor climbed down off the examining table, opened the door, and stuck her head out into the hall. LaFollet started to turn towards the door as it opened, then stopped, facing rigidly away from it.

"Oh, don't be silly, Andrew!" she scolded fondly. "I'm perfectly decent."

He turned his head, and his mouth twitched, hovering on the edge of a smile, as he took in her uniform trousers and blouse.

"Yes, My Lady?"

"I'm just wondering where Doctor Frazier is."

"Do you want me to go check, My Lady?"

"No, no." She shook her head. "I just wanted to poke my head out and look around. I'm sure she'll get here as soon as possible. I wonder what's holding her up, though."

"If you'd like—" LaFollet began, then broke off as Doctor Frazier came briskly down the hall with a memo board tucked firmly under her left arm.

Janet Frazier was trim, slender, auburn haired, and a good twenty-five centimeters shorter than Honor. She moved with a brisk confidence and habitually exuded the sense of authority which was one of the hallmarks of a good physician. She looked just as composed as usual, but both of Honor's eyebrows rose as she tasted the doctor's actual emotions. Consternation predominated, mingled with something very much like apprehension-flavored amusement.

"Your Grace," Frazier said. "I apologize for the delay. I had to, ah, recheck some test results and do a little research."

"I beg your pardon?" Honor said.

"Why don't we step back into the exam room, Your Grace?"

Honor obeyed the polite command. She stepped back up onto the stool, and parked herself on the edge of the padded table. Nimitz took one look at Frazier, then sat up beside Honor, ears cocked. The raised diagnostic sensors just cleared the top of Honor's head as she sat down, and Frazier tossed her memo board onto the polished top of a low cabinet and folded her arms across her chest.

"Your Grace," she said after a moment, "I'm pretty sure I have a surprise for you. The nausea you've been experiencing?"

She paused, and Honor nodded.

"It's morning sickness, Your Grace."

Honor blinked. For a long moment, perhaps five seconds, she had absolutely no idea what Frazier was talking about.

Then it registered, and she sat bolt upright. In fact, she sat up so quickly she bashed the top of her head on one of the sensors.

Not that she even noticed the impact.

"That's ridiculous!" she snapped. "Impossible!"

"Your Grace, I checked the results three times," Frazier said. "Trust me. You are pregnant."

"But—But . . . I can't be!" Honor shook her head, thoughts skittering like a treecat kitten on ice. "I can't be," she repeated. "On more levels than you can possibly imagine, Doctor, I can't be."

"Your Grace," Frazier said, "I'm not in any position to comment on exactly how much opportunity you've had to become pregnant. But I can tell you, without any doubt whatsoever, that you are."

Honor's head spun. Frazier couldn't be right—she just couldn't.

"But . . . but my implant," she protested.

"I thought about that as soon as I saw the initial result,"

Frazier admitted. "That's one reason I checked it three times."

Honor stared at her. All active-duty female naval personnel eligible for shipboard duty were required to maintain current contraceptive implants as insurance against accidental pregnancy. The Navy provided a perfectly adequate implant good for one T-year, renewable with each annual physical, as part of its basic medical care, but anyone who wanted to pay for her own implant could do so, as long as it met the minimum one-year requirement of the Service and was kept current.

Without that implant, she was restricted to dirt-side duty, safely away from the risk of accidental radiation exposures. Given her own career plans, Honor had opted for a ten-year implant. It could have been deactivated at any time, in the unlikely event her plans had changed, and it was simply one less detail to bother about.

"I'm not positive yet, Your Grace," Frazier continued,

"but I think I may have figured out what happened. To the implant, I mean."

Honor shook her head and settled back down on the edge of the examining table. Nimitz flowed into her lap, leaning back against her, and she wrapped her arms tightly about his soft, comforting warmth and rested her chin on the top of his head.

"If you have any idea how it happened, it's more than I have," she said.

"I think it's a data entry error, Your Grace."

"A data entry error?"

"Yes." Frazier sighed. "This probably wouldn't have happened if Doctor McKinsey hadn't been called back to Beowulf, Your Grace. Unfortunately, he was, and I've been your personal physician only since your return from Cerberus. And your file was delivered to me from Bassingford when I first saw you."

Honor nodded.

"Apparently what happened was that when the Peeps announced your 'execution,' the Navy removed your files from the medical center's active database. After all, you were dead. So, when you turned up alive again, they had to reactivate your records. And I'm guessing there was some glitch, because according to your file, your implant was renewed after your return from Cerberus."

"After my return?" Honor shook her head vigorously.

"Certainly not!"

"Oh, I'm well aware of that, Your Grace," Frazier said. "In fact, this is at least partly my fault. I didn't do a complete enough review of your records, or I might have realized the date indicated for your implant renewal was flatly impossible."

"But how could someone have screwed it up?" Honor demanded. Her brain, she realized, was not functioning especially well at the moment.

"My best guess?" Frazier said. "It looks to me as if when your records were reactivated all entries specific to Navy-monitored requirements—like the requirement that your contraceptive implant be current—were somehow reset to the date they were reactivated. Which means that so far as I knew from my records, which were based on Bassingford's, your implant should have been good for another three and a half T-years. Which, obviously, it wasn't."

Honor closed her eyes.

"I realize the timing on this is . . . awkward, Your Grace," Frazier said. "There are, of course, several options available to us. Which one you choose is up to you, but at least it's very early in the pregnancy. There's time to decide what you want to do."

"Doctor," Honor said, without opening her eyes, "I'm due to deploy to Trevor's Star in less than two weeks."


Honor opened her eyes at last, and smiled crookedly at Frazier's expression.

"That does put rather a tighter time constraint on it, doesn't it?" the doctor continued.

"You might put it that way . . . assuming you're given to understatement."

"Well, in that case, Your Grace," Frazier said, "and speaking as your physician, I think you'd better inform the father as quickly as you can."

Chapter Eleven

"My Lady?"

Honor twitched in her comfortable limousine seat and looked up.

Nimitz was curled tightly in her lap, pressing against her while he radiated comfort. The 'cat clearly didn't understand all of the reasons behind her consternation and anxiety, but his loving concern and support poured into her, and she treasured them. Unfortunately, Nimitz couldn't begin to resolve all of the potentially disastrous consequences which might stem from her condition.

"Yes, Spencer?" she said, looking at the fair-haired armsman who'd spoken.

"We just received a com call from the spaceport, My Lady," he said respectfully. Her youngest armsman obviously also realized something was wrong, but he didn't know what, and his tone was cautious. "The Tankersley just made orbit," he continued.

"She did?" Honor sat straighter, her chocolate-dark eyes brightening suddenly. "She's early."

"Yes, My Lady."

"Thank you, Spencer. Simon," she leaned forward, looking past Hawke to the armsman in the pilot's place,

"contact the escort and turn us around, Simon. We're going to the spaceport to pick up my parents."

* * *

"Now, then, Honor Stephanie Harrington," Allison Harrington said sternly, "what in the world has your panties in such a knot?"

Honor, Nimitz, and her parents were alone together for the first time since their arrival. Allison and Alfred Harrington sat in Honor's office while she stood facing the crystoplast wall, arms crossed, with Nimitz on her shoulder, but she had no attention to spare for her favorite view of Jason Bay. The twins had been handed off to Jennifer LaFollet, Allison's Grayson-born personal maid, and Lindsey Phillips, their Manticoran nanny, after properly affectionate greetings, but Honor had tasted her mother's concern as Allison watched her with Faith and James. She'd often thought Allison had a lot in common with treecats, and her ability to read her daughter's mood and body language so acutely was one of the reasons.

"What makes you think anything has my underwear tangled, Mother?" Honor replied now, turning back from the bay to face her. She unfolded her arms and reached up to scratch Nimitz's chin soothingly with her right hand.

"Oh, please, Honor!" Allison rolled her eyes, then waved at Nimitz. "That furry little henchman of yours is as tightly wired as I've ever seen him. Certainly since the day the two of you snuck off for that first trip to his home range which I'm sure you both continue to fondly imagine your father and I knew nothing about." Honor's eyes widened, and Allison snorted. "And as for you, young lady! I've never seen you as skittish around the kids as you were this afternoon. So, what is it?"

"Oh, nothing much." Honor's voice wavered slightly around the edges, undermining her attempt at nonchalance. "I just got a little . . . unexpected medical news this morning."

She looked back out at the bay, then faced her mother's eyes.

"I'm pregnant, Momma," she said quietly.

For a moment, Allison—and Honor's father—both seemed as totally clueless as she'd felt when Frazier informed her.

Both of them recovered from the instant of total noncomprehension much more quickly than she had, however. Probably, she thought, with a flicker of half-bitter amusement, because they weren't the ones who were pregnant!

The quick, bright flare of their emotions once the news truly registered upon them was too powerful and complex for her to sort out clearly. Astonishment. Consternation. A bright flash of joy, especially from her mother. A sudden surge of concern, tenderness. Protectiveness, especially from her father. And wrapped around all of it an abrupt spike of concern as their reaction to the news took them to the place it had already taken her.

"Hamish?" her mother said, and Honor nodded, feeling her eyes brim with tears. She'd never discussed her relationship with Hamish with her parents, but both of them were highly intelligent and knew her altogether too well.

"Yes," she said, and Allison opened her arms. Honor stepped into her embrace, hugging her mother's small, immensely comforting form tightly, and her father reached out to stroke her hair as he'd done when she was a very small girl.

"Oh, my," Allison sighed. Then she shook her head ruefully. "You simply can't do anything the easy way, can you, dear?"

"Apparently not," Honor agreed with a slightly watery chuckle.

"The timing could have been better." Her father's observation was totally unnecessary, but she chuckled again at the dry, tender amusement in his tone. "What about your implant?" he asked after a moment.

"Ran out," she said. She gave her mother another squeeze, then stood back and shrugged. "We haven't had time to figure out exactly how it happened, but there was a glitch in my records. Neither Doctor Frazier nor I realized that it had run out months ago."

" Honor," Allison said reproachfully. "Your parents are both doctors. How often have you heard us say it's the patient's responsibility, as well as the physician's, to keep track of things like that?"

"I know, Mother. I know." Honor shook her head. "Believe me, you can't scold me for that any harder than I've already scolded myself. But there was just so much going on . . ."

"Yes, there was." Allison touched her forearm remorsefully. "And you don't need my scolding you about it on top of everything else, either. I suppose it's just the shock of discovering I'm about to be a grandmother."

"Are you, Allison?" Alfred Harrington asked gently, and his wife's head snapped around abruptly. Allison Chou Harrington was a Beowulfer by birth. More than that, she was a daughter of one of the great medical "dynasties" of Beowulf. For her, the termination of a pregnancy was unthinkable, except under the most unusual possible circumstances. Something out of the barbaric era before medicine had made so many alternatives available.

She started to open her mouth, then visibly stopped herself, and Honor could actually feel her throttling her immediate, instinctive protest. Then she inhaled sharply and turned back to her daughter.

"Am I, Honor?" she asked quietly, and Honor felt a deep, sudden surge of love as Allison asked the question without a trace of pressure either way.

"I don't know," Honor said, after a moment. Despite all Allison could do, hurt flickered in her eyes, and Honor shook her head quickly. "I'm not going to have it terminated, Mother," she said. "But I may not be able to acknowledge the child."

Allison frowned.

"I realize this could be very awkward for you, Honor.

Both personally and politically. But you and Hamish have responsibilities."

"I'm fully aware of that, Mother," Honor replied, just a bit more sharply than she'd intended to. She heard her own tone, and made a small, quick gesture of apology. "I'm aware," she continued, her voice calmer than it had been.

"And I intend to meet them. But I've got to consider all of the possible consequences, not just for the child, or for me and Hamish, or for . . . anyone else, on a personal level.

And it may be that placing the child for adoption would be the best alternative."

She met her mother's gaze steadily as she said the last sentence, and Allison looked back for a long, still moment.

Then she shook her head.

"That's the last thing in the universe you want to do, isn't it, Honor?" she said very, very softly.

"Yes," Honor admitted, equally softly. She inhaled deeply. "Yes, it is," she said more briskly, "but I may not have a choice."

"The one thing you can't do," her father said, "is decide too quickly. If you make the wrong decision here, it will haunt you. You know that."

"Yes, I do. But it's a decision I can't take too long making, either. I'm due to deploy in two weeks, Daddy, and not aboard a passenger ship. Even if Regs didn't completely prohibit shipboard pregnancies, it would be criminally negligent to take a fetus into that sort of environment."

"Even so, there's no medical reason you have to rush things," he argued gently. "You've already ruled out simply terminating the pregnancy. Obviously, that means tubing or a surogacy. And if you're going to have the child tubed, you're talking about a routine out-patient procedure. Your mother's a geneticist, not an OB, but she could perform the procedure in a half-hour."

"You're right," Honor said. "I am going to have to have her—or him—tubed. And," her voice wavered again, very slightly, as she looked at her mother, "you were right, too, all those years ago, when you told me I'd understand why you didn't have me tubed when it was my turn. I don't want to. God, how I don't want to!" She pressed a palm gently to her flat, firm belly and blinked hard. "But I simply don't have that option."

"No, I don't suppose you do," Allison said. She reached up to touch her daughter's cheek. "I wish you did, but you don't."

"But, if I have the child tubed, I have to tell Hamish before I make that decision," Honor said. "It's my body, but it's our child. And the longer that I—that we— delay in making our final decision, the harder it's going to get, for both of us."

"That's true." Allison looked at her thoughtfully. "You're thinking about Emily, aren't you?"

"Yes," Honor sighed. "Oh, the political consequences if this were to get out don't bear thinking on. Not right now, not when things are still so up in the air, and when Hamish is First Lord and I'm a designated fleet commander. And especially not after what High Ridge and his cronies tried to do to us. But it's Emily I'm most concerned about."

"From what I've seen of Earl White Haven," Allison said slowly, "and from what I know of you, Honor Harrington, I don't imagine the two of you have been sneaking around behind her back."

"Of course we haven't. Even if we'd wanted to, we'd never have been able to get away with it!" Honor's chuckle carried a slightly bitter edge. "What with my armsmen, the newsies watching every move either one of us make, and the White Haven staff's devotion to Emily, if she hadn't been in on it from the start, we'd've been tripped up the first time we kissed each other."

"Which," her mother observed with a slight, devilish twinkle, "you've obviously done."

"Obviously," Honor agreed repressively.

"In that case, while this may come as a surprise to her, it's a consequence of something she's tacitly approved,"

Allison pointed out.

"That may be true, but she had every right to expect Hamish and me to be responsible enough not to let something like this happen. She had no reason to anticipate that the fact that he and I are lovers would become public knowledge, which is exactly what will happen if the two of us acknowledge this child. Worse than that, I don't have the least idea how she'll react on a personal emotional level to the fact that Hamish and I are going to have a child."

"Are you sure you're not borrowing trouble, Honor?" her father asked. She looked at him, and he shrugged. "They've been married longer than you've been alive," he pointed out, "and they've never had a child. Did Emily even want children?"

"I haven't really discussed it with her," Honor admitted.

"She's a wonderful person, but we're all still feeling our way into this relationship. She's a lot more Beowulfan—"

she smiled at her mother "—about this than I am, and she's the one who took the initiative in resolving how Hamish and I felt about one another. But there are still some things we simply haven't discussed, either because we haven't had enough time for it yet, or because we might have felt . . . awkward."

"And does this come under the heading of 'not enough time' or 'I'd feel awkward as hell'?" Allison asked.

"The latter, I'm afraid."

Honor folded her arms once more, and Nimitz shifted his weight on her shoulder as she leaned back, propping herself against the edge of her desk.

"I think Emily probably did want children, at least once,"

she said slowly. "I think she'd have made a wonderful mother, and I think it would have been incredibly good for her to have a child to invest herself in. And I think she and Hamish fully intended to produce children—and an heir to White Haven—when they married."

"Then why didn't they?" Allison asked, frowning thoughtfully as she listened intently to her daughter. "I'm not asking you to violate any confidences, Honor, but that sounds rather unlikely in a lot of ways. While I realize the nature and extent of her injuries would make a normal pregnancy impossible, they could easily have had a child fertilized in vitro and tubed, or used a surogate. And they're obviously well provided with staff; finding caregivers couldn't have been a problem."

"I'm not positive, but I think I know," Honor said. "Mind you, this is all speculation on my part, since we've never discussed it."

"So speculate," her father said.

"All right. You know, obviously, that just like me, Emily doesn't regenerate?" She paused, and both of her parents nodded just a bit impatiently for her to continue. "Well, I think she's afraid any child of hers would inherit the same inability."


Allison blinked. She looked at her daughter for several seconds, then shook herself.

"That's ridiculous," she said. "Even if it weren't, look at you! God knows I wish you'd been a bit more careful about getting bits and pieces of yourself shot off, but regen or not, you're still fully functional. Are you telling me she's afraid a child of hers would not simply be unable to regenerate but experience the same sort of catastrophic damage she did?"

"I know it sounds irrational," Honor said. "But I think that's what it is. I know, from something Hamish once said, that they were waiting to have children until his schedule was a bit less hectic. He was working himself almost as hard at the time of her accident as he is now, and both of them wanted to be available as full-time parents. So I'm guessing whatever changed their plans is related to what happened to her. I suppose it's possible she felt her injuries would prevent her from being a 'proper mother,'

but, as you just said, she has to've known she and Hamish could still have provided the best child care on Manticore.

And on the one or two occasions when the subject of regeneration has come up—most people are pretty careful not to discuss it around her—what I've 'tasted' of her emotions strongly suggests she's not as completely rational about what happened to her as most people assume she is from how well she copes with it."

"It's certainly possible," Alfred Harrington said before Allison could respond. His wife and daughter both looked at him. "I've seen a lot of serious neural damage," he said, with massive understatement. "Admittedly, very little of it's been as severe as what happened to Lady Emily. I haven't reviewed her case file, obviously, but the fact that she survived at all is obviously a not so minor medical miracle. And even people with far less severe impairment than she's suffered often experience difficulty adjusting to it. You've done far better in that regard than many do, Honor," he added, gesturing at her artificial arm, "but I strongly suspect that even you have the odd moment when you're less than totally reconciled to what's happened to you."

"I don't know if I'd say I wasn't 'reconciled,' to it," Honor replied after a moment. "I will say there are times I deeply and intensely regret it, though. And times I still experience the 'phantom pain' you warned me I would."

"But you aren't trapped inside a totally nonresponsive a body," Alfred pointed out. "Emily is, and she's been that way for over sixty T-years. She's learned to compensate, as much as anyone possibly can, and to get on with her life, but the fact that she's had to accept her impairment doesn't mean it's stopped hurting—especially for someone who was as physically active as she was before the accident. I think the thought of even the remotest possibility of her seeing someone else she loved in the same situation, rational or not, would terrify her. So, if she's managed to fixate on the possibility of her passing her inability to regenerate on to her children, she could, indeed, have simply closed off all consideration of having children in her own mind."

"That's exactly what I think she's done," Honor said. "And if she has, if Hamish and I have a child, I think we may rip her wounds wide open. I don't want to do that to her. In fact, I'll do anything to keep from doing that to her."

"I'm not at all sure you have that choice, Honor," Allison said with a certain implacable gentleness. Honor looked at her, and her mother's expression was an odd blend of serenity and sternness.

"I'm not speaking just as your mother," Allison continue.

"I'm also a physician, and not just any physician. I'm a geneticist—a Beowulf geneticist—and Emily Alexander is Hamish Alexander's wife. She may have decided to force the issue of the way you and Hamish feel about one another, and she may have decided to embrace both of you. For that, I respect and honor her. But that doesn't change the fact that she's his wife, and as her husband he has a deep-seated moral obligation to tell her about this, just as you have a deep-seated moral obligation to tell him. You may want to 'spare her,' Honor, but I don't think you have the right to. And even if you tried to, what would happen if she later discovered what you hadn't told her?

What would happen to her trust in you—and Hamish?"

Honor stared at Allison, and Nimitz rose on her shoulder, wrapping his tail protectively about her throat. She felt him pressing against her, radiating his support . . . and his agreement with what he read in her mother's emotions.

And the hell of it was that Honor could read those emotions herself. And that she knew her mother was right.

"I don't know how to do this," she admitted after a moment.

"I don't either," Allison said, "but I do know how you should start. And so do you." Honor looked at her, and Allison snorted. "Go find Hamish and tell him. I know both of you may have believed your implant would prevent this from happening, but it takes two, and he shares responsibility. Don't you try to take all of this on your shoulders, Honor Harrington. Just this once, spread some of it around where it belongs."

* * *


Hamish stared at Honor. They were in his Admiralty House office, the one place whose security she could be sure of, yet which was neither her Landing mansion nor White Haven. He'd seemed just a bit baffled when she screened him and requested a few minutes of his time on undisclosed "official business," but he'd cleared the last half-hour of his day's schedule for her.

Now she sat stiffly upright, facing him with Nimitz in her arms. Samantha's head had come up, the instant Honor and her mate entered the office; now she leapt from her perch behind Hamish's desk onto the back of his chair and sat upright, bracing herself with a light true-hand on the top of his head.

"Yes," Honor said, watching him closely and tasting his emotions even more intently. "I found out from Dr. Frazier just before lunch. My implant's expiration date was incorrectly entered in my Bassingford records when they reactivated my medical file. Dr. Frazier checked the test results three times." She shook her head. "There's no question, Hamish."

He sat absolutely motionless, radiating shock. But then, like a slow-motion recording of an opening flower, other emotions began to blossom. Surprise. Disbelief, fading quickly into an incredible melange of feelings so intense, so strong, she couldn't even begin to untangle them. His arctic blue eyes glowed, and he rose from his chair and crossed quickly to her. She started to stand, but he dropped to one knee in front of her chair before she could and captured both of her hands in his while the wild, vaulting tide of emotions cascaded through him.

"I never—" He stopped and shook his head. "I never expected, never thought . . ."

"Me either," she said, freeing her organic hand from his and running it across his hair. She blinked misty eyes as an unmistakable strand of joy soared to the top of his swirling emotional tide. But then she made herself sit back.

"I never expected this, Hamish," she said quietly, "but now that it's happened, we have some decisions to make."

"Yes." He stood slowly, then sank into an armchair, facing hers, and nodded. "Yes, we do," he agreed, and although the glowing ribbon of joy remained, she tasted anxiety and sudden concern rising to the surface beside it.

Samantha hopped down from his desk and pattered across the floor. She leapt up into Honor's chair long enough to rub cheeks with Nimitz, then leapt across to sink down in Hamish's lap, and his hands stroked her silken pelt slowly, reflexively. Just, Honor discovered, as her own hands were doing with Nimitz.

"Your command," he said. "Emily."

"And the media," Honor said, and grimaced. "My mother asked me why I couldn't do anything the easy way. I wish I had an answer for her."

"Because you're the Salamander," he said, his mouth twisting wryly. "Although, just between the two of us, I wish you could jump into a few less fires, at least where your personal life is involved."

"Unfortunately, we're in this one together, love."

"Yes, we are." He smiled a bit more whimsically. "I'm tempted to take the coward's way out and tell you that since you're the one who's pregnant, we'll do whatever you think is best. But you didn't get pregnant all by yourself, and it strikes me that a father shouldn't begin his duties by trying to shirk them. By the same token, you have had at least a little bit longer to think about this. So, having said that, do you have a strong feeling for what we ought to do?"

"Well, I'd thought the best place to begin would be to ask you whether or not you wanted to be a father," she said with a smile of her own. "Fortunately, you've already answered that one. So the next step is for us to decide how we tell Emily." Her smile disappeared. "Frankly, I don't have any idea at all how she's likely to react to this news, and I desperately want to avoid hurting her, Hamish. But I think my mother was right. We don't have the moral right to 'protect' her from something like this. Besides," her mouth tightened, "remember what an ungodly mess we made trying to 'protect her' before."

"You're right," he said. "And so is your mother. And I'm not sure how she'll respond, either. I know she wanted children when we married, and I know she changed her mind after the accident. Her mother had something to do with that, I think."

His expression took on a certain bleakness, and Honor tasted a cold, bitter strand of long-held, steely anger.

"Emily's mother didn't take what happened well," he said quietly. "At first, she wanted us to move heaven and earth to save her daughter's life. Later, when she realized how badly Emily had been damaged, and that it was permanent, she changed. I can't really fault her for not reacting well, at least initially. I didn't handle it very well

—no, that's not fair; I completely, one hundred percent screwed up—when I finally accepted that I couldn't make her well again.

"But Emily's mother never did get herself back on track.

For her, it was a quality-of-life issue, and she actually told me once—not in Emily's hearing, thank God!—that it would have been far kinder of me to simply let her die than to

'heartlessly condemn her to such a horrible life as a pathetic, helpless cripple out of pure selfishness.'"

Honor's jaw clenched. Emily's mother might never have said it where her daughter could hear, but Honor had discovered for herself just how observant Emily was, and how acutely and accurately she read the people around her. There was no way Emily Alexander could have been unaware of her mother's feelings.

"I don't think Emily ever saw herself as a helpless victim," Hamish continued, speaking slowly as he looked for exactly the right words. "I'm not trying to say she was a paragon of total courage, who never felt sorry for herself, never asked 'Why me?' There've been times, I know, when she's had to fight incredible bouts of depression. But she never saw herself as helpless, never saw herself as a mere, passive survivor. She was always her own person, always determined to go right on being her, no matter what happened.

"But I think . . . I think that despite that, a part of her saw herself through her mother's eyes. Or, maybe what she saw wasn't so much her, as some other victim. Someone else in the same condition, without the combination of support team and sheer guts and integrity that got her through it. Someone else who might agree with her mother that a life like hers wasn't worth living."

"You're talking about her children."

"Yes. No." He shrugged. "I don't know that she ever actually thought it out, or that it ever reached that level in her conscious thought. But I know she started shying away from the notion of having children, even after her physicians pointed out to her that there was no reason, given the state of modern medicine, why she couldn't still have them. And I know it started after her mother's attitude became obvious to those about her. And," he frowned, "I know I never pushed her about it. Never tried to work through it with her. I simply went along with what I believed her wishes to be, without examining for myself—

or pushing her into examining for herself— whether or not they truly were her wishes."

"Well, I think we're all going to have to find out," Honor said softly.

Chapter Twelve

"So, what do you two have on your minds?"

Emily Alexander looked back and forth between Honor and her husband, one eyebrow arched. She sat in her favorite nook in the White Haven atrium Hamish had built for her years before, gazing at them speculatively across the constantly rippling surface of a crystal-clear koi pond.

Honor could taste her curiosity, and with it a faint edge of amusement, and her own lips twitched as she realized how much she and Hamish must resemble a pair of truant schoolchildren, standing before their instructor with their

'cats on their shoulders to own up to their misdeeds.

But the temptation to smile disappeared as Honor reflected on what they were here to "own up to," and she inhaled deeply.

"Emily," Hamish said, "Honor and I have something we need to tell you. I hope it won't distress you, or cause you any pain, but it's something you have to know about."

"My, that sounds ominous," she said lightly, with a smile.

But Emily Alexander had been the Star Kingdom's leading actress before her accident. Her expression might have fooled others, yet Honor tasted the sudden throat-tightening surge of anxiety behind it, and she felt herself shaking her head—hard—before she even realized she was going to speak.

"No, Emily!" she said sharply. "It's not that." Emily looked at her, green eyes suddenly vulnerable, and Honor shook her head even harder. "Hamish and I both love you," she heard herself say with a fierce intensity which surprised even her. "Nothing can change that. And nothing between me and Hamish could ever change the way he feels about you."

Emily looked at her for two or three more seconds, then nodded slowly. Not just in acceptance of Honor's reassurances, but in admission. Strong as she was, confident as she was in herself, she could never quite forget that Honor was all of the things, physically, that she could no longer be. There was always that tiny edge of fear she couldn't quite crush that the sheer vibrancy and physical health radiating from Honor would, indeed, change the way Hamish felt about her.

"Honor is right," Hamish told her softly, crossing to sit on an ornamental stone bench beside her life-support chair.

He reached out and captured her one working hand in both of his, lifting it to press a kiss onto its back. "In an odd sort of way," he continued, gazing into her eyes and reaching out to cup the side of her face with his right hand, "you've become the center for both our lives. Maybe we've both simply been too contaminated by our Grayson experiences, but somehow the three of us have become a unit, and neither Honor nor I would ever change that, even if we could."

He paused for a moment, and she closed her eyes, pressing her cheek into his palm.

"But," he continued, after a moment, "we're both more than a little concerned about how you're going to react to the news we do have for you, love."

"In that case," she said, with something very like her normal tartness, "perhaps the two of you should stop trying to prepare me for it and go ahead and tell me what it is."

"You're right," he agreed. "So, to cut straight to the conclusion, there was a screwup with Honor's medical records. Both of us thought her contraceptive implant was current. It wasn't."

Emily looked at him. Then her eyes darted to Honor, opening very wide, and Honor nodded slowly.

"I'm pregnant, Emily," she said quietly. "Hamish and I never thought this was going to happen. Unfortunately, it has. And because it has, we—all three of us, not just Hamish and I—have to decide what we're going to do about it."

"Pregnant?" Emily repeated, and the sudden torrent of her emotions surged over Honor like an avalanche. "You're pregnant!"

"Yes." Honor crossed to Emily and sank to her knees, facing the older woman, and Nimitz and Samantha crooned softly, comfortingly. She started to say something more, then stopped, forcing herself to wait while Emily fought her way through her own emotional tumult.

"My God," Emily said after a moment. "Pregnant." She shook her head. "Somehow, this is one possibility that never occurred to me." Her voice quivered, and her working hand tightened on Hamish's left hand as she blinked hard. "How . . . how far along are you?"

"Only a few weeks," Honor said quietly. "And I'm third-generation prolong, so we're looking at a pregnancy almost eleven months long. Or we would be, at least, if I had the option of carrying the child to term normally."

"Oh, God." Emily tugged her hand out of Hamish's grasp and reached out to Honor. "Oh, no." She shook her head, green eyes welling with tears. "Honor, if something happens to you now—!"

"I'd like to say nothing will," Honor said gently, taking Emily's hand and pressing it to her own cheek as the confusion of Emily's initial response focused itself down into a single, overriding emotion. Concern. Concern not over the consequences of the pregnancy for her, or even for the three of them, but for Honor's safety, redoubled and concentrated by the fact of her pregnancy.

"I'd like to say nothing will," Honor repeated, "but I can't, because it could. A lot of people are going to be hurt or killed before this war is over, Emily. And a lot of babies are going to be born because of people's fears of what may happen to them, or to the people they love. All of which mixes into the concern Hamish and I feel over how you may feel about this."

The last sentence came out as a question, and Emily shook her head.

"I don't know how I feel about it," she said with an honesty which was almost physically painful for Honor. "I'd like to say that all I feel is happy for you—and for Hamish.

But I'm only human." Her lower lip quivered ever so slightly. "Knowing you can give Hamish the physical intimacy I can't hurts badly enough sometimes all by itself, Honor. I don't blame you for it; I don't blame Hamish for it.

I don't even blame God for it, very much, anymore. But it does hurt, and I'd be lying if I told you it didn't."

A tear trickled down Honor's cheek as she tasted Emily's determination to be totally candid, not just with Honor and Hamish, but with herself. Perhaps to be totally candid with herself for the very first time.

"I look at you, Honor," she said, green eyes glistening,

"and I remember. I remember what it was like to have two legs that worked. To be able to stand on my own. To be able to move. To be able to feel anything—anything at all—

below my shoulders. To be able to breathe by myself."

She looked away and drew a deep, shuddering breath.

"Did Hamish ever tell you just how bad the damage was, Honor?" she asked.

"We've discussed it . . . some," Honor said with an odd serenity, returning candor for candor, and reached out to wipe a tear from Emily's cheek with her thumb. "Not in great detail."

"It wasn't just my spine that was smashed in that accident," Emily said, still looking away from Honor. "They repaired everything they could, but there was an enormous amount of damage that couldn't be fixed. Or that there was no point in fixing, anyway, because I haven't felt anything except my right hand—anything at all, Honor—

below my shoulders in sixty T-years. Nothing."

She looked back at Honor again.

"I can't survive outside this chair. Can't even breathe on my own. And there you are. So healthy, so fit. And so beautiful, though I doubt you actually realize it. Everything I once was, you are, and, oh, God, Honor, there are times I resent it so. When it hurts so much."

She stopped for a moment, blinking, then smiled tremulously.

"But you aren't me. You're someone else entirely. A rather wonderful someone else, actually. When I first realized—when you first told me—how you and Hamish truly felt about one another, it was hard. I realized, intellectually, at least, that it wasn't your fault, and I recognized how dreadfully the two of you had hurt yourselves in order to avoid hurting me. And because of that, and because of the political consequences if the world had believed the Opposition's smear campaign, I made the decision—the intellectual decision—to accept what couldn't be changed and try to minimize the consequences.

"It was only later, when I'd come to truly know you, that I realized emotionally, deep down inside, that you truly are a part of Hamish, and so a part of me, as well. But that still doesn't make you me. And the hurt I still feel sometimes when I look at you standing beside Hamish, where I used to be able to stand, or think about you in his bed, where I used to be, is so much less important than who you are and what you mean to Hamish . . . and to me.

"And now this." She shook her head. "Now, whether you meant to or not, you've moved still further beyond me.

Moved to do something else I used to be able to see myself doing. A baby, Honor." She blinked again. "You're going to have a baby— Hamish's baby. And that hurts, hurts so terribly . . . and feels so wonderful."

A glow of joy flowed out of her, like sunlight through the chinks between thunderheads. It wasn't really happiness—

not yet. There was too much jagged-edged hurt and a lingering resentment which knew it was both unreasonable and irrational. But it was joy, and within it Honor sensed the capacity to become happiness.

"Hamish and I have discussed this," Honor told her, meeting her gaze steadily. "We both want the child. But even more, we want to avoid hurting or distressing you.

Among the philanthropies Willard is overseeing for me from Grayson I've got at least three orphanages and two adoption affiliates, one on Grayson, and one here in the Star Kingdom. We can place this child for adoption, Emily.

We can guarantee that she—or he—will have loving, supportive parents."

"No, you can't," Emily said. "Can't place it for adoption, I mean. I know you could find loving parents. But I couldn't ask you to give up your child. And if something does happen to you, I couldn't ask Hamish to give up the only part of you that he— we— could keep."

"So," Honor paused and drew a deep breath. "So you want us to keep the baby?"

"Of course I do!" Emily looked at her. "I'm not saying I don't have mixed feelings, because I do. You know that, if anyone does. But mixed feelings can get themselves unmixed, and even if they couldn't, how could I possibly ask you to give up your child just to spare my feelings?"

Honor closed her eyes, pressing Emily's hand more firmly against her cheek, and, to her surprise, Emily chuckled.

"Of course," she went on, her voice and the glow of her emotions both much closer to normal, "now that I've gotten past my initial surprise, I can see where this could pose a few problems. I don't suppose the two of you are hoping I can help solve them . . . again?"

"Actually," Honor said, raising her head and smiling a bit mistily at Emily, "that's exactly what we're hoping."

* * *

"All right, let's look at the problem and our options for dealing with it," Emily said much later that evening, after the supper dishes had been cleared away and the three humans and two treecats were alone once more. She'd regained most of her emotional balance, and Honor treasured the serenity flowing from her.

"First, Honor's— our—giving up this child is not an option,"

Emily continued. "Second, Honor's carrying the child to term naturally is also not an option. Third, the potential political consequences of our acknowledging the pregnancy at this particular point in time would be . . . difficult. Both here, in the Star Kingdom, and on Grayson. Fourth," she looked back and forth between her husband and Honor,

"however we resolve the problems, I want and intend to be involved in raising this child. So, with option number one already settled, what about the second one?"

"Under normal circumstances," Honor said, "and bearing in mind that Mother is from Beowulf, the solution would be simple. She'd become my surrogate, but I'm afraid that won't work here."

"Why not?" Emily asked, cocking her head. Honor looked at her, and Emily flipped her hand in the gesture she used for a shrug. "It just seems like such a good idea from so many perspectives, I'm wondering if we're thinking about the same difficulties."

"It would be a wonderful idea," Honor agreed, just a trifle sadly. "Mother's always had easy pregnancies, and the twins are just old enough now that she's started missing having a toddler around. And I can't think of anyone who would be a better surrogate. But legally, this child will replace Faith in the Harrington succession, and eventually I'm going to have to acknowledge that publicly, which presents all sorts of problems in using Mother as my surrogate. If she's visibly pregnant, the assumption on Grayson will be—unless we tell them to the contrary—that Father is the father."

She paused and chuckled wryly.

"'Father is the father,'" she repeated. "Does that sound as odd to you as it does to me?"

"It does sound a bit peculiar," Hamish conceded. "But you were saying?"

"I was saying that everyone will assume the child is Mother's, and she's much too visible to be pregnant without someone's noticing. Which means that either we tell everyone, including the Conclave of Steadholders, who the actual biological parents are, or else we have to lie."

She shook her head, all humor fled.

"I won't do that. I can't. Not only would it be wrong, but it would be politically disastrous for me when the truth finally did come out. It would be far better, in terms of Grayson perceptions and politics, for me to go ahead and acknowledge Hamish as the child's father right now, despite all the potential adverse reaction, than to be caught lying about the paternity of my child before her birth. And," she looked back and forth between Emily and Hamish, "maybe I've been a Grayson too long myself, but I'd agree with them."

"But eventually you're going to have to tell them what happened, and when," Emily pointed out.

"I'm willing to stand on my legal and moral right to privacy," Honor replied. "I'm not saying my Graysons will be happy about it when the truth comes out, however we handle it, but they'll accept that I had the right to not tell them something at all much better than they will my having lied about it."

"Don't you have an obligation as Steadholder Harrington to inform the Conclave of the birth of any heir to the Steading?" Hamish asked, frowning intently.

"Not precisely."

Honor reached out and handed Nimitz a stick of celery.

The 'cat broke it neatly in half and passed one piece on to his mate, and she watched the two of them chew blissfully

—and messily—for a second. Then she looked back up at Hamish and Emily.

"My obligation, legally, is to inform the Sword and the Church," she said. "Technically, it could be argued that I'm not under any obligation to inform anyone at all until such time as a child is actually born. Trust me," she smiled a bit bleakly, "I've done some research this afternoon. But, while the law specifies that the birth of an heir has to be reported to, and acknowledged by, the Protector and the Church, the practice has always been that they're to be informed when the pregnancy is confirmed. So, the two people on Grayson I have to tell about this, legally speaking, are Benjamin and Reverend Sullivan. I'm sure Benjamin would respect my confidence, and the Reverend's vows would require him to treat it as privileged information, like something revealed under the seal of the confessional, at least until the child is actually born."

"At which point?" Emily asked.

"At which point your guess is as good as mine as to exactly what happens," Honor admitted. "I can't see any way it would be possible to conceal the child's birth even if I wanted to. And, to be honest, I don't want to, for a lot of reasons. I think the best we can do, really, is to buy nine months for the political climate to change before I go public."

"We could always consider placing the embryo in cryo until the 'political climate' has changed," Hamish said slowly.

"No, we couldn't," his wife said flatly. He looked at her, and she shook her head firmly. "Honor is going into combat very soon now, Hamish. It's possible, however much we'd all like to pretend it isn't, that this time she could be killed." Her voice wavered slightly, and she looked across the table at Honor. "If God is actually listening to me, that's not going to happen, but sometimes I think He's lost my com combination. And, if that happens, we are not going to have deprived her of a single moment she might have had holding her child in her arms first."

Honor's eyes burned, and Emily smiled at her. But then the older woman shook her head again.

"Even if that weren't a consideration," she continued, "it would still be the wrong thing to do. If something does happen to Honor, the exact circumstances of the child's paternity will be in question. I realize genetic testing would confirm that the child is Honor's and yours, Hamish, but if Honor were killed—if she weren't around to confirm the circumstances under which conception occurred—there would always be someone who'd accuse us of some sort of Machiavellian plot to 'steal' Harrington."

"There are procedures for a posthumous declaration of paternity," Honor pointed out.

"We're not talking about what's legal or illegal," Emily replied. "We're talking about public perceptions, and on a planet which, if you'll forgive me, is still coming to grips with the implications of modern technology. Specifically, of modern medical technology."

"That's true enough," Honor acknowledged. "My parents and I are working on that, but sometimes it seems to me that at least half the people on Grayson still consider what we can do black magic. They don't really understand it, and some of them are probably at least as frightened by it as grateful that it's become available."

"Precisely. And it's that portion of the population least comfortable with modern medicine which would be played upon by anyone who wanted to make trouble."

"Why should anyone want to make trouble?" Hamish asked almost plaintively, and Honor and Emily turned almost identical pitying looks upon him. Then they looked at each other, and Emily snorted.

"Frightening, isn't it?" she asked Honor. "And hard to believe he's a senior member of the Queen's Cabinet."

"Oh, I don't know," Honor replied with a crooked smile.

"He's probably not any more totally incompetent where politics are concerned than I was when they first sent me to Yeltsin."

"But with so much less excuse," Emily said, eyes twinkling.

"Not really," Honor, chuckling wickedly as Hamish leaned back, raising one eyebrow, and folded his arms in resignation. "After all, he suffers from at least one physical handicap."

"Which one?" Emily asked, then shook her head quickly.

"Oh, I know! You mean that 'Y' chromosome of his?"

"That's the one," Honor agreed, and both of them laughed.

"Very funny," Hamish said. "And now, if the two of you are done cackling, how about answering my question?"

"It's not so much why we can think of anyone wanting to make trouble," Honor said much more seriously, "as our responsibility to recognize that someone could want to.

Human nature being human nature, some idiot who disapproves of all the changes on Grayson—and don't fool yourself; there are still a lot of them, even if they are a distinct minority—is likely to fasten on it out of simple delusional paranoia. And don't forget Mueller and Burdette, or the current Grayson Opposition. They'd probably see forcing Benjamin to expend political capital defending you as worthwhile in its own right." She shrugged. "It might be unlikely to create serious problems, but Emily's right. The potential's always there, and on the level of a Steadholdership, any problem can become a serious one."

"So what you're saying is that we really have no more than nine months before we have to go public," he said.

"I think that's exactly what I'm saying," she acknowledged. "I can stand on my right to refuse to declare the child's paternity even after her birth, which would probably work out fairly well on Manticore. It won't play on Grayson, though. Or, at least, not very well. But I'm going to have to acknowledge the birth itself as soon as it occurs."

"That's true," Emily agreed. "But every month we can buy before you have to go public would be very much worthwhile. It would give the political situation time to stabilize, and put some more time between the Opposition smear campaign and the moment of truth. Not that it's not still going to be messy, you understand."

"Oh, believe me, even a political incompetent like me understands that, Emily," Hamish said wryly.

"So what I think we're really saying here," Emily said after a moment, looking back and forth between Honor and Hamish once more, "is that our only real option is to have the child tubed under conditions of medical confidentiality and hope that by the time she—or he—is born, the political and military situation will have changed enough for the fact of her birth to generate somewhat less of a firestorm."

"I'm afraid so," Honor replied.

"Well, in that case," Emily said with a whimsical smile of her own, "I think Hamish and I had better spend the next few months learning how to be salamanders, too."

Chapter Thirteen

"Very well, Your Grace," the efficient young staffer at the other end of the com link said, scanning the e-form on her own display. "We can schedule the procedure for Wednesday afternoon, if that's convenient."

"Wednesday would be fine," Honor replied. "In fact, given my schedule, I really need to take care of it as soon as possible."

"I understand." The other woman paused with a slight frown. "I notice you've listed your mother as our alternate contact." Her voice ended on a slightly rising note, and Honor very carefully didn't grimace.

"That's correct," she said, her own voice completely level. Yet something about her tone made the staffer look up. If she'd felt any temptation to fish for additional information, it evaporated quickly as she met Honor's gaze.

"In that case, Your Grace, I'll put you down for . . .


"Thank you. I'll be there."

* * *

"I don't think I've ever seen the Steadholder quite like this," Spencer Hawke said quietly.

He and Simon Mattingly stood against one wall of the palatial gymnasium under Honor's Jason Bay mansion, watching her work out.

Her normal routine had been somewhat altered. As usual, she'd spent an hour working out with the Harrington Sword. Grand Master Thomas Dunlevy had come out of retirement last year to help program her training remote, and the ringing clash of the remote's blunt-edged training blade against the razor-sharp Harrington Sword had sent its harsh music through the gym. But the Steadholder had donned much heavier practice armor than usual, and she'd had Mattingly step down the remote's reaction speed. It was also a Monday, and usually on Mondays she put on her coup de vitesse training gi and pads and worked out full-contact against the training remote or Colonel LaFollet.

But today, instead, she'd contented herself with the stretching exercises and training katas. And as if that weren't enough, she'd sent LaFollet himself away without her. Neither she nor the colonel had discussed exactly what it was he was doing today, but Mattingly and Hawke both knew it had something to do with the rather peculiar travel agenda Lady Harrington had laid out for LaFollet the evening before.

All of that was odd enough, yet it wasn't what had prompted Hawke's remark. There was a . . . distracted edge to her. She lacked that complete and total focus on whatever the task in hand happened to be which was usually so much a part of her. And she seemed both excited and apprehensive, which was very much not like her.

Mattingly glanced at the younger armsman. Hawke had not yet been briefed on the details of the aforementioned peculiar travel agenda. For that matter, Mattingly hadn't been fully briefed on it, himself, but he believed in being prepared. So he'd done a little research of his own on this

"Briarwood Center" the Steadholder was intent upon visiting so privately.

"I've seen her in moods like this one," he said after a moment. "Not often, but once or twice. Thank God it's not as bad as the one she was in before they sent us to Marsh!"

"Amen," Hawke said with soft fervency, and remembered anger flickered in the backs of his usually mild eyes.

Mattingly wasn't surprised to see it, but he was glad. He'd chosen that particular example deliberately, given what Hawke was going to inevitably figure out for himself tomorrow.

"She's got a lot on her mind," he continued quietly, watching the Steadholder flow gracefully through her katas. She was almost ten T-years older than he was, but she looked half his age. He'd become as accustomed to that as anyone could, who'd grown to adulthood on a planet without prolong, but he was finding it increasingly difficult to match her flexibility and speed.

No, he corrected himself. Not "match them"; I never did manage that. But it's getting harder just to stay in shouting distance.

"I know she does," Hawke replied to his last remark, and cocked his head. "But this isn't just about her navy job."

"No, it isn't," Mattingly agreed. "There are some . . .

personal issues involved, as well."

Hawke's eyes turned instantly opaque, and his expression blanked. It was a professional armsman's reaction which Mattingly found a bit amusing, under the circumstances.

He couldn't really fault the younger man for probing for information—armsmen all too often found that their primaries had neglected to mention some vitally important bit of information because it hadn't seemed important to them. Or because they didn't want to share it. Or even sometimes, as happened much too frequently for Mattingly's peace of mind in the Steadholder's case, because they'd simply decided to subordinate security requirements to . . . other considerations.

But it was a mark of Hawke's relative youthfulness that he should go into immediate "the-Steadholder's-private-life-is-none-of-my-business" mode the instant he began to suspect where his probing might lead him.

"She's not going to tell you about them, you know,"

Mattingly said conversationally, his tone almost teasing, as the Steadholder finished her katas.

He watched her alertly, even here, wondering if she was going to head straight for the showers, but instead, she crossed to the indoor shooting range at the far end of the gymnasium. He'd already checked the range before the Steadholder ever entered the gym, and there were no other entrances to it, so he didn't try to intercept her at the range door. Instead, he jerked his head at Hawke, and the two of them walked over to flank the door, watching through the soundproof armorplast with one eye while they kept most of their attention focused on the only access routes.

"There's no reason she ought to tell me about them,"

Hawke said, just a bit stiffly. "She's my Steadholder. If she wants me to know something, she'll tell me."

"Oh, nonsense!" Mattingly snorted. He felt a small flicker of surprise when the Steadholder didn't put on her ear protectors, but his incipient twinge of concern vanished when he realized she didn't have her .45 at the shooting line. Unlike that thunderous, anachronistic, propellant-spewing monster, pulsers were relatively quiet.

Satisfied that his charge wasn't going to hammer her unprotected eardrums with gunfire, he looked back at Hawke. Who was regarding him with a moderately outraged expression.

"Spencer," he said, "Colonel LaFollet didn't handpick you for the Steadholder's personal detail because you're an idiot. You know—or you damned well ought to know, by now—that no primary ever tells his armsmen everything they need to know. And, frankly, the Steadholder's worse than most in that regard. She's better than she was, but, Tester—the things she used to do without even mentioning them to us ahead of time!"

He shook his head.

"The thing you have to understand, Spencer, is that there's the Job, and then there's everything else. The Job is to see to it that that lady in there stays alive, period. No ifs, no ands, and no buts. We do whatever it takes—

whatever it takes—to see to it that she does. And it's our privilege to do that, because there are steadholders, and there are steadholders, and I tell you frankly that one like her comes along maybe once or twice in a generation. If we're lucky. And, yes, although I'm not going to tell her, I'd do the Job anyway, because I love her.

"But every so often, and more often in her case than in most, the Job and who the person we're protecting is run into one another head on. The Steadholder takes risks.

Some of them are manageable, or at least reasonably so, like her hang-gliding and her sailboats. But she's also a naval officer, and a steadholder in the old sense—the kind who used to lead his personal troops from the front rank—

so there are always going to be risks we can't protect her from, however hard we try. And as you may recall, those same risks have killed quite a few of her armsmen along the way.

"And there's another factor involved, where she's concerned. She wasn't born a steadholder. In a lot of ways, I think that's the secret of her strength as a steadholder; she doesn't think like someone who knew from the time he learned to walk that he was going to be one. That's probably a very good thing, over all, but it also means she didn't grow up with the mindset. It simply doesn't occur to her—or, sometimes it does occur to her and she simply chooses to ignore the fact—that she has to keep us informed if we're going to do the Job. And since she doesn't, every one of us—like every armsman who ever was

—spends an awful lot of time trying to figure out what it is she isn't telling us about this time."

He grimaced wryly.

"And, of course, we spend most of the rest of our time keeping our big mouths shut about the things we have figured out. Especially the ones she didn't tell us about.

You know, the things she knows that we know that she knows that we know but none of us ever discuss with her."

"Oh." Hawke frowned. "So you're saying I'm supposed to pry into her personal life?"

"We are her personal life," Mattingly said flatly. "We're as much her family as her mother and father, as Faith and James. Except that we're the expendable part of her family . . . and everyone knows and accepts that. Except her."

His own frown mingled affection, respect, and exasperation as he looked through the armorplast at his Steadholder. Hawke looked as well, and Mattingly felt the younger man twitch in something very like shock as the Steadholder calmly removed the very tip of her left index finger.

"Haven't seen this one before?" Mattingly asked.

"I've seen it before," Hawke replied. "Just not very often.

And it . . . bothers me. You know, I keep forgetting her arm's artificial."

"Yeah, and her father's a seriously paranoid individual, Tester bless him!" Mattingly said. "Although," they watched with half their attention as the Steadholder flexed her left hand and the truncated index finger locked into a rigidly extended position, "that particular hideout weapon of hers is something of a case in point for what I was saying earlier. She didn't even tell me or the Colonel about it until after we were sent to Marsh."

"I know." Hawke chuckled. "I was there when we all found out, remember?"

On the other side of the armorplast, the Steadholder pointed her finger down-range, and a hyper-velocity pulser dart shrieked dead center through the ten-ring of a combat target. She hadn't even raised her hand, and as they watched, she actually turned her head away, not even looking at the targets as they popped out of their holographic concealment . . . and the pulser darts continue to rip their chests apart.

"How does she do that?" Hawke demanded. "Look at that!

She's got her eyes closed!"

"Yes, she does," Mattingly agreed with a smile. "The Colonel finally broke down and asked her. It's fairly simple, really. There's a concealed camera in the cuticle of the finger, and when she activates the pulser, the camera feed links directly to her artificial eye. It projects a window with a crosshair, and since the camera is exactly aligned with the bore of the pulser, the dart will automatically hit anything she sees in the window." He shook his head, still smiling. "She's always been a really good 'point-and-shoot'

shooter, but it got even worse when her father had her arm designed."

"You can say that again," Hawke said with feeling.

"And a damned good thing, too." Mattingly turned away from the armorplast. "They say the Tester is especially demanding when He Tests those He loves best. Which tells me that He loves the Steadholder a lot."

Hawke nodded, turning away from the armorplast himself and frowning as he considered everything Mattingly had said to him. After several moments, he looked back across at the older armsman.

"So what is it she's not telling us?"

"Excuse me?" Mattingly frowned at him.

"So what is it she's not telling us?" Hawke repeated. "You said it's an armsman's responsibility to know all those things his primary doesn't tell him about. So tell me."

"Tell you something the Steadholder hasn't told you?"

Mattingly's frown became a wicked grin. "I'd never dream of doing such a thing!"

"But you just said—"

"I said it's an armsman's responsibility to find out about the things he needs to know. At the moment, the Colonel and I—older and wiser, not to say sneakier, heads that we are—have already found out. Now, young Spencer, as part of your own ongoing education and training, it's your job to figure it out for yourself. And, I might add, without stepping on your sword in front of the Steadholder by admitting that you have."

"That's dumb!" Hawke protested.

"No, Spencer, it isn't," Mattingly said, much more seriously. "Finding out for yourself is something you're going to have to do. And for quite a long time. Unlike the Colonel or me, you've got prolong. You're going to be with the Steadholder probably for decades, and you need to figure out the sorts of things she isn't going to tell you. And just as importantly, you need to learn how to leave her her privacy even as you invade it."

Hawke looked at him, and Mattingly smiled with more than a trace of sadness.

"She has no privacy, Spencer. Not anymore. And like I just said, she didn't grow up a steadholder. Someone who's born to the job never really has privacy in the first place.

He doesn't miss what he never had, or not as much, at any rate. But she did have it, and she gave it away when she accepted her steadholdership. I don't think she's ever admitted to anyone just how much that cost her. So if we can play the game, let her cling to at least the illusion that she still has some privacy, then that's part of what it means to be an armsman. And however silly, however

'dumb,' that might sometimes seem, it isn't. Not at all. In fact, playing that game with her has been one of the greatest privileges of my service as her personal armsman."

* * *

"Were you able to catch up with Duchess Harrington, Adam?"

"Yes, Sir. Sort of."

Admiral Sir Thomas Caparelli looked up from the report in front of him and quirked an eyebrow at the tallish, fair-haired senior-grade captain.

"Would you care to explain that somewhat cryptic utterance?" he inquired of his chief of staff.

"I spoke to Her Grace, Sir," Captain Dryslar replied.

"Unfortunately, I didn't catch up with her until just after eleven. She had a working lunch scheduled with some of Admiral Hemphill's people, and immediately after that she has a doctor's appointment. She said she could reschedule the doctor's appointment if it was an emergency, but that she'd really prefer not to."

"Doctor?" Caparelli's eyes narrowed, and he sat up straighter. "Is there a health problem I ought to know about?"

"Not so far as I'm aware, Sir," Dryslar said carefully.

"Meaning? Don't make me pull it out of you one syllable at a time, Adam!"

"Sorry, Sir. I did ask Her Grace where her appointment was, in case we needed to reach her. She said it was at Briarwood Center."

Caparelli had opened his mouth. Now it closed again, and both eyebrows rose in obvious startlement.

"Briarwood?" he repeated after a moment.

"Yes, Sir."

"I see. Well, in that case, we can certainly reschedule my meeting with her. Please screen her back and see if she'll be available tomorrow. No, wait. Make it Friday."

"Yes, Sir."

Dryslar left the office, closing the door behind him, and Caparelli sat for several seconds, gazing at nothing in particular while he contemplated the potential complications of Admiral Harrington's afternoon appointment. He considered screening her himself, personally, but only very briefly. If there was anything she wanted to discuss with him, she had his com combination, and there were certain things of which the First Space Lord did not want to take official cognizance unless he had to.

* * *

"My Lady, I really don't think the Queen—or Protector Benjamin—is going to be very happy about this."

Colonel Andrew LaFollet's voice was in diffident mode, but there was something undeniably mulish about his gray eyes, and Honor turned to look at him sternly.

"Her Majesty—and the Protector—aren't going to hear about it from me, Andrew. Did you have some other possible informant—excuse me, reporter— in mind to carry them the news?"

"My Lady, sooner or later, they're going to find out,"

LaFollet replied, standing his ground. "I'm your armsman. I understand the need for confidentiality, and you know perfectly well what that means, just as you know all the rest of the detail will keep their mouths shut. But they're not exactly without sources of their own, and when they find out about this little escapade, they are not going to be amused. For that matter," he added, his face even more expressionless, "I rather doubt the Earl or Lady White Haven would be very pleased about it if they knew just how uncovered you are right now."

Honor had already opened her mouth, but she swallowed what she'd been about to say and looked at him narrowly.

It was the first time LaFollet had come that close to openly acknowledging her relationship with Hamish. And, whether she wanted to admit it or not herself, her personal armsman had a point.

She glanced out the one-way window of the air limo.

Over the years, she'd become accustomed to the routine security arrangements which attached to her persona as Steadholder and duchess. She still didn't like them, and she never would, yet after so long she felt undeniably . . .

naked when she looked out and saw the empty chunks of air where the sting ships ought to be. And ridiculous as it often still seemed to her, she'd learned the hard way that figures as public as she'd become attracted the lunatic fringe. Not to mention the fact that over the years she'd acquired quite a few enemies who would have been less than brokenhearted should something permanent happen to her. Which was one reason LaFollet and Simon Mattingly were the only two survivors of her original personal armsmen. And which was also why "not amused" was an awfully pale description of Benjamin Mayhew's probable reaction to what she was doing this afternoon. Elizabeth might cut her a little more slack, but even she would have a few choice things to say when she found out Honor had ditched all of her standard security arrangements except for the close-in cover of her personal three-man detachment.

Unfortunately, she didn't have much of a choice, and she was grateful to Lieutenant Commander Hennessy, Admiral Hemphill's chief of staff and representative at the meeting she'd just left, for covering for her. Hennessy hadn't asked LaFollet why it would be necessary for Duchess Harrington's official limousine—and sting ship escort—to return to the Bay House without her. He'd simply run interference for her, as she'd requested, which had allowed her, LaFollet, Mattingly, and Hawke to get to the parking garage and the waiting, anonymous limousine unobserved.

"I know all of you will keep your mouths closed, Andrew," she said after a moment, and her tone was an apology. "I guess I'm just a little more worried about this than I'm willing to admit." Nimitz crooned to her, and she stroked his spine. "It's . . . complicated."

"My Lady," LaFollet said gently, "'complicated' isn't exactly the word I'd choose. It's a bit too . . . mild. And I'm not trying to complicate things any more badly than they already are. But I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't point out that, however valid your reasons, gadding about Landing with only the three of us isn't exactly the safest thing you could be doing."

"No, it isn't. On the other hand, I've got quite a bit of faith in your ability to look after me if anything goes wrong. And I'm not exactly helpless myself, you know. All of which is beside the point. Arriving at Briarwood in an official car, complete with escort and the whole brass band, wouldn't exactly contribute to the low profile I'm trying to maintain."

"No, My Lady." LaFollet didn't—quite—sigh, but Honor tasted his resignation. "Only, if you insist on doing it this way," he went on, "you're going to follow my orders while we're out here on our own. Agreed, My Lady?"

She looked at him for a few seconds, and he gazed back levelly, gray eyes unflinching while she tasted the adamantine determination behind them.

"All right, Andrew," she surrendered. "You're in charge . .

. this time."

To his credit, LaFollet didn't even say "good."

* * *

The limo pulled directly into the Briarwood Center's hundred and third-floor parking garage. Simon Mattingly settled it into the designated stall, and Spencer Hawk climbed out of the front seat and rapidly—but thoroughly—

swept the area. It was deserted, as Honor had anticipated at this time of day, and LaFollet allowed her to get out of the vehicle herself.

Her armsmen fell into formation about her and she settled Nimitz on her shoulder as they crossed the garage for the quick lift shaft trip to the Center. It wasn't easy for a uniformed admiral of the Royal Manticoran Navy, escorted by three uniformed bodyguards, to pass unnoticed anywhere, but confidentiality was often something Briarwood had to take into consideration. The Center was accustomed to providing for it without drawing attention to the fact, and the lift deposited Honor and her party, exactly at the appointed time, outside a discreetly private waiting room.

The woman at the arrivals desk looked up with a pleasant smile as the door closed behind them.

"Good afternoon, Your Grace."

"Good afternoon," Honor replied with a smile of her own.

One, she discovered, which covered a higher degree of nervousness than she'd expected. Routine medical procedure or not, there was an undeniable flutter of anxiety in the pit of her stomach. Or, she thought, perhaps someplace a bit lower.

"If you'd care to have a seat, Dr. Illescue will be with you in just a few moments."

"Thank you."

Honor settled into one of the comfortable chairs, and her dark eyes gleamed with amusement as she and Nimitz tasted the outwardly unflappable receptionist's emotions as her three armsmen positioned themselves with silent, well-practiced efficiency to cover the waiting room.

She'd been waiting for less than five minutes when Dr.

Franz Illescue walked in.

"Your Grace," he said, greeting her with a slight bow.


Illescue was on the short side, dark haired, and slightly built, with a closely trimmed beard. He exuded the comforting professionalism of an excellent "bedside manner," she thought, with the critical appreciation of the child of two physicians, but carefully hidden curiosity bubbled behind his brown eyes. And there were other emotions along with the curiosity, including a thread of something almost like . . . hostility. She wondered where that came from, since she'd never met the man before in her life, but he seemed to have it well under control.

Which didn't really surprise her. Franz Illescue was Briarwood's senior physician, and he hadn't drawn her appointment by random chance.

"If you'll come with me, Your Grace," he invited now, then frowned as her armsmen fell into their normal triangular pattern about her. That thread of almost-hostility strengthened abruptly, and his eyes narrowed.

"Is there a problem, Doctor?" she asked mildly.

"If you'll forgive my saying so, Your Grace," he replied,

"we're not really comfortable with guns here in Briarwood."

"I can appreciate that," she said. "Unfortunately, I'm not entirely free to make my own decisions where security matters are concerned."

Illescue looked at her, and she frowned herself, mildly, as she tasted more than a little skepticism. She couldn't fault his unhappiness at having his medical facility invaded by armed, obviously protective bodyguards, but she didn't care at all for the undertone of something very like contempt she tasted along with the skepticism. Not contempt for her armsmen, but for the insecurity—or egotism—behind her obvious need for such an ostentatious display of her own self-importance.

"I hope it won't disrupt your normal routine, Doctor," she allowed the very slightest hint of frost into her voice, "but I genuinely have no choice under Grayson law. I believe you were informed of my security requirements when I scheduled the appointment. If it's a problem, we can always leave."

"No, of course it isn't, Your Grace," he said quickly, despite a flicker of intense annoyance. "Will you require one of them in the treatment room?"

"I believe we can dispense with that particular requirement, as long as we're allowed to post them outside the room," Honor said gravely, unable to completely suppress her inner amusement as his carefully hidden annoyance flared still higher briefly.

"I don't believe that will be a problem," he told her, and she followed him from the waiting room.

* * *

"Are you all right, My Lady?"

Honor grimaced, torn between amusement and affectionate annoyance at LaFollet's tone. She'd often thought Grayson attitudes towards sex and procreation were oddly skewed. On the one hand, no properly brought up Grayson male would even have contemplated discussing such a subject with a woman to whom he was not married.

On the other hand, given the Grayson population's thousand-year struggle to survive, not even the most properly reared male could grow up on the planet without becoming fully informed on all the "female" details which went with it.

"It's an outpatient procedure, Andrew," she said, after a moment, shifting on the limousine's luxurious seat. "That doesn't necessarily mean there's no discomfort, even with quick-heal."

"No, My Lady. Of course not," he said just a bit hastily.

She looked at him levelly, and after a moment, he grinned wryly.

"Sorry, My Lady. I don't mean to hover. It's just, well . . ."

He shrugged and flipped both hands, palms uppermost.

"I know, Andrew." She smiled at him, and Nimitz bleeked in amusement from her lap. "And I really am just fine."

He nodded, and she looked back out the window. Nimitz rose in her lap, careful about where he let his weight fall, and leaned against her, pressing his muzzle very gently against her cheek. His buzzing purr vibrated into her comfortingly, and she let his love and support flow through her. At the moment, she needed them badly.

The realization surprised her, yet it was true. Her mind kept returning to that tiny embryo, floating now in the replication tube. Such a minute bit of tissue . . . and yet, how enormous that unborn child loomed in her own heart.

She felt hollow, as if she had been emptied of something unutterably precious. Intellectually, she knew her child was far safer where she—or he—was, yet her emotions were something else. A part of her felt as if she'd abandoned her baby, left it in a coldly sterile, antiseptic storage box, like some bit of inconvenient luggage.

She hugged Nimitz gently, wishing with all her heart that Hamish could have accompanied her to Briarwood. He'd wanted to. In fact, he'd tried to insist on coming, until she'd pointed out that his presence would tend to somewhat undermine her insistence on asserting her privacy right to not disclose the father's identity. Bad enough if someone had spotted her and her detail at the Star Kingdom's premier fertility and reproductive center without seeing her there in company with the First Lord of Admiralty. And yet, at this moment, she longed to feel his arms about her.

Well, she'd feel them this evening, she told herself. And, at least as importantly, she would feel Emily's support.

Perhaps she'd been an adoptive Grayson too long, she thought, her lips twitching in a smile of mingled tenderness and amusement. She wondered how many other Manticorans would have found the thought of spending an intimate evening in the company of the wife of the father of her unborn child comforting, yet that was the only word she could think of to describe it.

And she didn't really care how bizarre it might once have seemed to her pre-Grayson self.

Chapter Fourteen

"Well, well, well . . . there you are," Jean-Claude Nesbittt murmured.

He studied the lines of alphanumeric text on his display for several seconds, then frowned thoughtfully and began very carefully copying the critical passages of the document for safekeeping. He made certain he had everything he needed, then closed the file and withdrew from the "secure" memory bank as tracelessly as he had entered it.

He punched up another file, running down the checklist he'd assembled over the last three arduous weeks. Putting it together would have been a full-time job under almost any circumstances. Given the fact that he couldn't afford to let any of his erstwhile subordinates guess he was working on a completely private black project of his own, it had become a monumental pain in the neck. But unless he was very mistaken, he had all the pieces he needed now.

He reached the end of the list, grunted in satisfaction, and then closed that file, as well. It wasn't easy. In fact, it was extraordinarily tempting to move ahead quickly now that he'd completed the preparatory groundwork. But it was late, he was tired, and he'd seen entirely too many fatigue-induced errors in his time. Besides, Giancola's instructions to replace Grosclaude's letter of instruction to his attorneys had been carried out over two months ago.

Even if something happened to Grosclaude before the colonel got around to completing the rest of project, he was covered. So best to take things slowly and cautiously.

He powered down his console, nodded to his own reflection in the blank display, and pushed back his chair.

Time for bed, he thought, but first, a well-earned nightcap.

* * *

"Are you really serious about this, Boss?" Special Senior Inspector Abrioux asked quizzically.

"And just what about my clearly phrased directive makes you think I might not be?" Kevin Usher, Director of the Federal Investigative Agency of the Republic of Haven inquired.

Usher was a huge, powerfully built man. Danielle Abrioux, on the other hand, was delicately petite. Like Usher, she'd come up through the Resistance before joining the FIA, and if she looked like a slender, brown-haired child, appearances could be deceiving. She was a very dangerous "child" . . . as the shades of over a dozen assassinated InSec and StateSec officials—and far more currently carnate inmates of the Republic's penal systems—

would have vehemently attested. At the moment, she was perched on the corner of Usher's desk, sipping coffee, and a matching coffee mug sat on his blotter, because Abrioux was one of his most trusted investigators. She knew all about his alleged drunkenness, and it was a relief to be able to abandon the charade during their meetings.

"Boss," she said now, her tone just a bit plaintive, "you know you've got a screwy sense of humor. Just look at what you put Ginny and Victor through, for God's sake! So, yeah, when you call me in for something like this, I've got to wonder whether or not you're trying to see if my leg will come off if you pull it hard enough."

"My sense of humor isn't the least bit screwy," he said with dignity. "Everyone else's sense of humor is. But in this particular instance, I'm serious as a heart attack, Danny."

"My God." Abrioux lowered her coffee cup, her smile fading. "You really are, aren't you?"

"I am, and I wish to hell I wasn't."

Abrioux felt her stomach congealing into a lump of frozen lead. She set her coffee cup down and pushed the saucer away from her.

"Let me get this straight, Kevin," she said very quietly.

"You're telling me you think we may have gone back to war against the Manties not because they altered our diplomatic traffic, but because we did?"

"Yes." Usher's always deep voice sounded like a gravel crusher, and he inhaled deeply. "I'm not saying I'm convinced that's what happened, but I'm afraid it may be, Danny."

"Why?" she demanded.

"Partly because of Wilhelm's reports." Usher tipped back in his float chair. "We lost a lot of our best conduits when we took down Saint-Just's organization, but he's still got a few sources in place inside the Manty Foreign Office. Not as highly placed as they were, but high enough to have access to the sorts of insider shop talk permanent assistant undersecretaries get to hear. And according to them, everyone— everyone, from the top down—is convinced we did it."

"That may not indicate anything," Abrioux countered.

"Putting something like this together successfully would have required very tight security. Not only that, but it would have been put together by the High Ridge Government, not the current one. So anyone who'd been in on it would probably be out of office by now, anyway."

"Agreed. But the people who are so thoroughly convinced we're the heavies of this particular piece are the people who replaced High Ridge's cronies. Every other bit of gossip Wilhelm's sources have given us only confirms the utter contempt they have for their immediate predecessors. If there were even the tiniest sniff of a possibility that anyone in the High Ridge crowd had been responsible for this, someone would have picked up on it by now. You know as well as I do there are always conspiracy theorists hiding in the woodwork, Danny. Combine that with the blinding rage most of Manticore feels for anyone remotely associated with the High Ridge Government, and one of those theorists would certainly have pounced on any possibility, even if it was only as one of those shivery 'no-shit' urban legends to share over a coffee break. And no one's dropped a single word about it. Not one."

"Hmmm . . . ." Abrioux plucked at her lower lip, then shrugged. "Maybe. But I've gotta tell you, Boss, it sounds mighty flimsy."

"I said that was part of the reason," Usher reminded her.

"There are other factors—straws in the wind, you might say. One is how well I know the players on our side."

"Boss, I hate Giancola's guts myself. And I wouldn't be too surprised at anything he did. But much as I might like him as the baddie for this one, I think you're reaching. First of all, he's smart. He has to know that sooner or later whoever wins this war's going to get her hands on the other side's diplomatic archives. Second, however much I may despise and distrust him, I don't see even him as deliberately starting a war just to serve his own personal political ambitions. Especially not when there's no way to be sure we're going to win the damned thing. And, third, how the hell could he have pulled it off without someone else at State realizing he'd altered the original notes?"

"I never said he was stupid," Usher said mildly. "And taking your first and second points together, I also never said he deliberately set out to start a war. If my more paranoid suspicions are on track, what he wanted was to create a crisis he could then successfully 'resolve' as a demonstration of his own competence and tough-mindedness to strengthen his hand when he runs for the presidency a few years down the road. If he'd managed to pull off what I think he was after, there wouldn't have been a war, and neither side would have access to the other's archives. At the very least, it would probably have been decades before anyone had a chance to compare originals."

"Maybe so, but there's still the question of how he could have pulled it off." Abrioux shook her head. "Somehow he'd have had to alter at least the Manty originals after they were received and logged in. And given what the Manties have published as their version of our correspondence, he would have had to alter that from the version the President and the rest of the Cabinet had seen before it was sent, as well."

"Altering the outgoing correspondence wouldn't have been difficult," Usher responded. "He has personal, direct access to the traffic. He's the Secretary of State, after all!

And he also has access to the State Department's internal recordkeeping, chip-shredding, and security systems. And, yes," he waved one hand, cutting off her interruption, "I know he still should have stubbed his toe after the Manties published their version of the documents. After all, our

'Special Envoy' also had access to the documents actually delivered to Manticore. He must know whether or not what they've published matches the notes he actually delivered.

And Mr. Grosclaude hasn't said a word to indicate they did.

Which means that either the documents they're publishing are, indeed, false, or . . ."

"Or else Grosclaude was in on it, too." Abrioux's dark eyes narrowed thoughtfully, and Usher nodded.

"Exactly. And Yves Grosclaude and Arnold Giancola go way back together. It's only reasonable that the Secretary of State would have picked a special envoy in whom he had complete faith, of course. But what, exactly, did he have faith Grosclaude would do for him?"

"Jesus." Abrioux rubbed her forearms as if she'd felt a sudden chill. But then she frowned again.

"Okay, granted he could have altered the outgoing correspondence, and, assuming Grosclaude really was willing to put it all on the line for him, he could have gotten away with that part of it. But what about the Manty notes? Surely they all carried the proper authentication codes!"

"Which is why I called you in," Usher said grimly. "I've had to be very circumspect, but last week I finally got my own hands on a copy of one of the original Manty notes."

"Wait a minute." Abrioux looked at him with the beginning of genuine alarm. " Got your hands on a copy?

Why the hell didn't you just ask for one? As I recall, you and the President are supposed to be on pretty good terms, Boss. So exactly whose back are we sneaking around behind this time?"

"Oh, be serious, Danny!" Usher snorted explosively.

"Eloise—and LePic and Tom Theisman—are all absolutely dead serious about the 'rule of law.' Well, so am I. But we're not really there yet. And think about the military and diplomatic implications of what we're talking about here. If I asked Eloise for access to the original diplomatic correspondence, I'd have to tell her why I wanted it. She probably trusts me—and distrusts Giancola—enough to give me the access. But then she has to take official cognizance of what I suspect. So does she just quietly give me the access I'm not supposed to have without State's knowledge and approval or the congressional oversight the Constitution mandates, or does she order LePic to begin a full-press covert investigation? And what happens if and when word leaks that one of our own Cabinet secretaries may actually have created a completely falsified diplomatic exchange which prompted us to go back to war against Manticore? At the very least, it would probably cripple her administration, and the possibilities go steadily downhill from there. At the moment, exactly two people know what I suspect, and we're both in this office right now. And until I'm in a position to tell Eloise something definitive, one way or the other, this stays a completely unofficial, unacknowledged, totally 'black' investigation. Is that clearly understood?"

"Yes, Sir," Abrioux said with unwonted formality. His hard eyes held hers for several seconds, and then he grimaced in satisfaction.

"Didn't mean to sound hard-assed about it," he said, "but this is one operation we literally cannot afford to have go public until we've dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's."

"I see you haven't lost your gift for understatement, Boss," Abrioux said dryly. "But you were about to say something about the Manty authentication codes?"

"I was about to say that the fact the dispatches did carry proper Manty authentication actually tends to reinforce my original suspicions."

Abrioux looked confused, and he chuckled. It was a remarkably humorless sound.

"There are a lot of things I'm officially not supposed to know about, Danny," he said. "In particular, the President—

and Congress—were remarkably clear about the cast-iron firewall they want between our domestic police agencies and our espionage activities. Hard to blame them, with InSec and StateSec's horrible examples. And, in principle, I couldn't agree with them more. That's why I'm being so careful to establish the official precedent of respecting that firewall. Whoever takes over this chair after me is going to be stuck with it, and rightly so. But given the incredibly tangled can of worms StateSec left us with, it's literally impossible to draw those neat dividing lines this soon. So I've got my unofficial and personal feelers spread as wide as I can get them, which is how I came across an interesting tidbit of information.

"Which was?" she demanded just a bit testily as he paused.

"Which was that shortly before Citizen Chairman Saint-Just had that unfortunate encounter with a pulser dart, StateSec actually managed to steal the Manties' Foreign Office key. Not the Foreign Secretary herself's, but they did get the departmental key."

"You're joking!"

"No, I'm not." He shook his head. "I'm just guessing, since I don't have access to the full case files on the operation, but I suspect StateSec had planted someone on Descroix years ago. God knows she was twisty enough she might actually have knowingly allowed them to, if she thought it might give her some advantage. New Kiev might be an idiot, but she's a principled idiot, and I doubt they could have gotten anyone deeply enough into her confidence to have the necessary access. But when High Ridge shuffled his Cabinet after accepting the cease-fire, whoever they already had in place on Descroix managed to get them a physical copy of the key."

"Which made it the current key," Abrioux said.

"Exactly. They changed keys when Descroix took over from New Kiev. And if Giancola had the right contacts, he could have found out we had the key. You know we've still got open back doors all through our security systems, Danny. There's no telling who he might know who might have had that information or been able to hack it for him."

"But you haven't established that someone did, have you, Boss?"

"No. Not yet. That's one of the entertaining little chores I had in mind to drop on you."

"Golly gee, thanks," she said, and her forehead creased in thought.

"Even if I manage to establish that," she went on after a moment, "the mere fact he had access to the key wouldn't prove he actually did anything with it."

"It might. Or, at least, it would be highly suggestive.

Enough so for me to feel confident about showing probable cause."


"Because the only key the original diplomatic note I saw carried was the one we've managed to compromise," Usher said grimly. "It's not unheard of for a note, even a high-level one, not to carry the Foreign Secretary's personal key, but it is unusual. So suppose we're able to establish that Giancola had, in his possession, the general key. And suppose we go back and examine all of the disputed correspondence and we find that none of the Manty originals carried Descroix's personal key?"

"Probable cause out the ying-yang," Abrioux said softly.

"Bingo." Usher raised his coffee cup in ironic salute, took a sip, and then smiled thinly at her.

"So, Special Senior Inspector Abrioux, just how do you plan to begin your totally unauthorized, off-the-record, rogue investigation?"

Chapter Fifteen

"Well, it's about time," Mercedes Brigham said with profound satisfaction as the superdreadnought Imperator grew steadily through the pinnace's viewport. "I was beginning to think we'd never get this fleet activated!"

Brigham sat beside Honor, next to the hatch, and Honor nodded in silent agreement with her chief of staff as she studied the ponderous mountain of battle steel drifting against the stars, glittering with the brilliant pinpricks of its own riding lights. HMS Imperator was a far cry from Honor's last flagship. The better part of two megatons larger, massively armored, without the hatch-studded flanks of a CLAC. One of the new Invictus-class ships, Imperator was one of the dozen or so most powerful warships in existence. Unfortunately, her class was also far smaller than originally projected, thanks to all the incomplete Invictuses which had been destroyed in their building slips in Grendelsbane.

The other five units of her squadron—two more Invictus-

class ships, and three of the older but still formidable Medusa-class SD(P)s—orbited San Martin in company with the fleet flagship. Just beyond Imperator, she saw HMS

Intransigent, Alistair McKeon's squadron flagship, and she smiled fondly at the sight. If anyone deserved a flag, it was certainly Alistair, she thought. And she couldn't think of anyone she would rather have watching her back.

Her pinnace decelerated to a halt relative to Imperator, then rolled on its gyros as the superdreadnought's boat bay tractors locked on. They drew the small craft steadily in, then deposited it with scarcely a tremor in the docking arms. The boarding tube ran out to mate with the hatch collar, and the service umbilicals extended themselves and locked into the proper receptacles aboard the pinnace as Honor gazed through the transparent armorplast of the boat bay gallery at the waiting side party.

"Good seal," the flight engineer informed the flight deck crew, studying her panel.

"Crack the hatch," the pilot replied, and the hatch slid open.

Brigham climbed out of her seat, moved into the aisle, then stood waiting while Honor got up, lifted Nimitz to her shoulder, and started for the hatch. The Royal Manticoran Navy's tradition that the most senior officer boarded last and disembarked first was ironclad . . . for most people, at least, she thought with a slight grimace. As usual, things weren't quite that simple for Steadholder Harrington, but she'd won at least one concession from LaFollet. She got to swim the tube first, then her armsmen broke into the traditional disembarkment queue.

She tasted Nimitz's excitement and anticipation, like an echo of her own, as she swept gracefully through the tube's zero gravity. She caught the grab bar at the far end and swung through the interface with the ship's gravity with the smoothness of decades of experience. She landed in precisely the right spot, just outside the painted line on the deck which indicated the official beginning of HMS


"Eighth Fleet, designate, arriving!" the intercom announced as the electronic bosun's pipes began to wail, and the side party snapped stiffly to attention, Marines presenting their bayoneted pulse rifles with parade ground precision.

"Permission to come aboard, Ma'am?" Honor requested formally of the senior-grade lieutenant with the brassard of the boat bay officer of the deck.

"Permission granted, Ma'am," the lieutenant replied, saluting crisply, and Honor returned the salute then stepped past her, down the avenue between the rows of side boys to where Rafael Cardones stood waiting.

"Welcome aboard, Your Grace," he said, reaching out to shake her hand as the bosun's pipes sounded again for Mercedes Brigham behind her.

"Thank you, Captain," she said, observing the formalities, but her eyes gleamed. Rafael Cardones had changed in a great many ways from the youngster she'd first met, but she could still taste his little-boy excitement and pride in his new command, and he grinned as he glanced at her own white beret.

"Congratulations, 'Captain' Harrington." It was the first time he'd seen her since she'd been formally named Unconquered's CO. "It seems we both have new ships, Your Grace."

"I suppose we do," she agreed, glancing around the spacious, spotless boat bay. "And yours looks beautiful, Rafe," she added in a softer voice, and his teeth flashed in a broad smile.

"Not as nimble as Werewolf or a battlecruiser, Ma'am,"

he said, "but she's still got that new-air car smell. Among other things."

"So I understand," she agreed, turning to stand beside him and watch the arrival of the remainder of her staff. It took a while, and—not for the first time—she thought the Navy could have gotten things done more quickly if it wasn't quite so enamored of proper procedures, formalities, and traditions. Of course, then it wouldn't have been the Navy.

"Would you care to be shown to your quarters, Ma'am?"

Cardones asked after everyone had joined her.

"I would like to see them," Honor replied, "but we might as well get the rest of the official business out of the way first. Are all of the squadron commanders aboard?"

"Admiral Henke is still in transit, Ma'am," he said. "Her ETA is about six minutes. She sent her apologies, but she was delayed aboard Admiral Kuzak's flagship."

"Well, I don't imagine I'll have her shot just yet," Honor said judiciously. "But if she's that close to arriving, would you object to waiting for her here and going up to Flag Bridge together after she arrives?"

"Of course not, Ma'am," Cardones replied. "In fact, if you wouldn't mind, we might use that time introducing you to some of my own senior officers."

"I'd appreciate that," she said, and he turned to the officers standing behind him.

"This is Commander Hirshfield, my XO," he said, indicating a tall, slender, red-haired officer who extended her right hand. Hirshfield's blue eyes were frankly curious as she met Honor's gaze, but her handclasp was firm and Honor liked the taste of tough, professional competence the other woman exuded.

"Commander," she said.

"Welcome aboard, Your Grace," Hirshfield replied. "If there's anything you need, just let me know."

Honor nodded, and Cardones turned to the next officer in line.

"Commander Yolanda Harriman, Your Grace. My Tactical Officer."

"Commander." Honor shook the proffered hand firmly.

Harriman, despite her surname, obviously had at least as much Old Earth Oriental in her genotype as Honor herself.

The tactical officer was dark-eyed and dark-haired, with eyes so brown they were almost black and a delicate sandalwood complexion. She also radiated a certain subtle ferocity. That was the only word Honor could come up with. This was obviously a woman who had found her proper niche.

"Welcome aboard, Your Grace," Harriman said, smiling with perfect white teeth. "If the newsies know what they're talking about, I'm sure you'll be able to scare up enough action to keep us all busy."

"It seems likely," Honor agreed mildly. "Not that you want to believe everything you read in the 'faxes."

"No, Ma'am. Of course not," Harriman said, but her eyes dropped to the medal ribbons on Honor's chest, and Honor felt a slight twinge of alarm. The last thing she wanted in a tactical officer was someone who still believed in glory.

She started to say something else, then stopped, smiled again, and turned her head as Cardones indicated the next officer in the queue.

"Commander Thompson, my Engineer," he said.

Thompson was red-haired and wiry, and Honor's smile group much broader as she saw him.

"Well, well, Glenn!" she said. "It's been quite a while, hasn't it?"

"Yes, Your Grace, it has," he agreed, and Cardones raised one eyebrow inquiringly.

"Glenn made his snotty cruise aboard Hawkwing a few more years ago than either of us would like to remember, Captain," Honor explained. "At the time," she continued with a wicked twinkle, "he was the despair of Lieutenant Hunter, our Engineer. Apparently he's managed to sort out the widgets from the gizmos since then."

"Almost, Your Grace," Thompson said with a slightly worried expression. "I still get them confused once in a while, but, fortunately, I've got really good assistants to keep me straight."

Honor chuckled and touched him lightly on the shoulder, then turned to the lieutenant commander standing beside him.

"Commander Neukirch, our Astrogator."


Honor shook the offered hand. Neukirch was probably in her mid-thirties. It was often difficult to tell, especially without knowing which generation of prolong therapy someone had received. In Neukirch's case it was rendered more difficult because she was one of the minority of female Manticoran officers who had chosen to completely depilate her head. The severe style contrasted with her sensual lips and exotically planed features, and her eyes—a curiously neutral shade of gray—studied Honor almost warily.

Honor held her hand a moment longer than she had held Hirshfield's or Thompson's, and her own eyes narrowed as she tasted the other woman's emotions. There was a peculiar combination of apprehension, or perhaps anxiety, coupled with an oddly focused, burning sense of anticipation and curiosity.

"Have we met, Commander?" Honor asked.

"Uh, no, Your Grace," she said hastily. She seemed to hesitate, then smiled tautly. "You did meet my father once, though. The same time Glenn did."

Honor frowned, then her eyes widened.

"Yes, Your Grace," Neukirch said more naturally. "Father stayed in the Star Kingdom after Casimir."

"And took Dr. Neukirch's surname," Honor said, nodding.

"Yes, Your Grace. He's spoken of you often over the years. When he heard Imperator was going to be your flagship, he asked me to remember him to you and to extend his thanks once more."

"Tell him I'm honored he remembered," Honor said, "and that while I appreciate his thanks, they aren't necessary.

It's obvious," she smiled at the younger woman, "that he—

and you—have amply repaid me and the Star Kingdom."

Neukirch's face blossomed in a huge smile of pleasure, and Honor turned to the next officer in the queue, who wore the uniform of the Royal Manticoran Marines.

"Major Lorenzetti, commanding our Marine detachment,"

Cardones said.

"Major." Honor shook Lorenzetti's hand, liking what she saw and what she tasted of his mind-glow. Lorenzetti was a typical Marine, who reminded her strongly of Tomas Ramirez. He was much shorter and nowhere near as broad, built on merely mortal lines, but he had that same no-nonsense tenacity.

"Major," she acknowledged, and he surprised her by bending over her hand. His lips just brushed its back in a formal Grayson-style greeting, and then he straightened.

"Your Grace." His voice was deep and resonant, and he smiled at her. "Since I appear to be one of the minority of officers in the ship who hasn't already met you, Your Grace, perhaps I should point out that I spent two T-years in the Masada Contingent. They weren't the most pleasant tour I ever pulled, but after seeing that planet—and comparing it to Grayson—I can only say that if anyone's navy ever needed its sorry ass kicked, it was Masada's."

"The major, as you can see, like all Marines, is particularly eloquent," Cardones said dryly, and Honor chuckled.

"So I noticed," she said. "Although, on balance, I'd have to agree with his sentiments. When were you there, Major?"

"I transferred back to Fleet duty last year, Your Grace,"

Lorenzetti said in a much more serious tone.

"I've often considered visiting Masada myself. Colonel LaFollet here—" she gestured at her senior armsman "—

doesn't seem to feel that would be the smartest decision I ever made, however."

"On balance," Lorenzetti replied, deliberately using her own choice of phrase, "I'd have to agree with him, Your Grace. Things have improved a lot just in the time since I was first stationed there, but there's still a nasty underground ticking away. And, with all due respect, you're probably one of the three or four people they'd most like to assassinate. The real fanatics would pull out all the stops if they knew you were coming."

"I know," she sighed, then smiled at the Marine and turned to the final officer awaiting introduction.

"Commander Morrison, Your Grace. Our surgeon,"

Cardones said, and Honor gripped the slender, fair-haired lieutenant commander's hand. Morrison was probably the oldest of Cardones' officers, and she felt . . . solid. There was something profoundly reassuring about her calm assurance and confidence in her own competence.

"Dr. Morrison," she murmured, and the physician smiled and bobbed her head.

"I'm pleased to meet all of you," Honor continued, meeting their combined gaze. "I know there's something of a tradition of rivalry between a flagship's officers and the admiral's staff, and up to a point, that's probably not a bad thing. However, it's been my experience that the flagship's personnel are just as vital as the staff if a squadron or a task force is going to operate smoothly. Commodore Brigham here," she waved Brigham forward, "and I have discussed that very consideration, and if any difficulties do arise, I want them resolved as expeditiously as possible. I think you'll find Commodore Brigham is much more interested in results than in assigning blame when problems do arise."

Everyone smiled and nodded with murmurs of understanding. Well, of course they did, given that any admiral's suggestion carried the force of a direct decree from God aboard her flagship . . . however stupid it might be. In this case, however, Honor tasted genuine agreement behind the proper formula, which gave her a pronounced sense of satisfaction.

"Excuse me, Captain," the BBOD said, interrupting diffidently, "but Admiral Henke's pinnace is on final."

"Thank you," Cardones responded, and Honor turned to watch the side party reassemble itself smoothly.

The newly arrived pinnace settled into the docking arms, the tube ran out, and the green light indicating a good seal blinked to life over the inboard end.

"BatCruRon Eighty-One, arriving!" the intercom announced, and a moment later an ebony-skinned woman in the uniform of a rear admiral swung herself lithely out of the tube into the twitter of pipes.

"Permission to come aboard, Ma'am?" she requested of the BBOD in a husky, almost furry-sounding contralto.

"Permission granted, Ma'am," the lieutenant replied, exchanging salutes, and the new arrival stepped forward quickly.

"Welcome aboard, Ma'am," Cardones said, shaking her hand.

"Thank you, Rafe," she said with a smile, which grew considerably broader when she turned to Honor.

"It's good to see you back in uniform, Your Grace," she said, gripping Honor's hand firmly, then nodded to LaFollet. "And I see you've brought along your baseball fanatic."

"Nonsense," Honor said airily. "By Grayson standards, he's a mere dilettante. Now, Simon, here—he's a real fan.

Unlike myself, of course."

"Oh, of course!" Henke chuckled.

"I believe all of the squadron COs are aboard now, Your Grace," Cardones said.

"So we should get out of your boat bay crew's way and take ourselves off to Flag Bridge," Honor agreed.

* * *

"Attention on deck," Vice Admiral Alice Truman, as the senior officer present, said as Honor stepped through the flag briefing room's hatch, and the officers who had been seated around the large conference table rose.

"As you were, Ladies and Gentlemen," Honor said briskly, striding into the compartment and crossing to the head of the table. She seated herself and laid her white beret neatly in front of her.

Henke, Cardones, and her staff followed her, and as they found their chairs and the other officers settled back into their places, she let her eyes run around the table.

It was as near to a hand-picked command team as anyone was likely to be able to come under the current circumstances. Alice Truman, Alistair McKeon, and Michelle Henke—commanding her carriers, her "wall of battle" (such as it was, and what there was of it), and her most powerful battlecruiser squadron, respectively—were all known quantities. Vice Admiral Samuel Miklós commanded the second of Eighth Fleet's two CLAC

squadrons—Truman herself commanded the other, as well as the entire carrier force—and Rear Admiral Matsuzawa Hirotaka commanded Honor's second battlecruiser squadron. Rear Admiral Winston Bradshaw and Commodore Charise Fanaafi commanded her two heavy cruiser squadrons, and Commodore Mary Lou Moreau commanded her attached flotilla of light cruisers, while Captain Josephus Hastings was present as her senior destroyer captain.

She knew Matsuzawa and Moreau personally, although not well; Miklós, Bradshaw, Fanaafi, and Hastings were complete newcomers to her command team, but all of them had excellent records. Perhaps even more importantly, given the nature of their mission, all of them had already demonstrated flexibility, adaptiveness, and the ability to display intelligent initiative.

"It's good to see all of you gathered in one place at last,"

she said, after a moment. "And, as Commodore Brigham commented as we docked with Imperator, it's about time.

Eighth Fleet is officially activated as of twelve hundred hours, Zulu, today."

No one actually moved, but it was as if an invisible stir had run around the compartment.

"We can anticipate the arrival of the remaining units of our initial order of battle over the next three weeks," she continued levelly. "We're all aware of how tightly the Navy is stretched at the moment, so we won't dwell on that just now. I met with Admiral Caparelli immediately before my departure for Trevor's Star, however, and he emphasized to me once again the importance of beginning active operations as quickly as possible.

"Commodore Brigham, Commander Jaruwalski, and I have given considerable thought to the most appropriate initial targets for our attention. This isn't simply a military operation. Or, rather, it's a military operation with a political dimension of which we must be well aware.

Specifically, we want the Havenites to divert forces to provide rear security against our raids. That means balancing vulnerability of target against economic and industrial value, but it also requires us to think about which target systems are most likely to generate political pressure to divert enemy strike forces to defensive employment.

"I'm confident we can find such targets, but accomplishing our objective is almost certainly going to require us to operate widely dispersed attack forces, at least in our initial operations. That means we're going to be relying very heavily on the judgment and ability of our junior flag officers—more heavily than we'd originally anticipated. I know the quality of my squadron commanders, but I'm less familiar with your divisional commanders, and, unfortunately, the pressure to begin operations is going to sharply restrict the time we have to get to know one another through exercises. Which means, of course, that I'm going to be relying heavily on all of you to provide the insight about your subordinates which I won't have time to develop for myself."

Several heads nodded, and every expression was sober and intent.

"In just a moment, Commodore Brigham and Commander Reynolds will brief all of us on current intelligence, enemy strength appreciations, and the parameters the Admiralty's set forth for our target selection criteria. Afterwards, I'll ask all of you to return to your flagships and bring your own staffs up to speed. Get them started brainstorming.

This evening, I'd like all of you—and your chiefs of staff and operations officers—to join me for dinner."

McKeon, Truman, and Henke looked at one another expressionlessly, and Honor smiled.

"Bring your appetites," she said, "because I think you'll find the food quite good. But plan on staying out late, Ladies and Gentlemen. It's going to be a working dinner.

Probably the first of many."

* * *

"Could I have a minute?"

Honor turned her head to look at Michelle Henke, and her eyebrows rose as she tasted the edge of apprehension and frustration behind the question. The other flag officers were flowing through the briefing room hatch, and she glanced at Brigham. She flipped her eyes to one side, and the chief of staff caught the silent order and discreetly urged her other staffers towards the hatch as well.

"Of course you can have a minute, Mike," Honor said, turning back to Henke. "Why?"

She allowed a touch of concern to soften her own voice.

Henke was one of the people who'd realized long since that Honor could actually feel the emotions of people around her, so there was no point pretending she didn't know her friend was concerned about something. Henke's lips twitched in a brief smile of half-amused recognition, but the smile barely touched her eyes.

"Something came to my attention the other day," she said quietly. "Specifically, the circumstances which led to my being given the Eighty-First."

There was something oddly formal about her tone, and Honor frowned slightly.

"What about it?"

"According to my sources, I got the command because you specifically asked for it for me," Henke said, and looked at her steadily.

Honor looked back, and tried not to sigh. She'd hoped Henke wouldn't hear about that. Not that there'd ever been much realistic chance she wouldn't.

"That's not exactly how it happened, Mike," she said after a moment.

"Honor, let's not quibble over words like 'exactly.' Did you pull strings to get me the command?"

Honor gazed at her for a moment longer, then glanced around the compartment. Everyone had departed except Andrew LaFollet and Mercedes Brigham.

"Mercedes, Andrew," she said, "could you give us a minute, please?"

"Of course, My Lady," LaFollet replied, and he and the chief of staff stepped outside. Honor waited until the hatch slid closed behind them, then turned back to Henke.

"All right, Mike," she sighed. "Just how difficult do you intend to be about this?"

"Honor," Henke began, "you know how hard I've fought against playing the patronage game. It's important to me that—"

"Michelle Henke," Honor interrupted, "in this particular regard, you are the most stubborn, stiffnecked, prickly, hyper-sensitive person I've ever met. And I remind you that I know my own parents, Nimitz, and your cousin Elizabeth, so you're in some pretty select company for stubbornness."

"It's not a joke," Henke said, almost angrily, and Honor shook her head.

"No, it's not," she said. "And by this stage in your career, Mike, it's gone a long way past funny, too." Henke's eyes widened at the sudden severity of Honor's tone, and Honor grimaced. "Have you ever seen the 'Confidential Notes'

section of your personnel jacket?" she asked.

"Of course not." Henke looked surprised by the apparent non sequitur. "That's why it's marked 'Confidential,' isn't it?"

"Yes, it is. And I'm not surprised it's never even occurred to you to bend the rules in this particular regard. But, if you had read it, you'd discover that BuPers has noted this particular phobia of yours. There's a specific notation, Mike, which says—and I paraphrase—'This officer is of superior quality but not prepared for accelerated promotion.'"

Something like hurt flickered in Henke's eyes, and Honor snorted in exasperation.

"You're not listening to what I said, Mike. It doesn't say

'not qualified'; it says 'not prepared.' As in 'not prepared to accept.' Everyone knows you're the Queen's first cousin.

Everyone knows you've always stomped all over anything which even looked like preferential treatment. We understand that, Mike. What you don't seem to understand is that a flag officer's chair would have been pulled out for you at least four or five T-years before it was if BuPers hadn't realized you would have thought it was because of who you're related to. And that you're so stubborn you'd probably have resigned your commission rather than accept 'preferential treatment.'"

"That's ridiculous," Henke protested.

"No, it isn't. What's ridiculous is that you've managed to slow your career and to deprive the Star Kingdom of the full value of your skills and talents because in this one regard you—you, Mike Henke, Ms. I-Know-What-I'm-Doing, Brash-and-Confident—suffer from a serious self-confidence crisis. Well, as it happens, I'm not prepared to put up with that sort of silliness any longer."

"Honor, you can't—"

"I not only can, I have," Honor said flatly. "Look at the record, Mike. Of our graduating class, thirty percent have attained at least junior flag rank; another forty percent are captains, over half of them senior-grade; and fifteen percent are dead or medically retired. Are you seriously going to tell me that if you were another officer, evaluating your record and your performance, you wouldn't rate your command ability as being in the top thirty percent of our classmates? You do remember some of the idiots who graduated at the same time we did, don't you?"

Henke's lips twitched at the acid tone in which Honor delivered her last sentence, but she also shook her head.

"I'm not saying I'm not qualified to be a commodore, or even a rear admiral. What bothers me is that I just got command of the one and only squadron of pod-laying battlecruisers in the entire Royal Navy. If you aren't aware of how cutthroat competition for this slot was, I certainly am."

"Of course I'm aware. And before you go any further, I should point out to you that I was promised that squadron for Eighth Fleet before I submitted my list of requested squadron commanders. I was getting those ships whether I got you or not, and when I asked for you and Hirotaka, you were senior. Which is why Admiral Cortez suggested you for the Eighty-First when I inquired as to whether or not your services were available. And before you say it, I'm quite certain that one reason he made the suggestion was the fact that he knew about our friendship. But you know as well as I do that Sir Lucian is not exactly in the habit of suggesting incompetent officers for critical slots just to curry favor with politically important people."

Honor folded her arms, and Nimitz rose high on her shoulder, cocking his head at Henke.

"Bottom-line time, Mike. Yes, you could say I 'pulled strings' to get you assigned to Eighth Fleet, knowing it would probably mean you got the Eighty-First. And, yes, I did it on purpose, and I'd do it again. But if you think for one single moment that I would have requested anyone for this command if I didn't believe she was the very best person available for it, regardless of friendship, then you don't know me as well as you think you do. Or, for that matter, as well as I think you do, when you aren't bending over backward to make sure no one does you 'any favors.'"

Henke looked at her, and Honor tasted that stubborn sense of integrity and the need to prove she merited any promotion that came her way warring with her intellectual recognition that everything Honor had just said was the simple truth. Then, finally, the other woman sighed.

"All right, Honor. You win. I'm still not entirely comfortable with it, you understand. But I have to admit I really, really don't want to give it up, however I got it."

"Fine. I can live with that," Honor told her with a smile.

"And if you still entertain any doubts about it, then I suggest you use those doubts as a self-motivator to go out and prove to both of us that you really do deserve it."

Chapter Sixteen

"Lady Harrington is here, Milady."

"Thank you, Sandy." Emily Alexander looked up at her nurse's announcement. Her life-support chair was parked in her favorite niche in her atrium, and she tapped the save key with her right index finger, saving the HD script she'd been annotating. "Please ask her to join me," she said.

"Of course, Milady."

Thurston bowed slightly and withdrew. A few moments later, she returned, followed by Dr. Allison Harrington.

Not for the first time, Emily felt a certain amusement at the thought that such a tiny mother could have produced a daughter Honor's size. There was something undeniably feline about Allison Harrington, she thought. Something poised, perpetually balanced and faintly amused by the world about her. Not detached— never that—but comfortable enough with who she was to let the rest of the world be whatever it needed to be. She didn't really look that much like Honor, and yet no one could ever mistake her for anyone but Honor's mother. It was the eyes, Emily thought. The one feature which was exactly identical in both mother and daughter.

"Good afternoon, Lady Harrington," Emily said as Thurston smiled and withdrew, leaving them along together, and Allison rolled those almond-shaped eyes very much as Honor might have.

"Please, Lady Alexander," she said. Emily cocked an eyebrow, and Allison snorted. "I'm from Beowulf, Milady,"

she said, "and I married a yeoman. Until my daughter fell into bad company, it never occurred to me I might be even remotely associated with the Manticoran aristocracy, far less the Grayson version. If you insist on using titles, I'd much prefer 'Doctor,' since that's at least a title I earned on my own. Under the circumstances, however, if it's all the same to you, I'd prefer simply Allison."

"I see where Honor gets it from," Emily said with a faint smile. "But if you'd prefer to ignore aristocratic titles, that's certainly all right with me. After all," her smile broadened, "as the mother of a Duchess and a Steadholder, you outrank me rather substantially."

"Bullshit," Allison said pithily, and Emily chuckled.

"All right, Allison. You win. And in that case, I'm Emily, not 'Milady.'"

"Fine." Allison shook her head, her expression almost bemused for a moment. "I suppose any parent always wants her daughter to do well and succeed, but I sometimes think I must have dropped Honor on her head when she was a baby. The girl has an absolute compulsion to overachieve, however inconvenient it may be for her father and me."

"And you're inordinately proud of her, too," Emily observed.

"Well, of course I am. At least, when I'm not spending my time sitting up at night worrying over what sort of insane risk she's going to run next."

Allison's tone was light, amused, but there was a sudden flash of darker emotion in those chocolate eyes, and Emily felt her own smile waver.

"She does tend to make the people who love her worry,"

she said quietly. "I'll be honest, Allison. I was never so glad of anything as I was when the Queen asked Hamish to take over at the Admiralty. I know he hated it, but having both of them out in space, waiting to be shot at, would be even worse."

"I know." Allison seated herself on a stone bench—the one Honor usually used when she joined Emily in the atrium—and met Emily's eyes steadily. "I realize the timing on this entire situation is as 'interesting,' in the Chinese sense of the word, as anything else Honor's ever gotten herself into. And I obviously don't know you very well . . .

yet. But I hope you won't mind my saying that in many ways, Hamish and you are the best thing that's happened to Honor at least since Paul Tankersley was killed. I hope it's a good thing for you, too, but I'm selfish enough to be happy for her anyway."

"She's very young, isn't she?" Emily replied obliquely, and Allison smiled.

"I'm sure she doesn't see it that way at her age, but in a lot of ways, you're right. And she's very Sphinxian, too. I, on the other hand, am an experienced old lady from the decadent world of Beowulf. By way of Grayson these days, of all bizarre places."

"I know. On the other hand, I won't pretend it was easy for me. Certainly not at first. But there's a quality, a magnetism, about your daughter, Allison. Charisma, I suppose you'd have to call it, although she never seems to realize she's got it. You don't meet very many people who do have it, actually. And she's just as striking physically.

Most of the professional dancers I knew back when I was still acting would have killed to be able to move the way she does. In fact," she smiled, "if I weren't stuck in this chair, I suspect I'd be just as physically attracted to her as Hamish is." That wasn't an admission Emily would have made even to most members of her own social class, but as Allison had just pointed out, she was from Beowulf. "Even without that, though, she's an incredibly lovable person, in her own way. And so damned determined to never put herself first that sometimes you just want to strangle her."

"She gets it from her father," Allison said cheerfully. "All that altruism." She shook her head. "My own philosophy's much more hedonistic than hers."

"I'm sure." Emily smiled. "Which undoubtedly explains, in some convoluted fashion, what brings you to White Haven this afternoon?"

"Well, even a card-carrying hedonist is usually willing to exert herself at least a little for her first grandchild."

Allison watched her hostess closely, but Emily's smile didn't waver.

"Somehow, I'm not surprised to hear that," she said. "But while we're on the subject, what's your official reason for being here? Just so we can keep our stories straight, you understand."

"Oh, officially I'm here for Doctor Arif. She's drafted me for her commission, as a representative of the medical profession who's as close to an expert on treecats as she can find. I kicked and screamed about how busy I am on Grayson, but it didn't do me much good. And, actually, it's fascinating watching Samantha and the other memory singers working with her to demonstrate their value. At the very least, it's going to revolutionize psychotherapy here in the Star Kingdom, and I think the implications for law enforcement may be at least equally significant. But for the official record, I'm here to talk to you—and Hamish, when he gets home this evening—about your experiences with Samantha for a paper I'm putting together. I'm supposed to present it to the commission next Wednesday."

"I see. And the real reason?"

"And the real reason is to talk to you about something else entirely," Allison said, her voice suddenly softer. Emily looked at her, and Allison shook her head.

"I'm not going to ask you how you feel about my daughter and your husband. First of all, that's not really any of my business. More importantly, even before I met you, I knew you were a strong-minded woman, not the sort to meekly acquiesce in anything against your will. But Honor didn't have time to complete all the arrangements with Briarwood before she had to deploy to Trevor's Star. Since I'm the official contact, with power of attorney to make medical decisions in her absence, I'm tidying up those loose ends for her. To be perfectly honest, Emily, this is something which I believe you ought to be allowed to do.

And something which, under any other circumstances, I think Honor herself would have insisted you should."

Emily's eyes misted over, and she felt her lips tremble.

Then she inhaled deeply.

"I wish I could," she said quietly. "More than I can ever tell you."

"My own personality, oddly enough for someone from Beowulf, is firmly monogamous," Allison said in a lighter tone. "I suppose it's part of my own rebellion against the mores of my birth world. But in your position," the lightness faded, "I know how badly I'd want to be making those decisions, discharging those responsibilities. And because of that, and because Honor feels exactly the same way, I'm here to ask you and Hamish to assist me with the environmental recordings."

Emily's eyebrows rose. One of the things about artificial gestation which the medical profession had learned the hard way was the necessity of providing the developing fetus with the physical and aural stimulation the child would have received in its mother's womb. Heartbeat, random environmental sounds, movement, and—most importantly of all, in many ways—the sound of its mother's voice.

"Honor and I have made selections from several of her letters to me and to her father," Allison continued. "She's also found time to record several hours of poetry and a few of her favorite childhood stories. And she insisted that my voice, and her father's, should also be included. Just as she very, very much wants her child to hear the voices of its father . . . and both its mothers."

Emily's expression froze. She looked at Allison for several seconds, unable to speak, and Allison smiled gently.

"She's told me in general terms how you reacted to the news of her pregnancy, Emily. And she's almost as much from Grayson as Manticore these days. Sometimes I don't think even she realizes how true that really is. But she's seen the strength of Grayson family structure, how nurturing it is, and she wants that for her—for your— child.

And she loves you. She doesn't want it only for the child's sake; she wants it for your sake, as well."

"And she told Hamish they didn't deserve me," Emily said finally, her voice husky. "Of course we'll help with the recordings, Allison. Thank you."

"I'd say you were welcome, if there were any reason to thank me," Allison replied. "And on a lighter note, I trust you're prepared to come up with some reason for me to be spending inordinate amounts of time visiting you." Emily felt her eyebrows rising again, and Allison chuckled. "I intend to be a very involved grandmother, which means you're going to be seeing a lot of me over the next several decades."

Emily laughed.

"Oh, I'm sure we'll be able to come up with something.

By now, devising plausible pretexts is getting to be second nature."

Allison started to reply, then paused, her expression suddenly pensive. Several seconds passed, and Emily frowned, wondering what direction the other woman's thoughts had gone.

"Actually," Allison said slowly, at last, "I think there might be a completely legitimate reason. One I hadn't really intended to suggest."

"That sounds faintly ominous," Emily said.

"Not ominous, I hope. But maybe a little . . . intrusive."

" Definitely ominous," Emily said as lightly as possible.

"Given that you're the mother of the mother of my husband's child, anything that strikes you as being more intrusive than that is probably fairly terrifying."

"I wouldn't choose that precise adjective," Allison said seriously, "but I'm afraid it is going to be rather personal.

And if you'd prefer not to discuss it, that's entirely your decision. But given what's happened accidentally between Hamish and Honor, Emily, I can't help wondering why you've never considered the possibility of having a child of your own."

Emily's heart seemed to stop. It couldn't, of course. Her life-support chair's hardware wouldn't let it, any more than it would let her stop breathing. But despite her brutally damaged nervous system, she felt for just a moment as if someone had just punched her in the pit of the stomach.

She stared at Allison, shocked, unable to speak, and Allison reached out and laid her own hand atop Emily's right hand.

"This is coming from me, not Honor," she said quietly.

"Honor would never dream of intruding on you the way I just have. Partly, that's because she loves you and recognizes how much emotional stress she's already accidentally inflicted upon you. And partly, it's because she's so much younger than you—which I'm certainly not.

And partly because she's not a physician. We've talked, especially since she found out she was pregnant, of course, but she hasn't betrayed any of your confidences to me, and I'd never ask her to. Still, I'm sure you must realize that as a doctor, and especially as a geneticist, I'm very well aware of all the reproductive options which have been available to you. And that, Emily, suggests to me that you must have some deeply personal reason for not availing yourself of them.

"That's your decision, of course. But Honor's told me how you responded to the discovery that she's going to have a child. And I've just seen how you reacted to the awareness that you're also going to be that child's other mother. So I'm wondering why someone who so clearly recognizes how Honor must feel, and who so obviously wants and needs to be a part of that, has never had a child of her own."

A part of Emily Alexander wanted to scream at Allison Harrington. To tell her that however curious she might be, it was none of her damned business. But she didn't. The combination of gentle, very personal compassion and professional detachment in Allison's eyes and voice stopped her.

Not that anything could have made the topic any less painful.

"I have my reasons," she said finally, her voice far more clipped and harder-edged than usual.

"I'm certain you do. You're a strong, smart, competent person. People like you don't turn their backs on something so obviously important to them without reasons. The thing I'm wondering, though, is whether they're as valid as you may think they are."

"It's not something I decided lightly," Emily said harshly.

"Emily," Allison's voice was gently chiding, "no woman can have gone through everything you've survived without realizing that the mere fact a decision wasn't made lightly doesn't necessarily make it a good one. I'm a doctor. I specialize in genetic disease and repair—too often after the fact, even today—and my husband's one of the Star Kingdom's three top neurosurgeons. The sort they send the

"Omigod!" cases to. If he'd been in civilian practice when you were hurt, he'd probably have been one of your doctors. Do you have any idea how much carnage, how many shattered lives and broken bodies, the two of us have seen? Between us, we've been practicing medicine for well over a century, Emily. If there are two people in the entire Star Kingdom who know exactly what you, your family, and all the people who care about you have been through, it's us."

Emily's lips trembled, and her single working hand clenched into a fist under Allison's fingers. She was shocked—physically shocked—at the abrupt realization that she desperately wanted to open her heart to Allison. By the discovery that she needed to know Allison did, indeed, understand the savagery with which the physical damage to her body had smashed far more than mere muscle and sinew.

And yet . . . and yet something held her back. Her own version of Honor's stubbornness and pride, her need to fight her own battles. As Allison had said, Emily Alexander was an extraordinarily intelligent woman. She'd had half a century in her life-support chair to realize just how foolish it was to insist on facing down all of her own demons, all her own challenges, unassisted. More than that, she knew she hadn't. That Hamish was there for her. That except for one brief period of weakness, which he bitterly regretted, he'd always been there for her, and she'd always relied upon him. But that was different. She couldn't have defined exactly how, yet she knew it was.

"Emily," Allison said again, quietly, as the silence stretched out between them, "you aren't as unique as you may think you are. Oh, the injuries you've survived probably are. At least, I can't think of another case in my own or Alfred's experience in which someone survived physical damage as extreme as it clearly was in yours. But people who are as badly injured as you were take damage in a lot of ways. Obviously, I've never had access to any of your case history. And I've never probed Honor for information about it—not that she'd have given it to me, even if I had. But I have to ask you. Like Honor, you don't regenerate. Is that the reason? Are you afraid a child of yours might share that inability?"

"I . . ." Emily's voice rasped, and she stopped and cleared her throat.

"That's . . . a part of it," she said finally, distantly amazed she could admit even that much to Allison. "I suppose I've always known it's not entirely . . . rational. As you say," her mouth twisted in a bitter smile, "the fact that someone has reasons for her decisions doesn't necessarily make those reasons valid."

"Did you ever discuss the question with a good geneticist?" Allison's gentle voice was completely devoid of any shadow of judgment.

"No." Emily looked away. "No, not really. I consulted several of them. But I suppose, if I were honest, I'd have to admit I was just going through the motions. For me, perhaps for Hamish. I don't know." She looked back at Allison, green eyes brimming with tears. "I talked to them.

They talked to me. And they kept reassuring me, telling me it wouldn't happen. And that even if somehow I did pass on my 'curse,' it was absurd to think any child of mine would ever be injured the way I was. And none of it mattered. Not one bit of it." She stared into Allison's eyes and forced herself to admit to someone else what she had never until this moment fully admitted to herself. "I was too frightened to be rational."

She hovered on the brink of telling Allison why. Of telling her what she'd overheard her own mother saying. Of admitting how deep that wound had cut, even though her intellect had fiercely rejected the searing hurt. But she couldn't. Even now, she couldn't expose that jagged scar.

Not yet.

"If that's the only way in which you reacted 'irrationally'

after what happened to you, then you're some sort of superwoman," Allison said dryly. "My God, woman! Your life was destroyed. You've rebuilt a new one, a deeply productive one, without ever surrendering. You're entitled to not be strong about everything every instant. And you have the right to admit that it hurts, and that things frighten you. Someday you need to sit down with Honor and let her tell you about the things she carried around inside for far too long. The things she didn't share even with me. They've left scars—I'm sure you've seen some of them—and she'd be the very first person to say that everything that happened to her was small beer compared to what happened to you.

"But I think perhaps it's time you revisited that decision of yours. Perhaps enough time's finally passed that you can think about it rationally . . . if you want to."

"I think . . . I think, perhaps, I do," Emily said, very slowly, astonished at the words coming out of her own mouth. And even more astonished to realize how true they were.

"I think I do," she repeated, "but that doesn't magically dispel the things that frighten me."

"Maybe not, but then again," Allison grinned suddenly,

"that's my job."

"Your job?" Emily looked at her, and Allison nodded.

"You know what Honor's been through in terms of physical injury. Nothing that's happened to her was as severe as what happened to you, but it was more than enough to make her worry about passing her inability to regenerate on to her children. Fortunately for her, her mother happens—if I may be pardoned for blowing my own horn—to be one of the Star Kingdom's leading geneticists. I made identifying the gene group which prevents her from regenerating a personal project, and I found it years ago.

The problem child is a dominant, unfortunately, but it's not associated with the locked sequences of the Meyerdahl modifications—if it were, Alfred wouldn't regenerate either, and he does—so it's not automatically selected for at fertilization. Once I'd determined that, I also determined that she carries it only on the chromosome she received from her father, and I've done a scan on her child. As a result of which, I was able to reassure her that she hasn't passed it along to him."

" Him? " Despite her own whiplashing emotions, Emily fastened on the personal pronoun.

"Oh, crap!" Allison shook her head, her expression suddenly disgusted. "Forget you heard that," she commanded. "Honor doesn't want to know yet. Which, if you'll pardon my saying so, is fairly silly. I always wanted to know as soon as possible."

"Him," Emily repeated. Then she smiled. "Well, once Grayson gets over the fact that he's illegitimate, they'll probably be pleased!"

"Bunch of stuck-in-the-mud patriarchal male chauvinists, the lot of them. It pisses me off to think how frigging delighted they're all going to be," Allison muttered, and Emily surprised herself with a genuine laugh.

"That's better!" Allison approved with a smile. "But my point is that even with Hamish and Honor's genetic material colliding as accidentally as it did in this case, his Y-chromosome's done the trick quite neatly. Mother Nature didn't even need my intervention."

"Not in her case," Emily agreed, and Allison snorted.

"Oh, for goodness sakes, Emily! This isn't the dark ages, you know. I haven't looked at your chart yet, for obvious reasons, but I will be frankly astonished if the problem is anywhere near as complicated as you seem to believe it is.

Since we already know Hamish's genotype is perfectly capable of regenerating, and since we already know he and Honor can produce a child equally capable of regenerating, it's probably as simple as selecting the sperm with the genes we need. If it's not, then I feel quite certain I can repair the problem before fertilization. In fact, I could probably repair it after fertilization, although I'd hesitate to promise that without a careful examination of you both."

"You sound . . . remarkably confident," Emily said slowly.

"I sound—?" Allison paused, looking at Emily with an expression of almost comical surprise. Then she cleared her throat.

"Ah, Emily. Although I haven't reviewed any of your files, I know you spent quite some time on Beowulf after the accident. And I believe Dr. Kleinman is Beowulf-trained.

He graduated from Johns Hopkins, Beowulf, didn't he?"

"I think so, yes."

"Then it would be fair to say you've been exposed to the Beowulf medical establishment in all its smug, not to say narcissistic, tradition-encrusted glory?"

"To some extent," Emily said, puzzled by the curious bite in Allison's tone.

"And do you happen to know what my maiden name was?"

"Chou, wasn't it?" Emily's puzzlement was, if anything, deeper than ever.

"Well, yes. Except that if I'd stayed on Beowulf, I'd have been known by my entire maiden name . . . whether I particularly wanted to be or not. Which, as it happens, I didn't."

"Why not?" Emily asked, when she paused.

"Because my full family name is Benton-Ramirez y Chou,"

Allison said, and Emily's eyes widened.

Of all the medical "dynasties" of Beowulf, acknowledged throughout explored space as the preeminent queen of the life-sciences, the Benton-Ramirez and Chou families stood at the very pinnacle. They were Beowulf, with a multigenerational commitment to the field of genetic medicine which stretched back to well before Old Earth's Final War. George Benton and Sebastiana Ramirez y Moyano had actually led the Beowulf teams to Old Earth to battle the hideous consequences of the Final War's bioweapons, and Chou Keng-ju had led the bioethics fight against Leonard Detweiler and the other "progressive eugenics" advocates six centuries ago. Among the many jewels in the crown of their families' achievements since was a leading role in the development of the prolong process itself. And—

"Well," she said, mildly, after a moment, "at least I finally understand exactly where Honor's rather . . .

volcanic attitude towards the genetic slave trade and Manpower comes from, don't I?"

"You might say she imbibed it with her mother's milk,"

Allison agreed. "Bad science, no doubt, but I did breast-feed, and having a direct ancestor's signature on the Cherwell Convention didn't hurt, I suppose." She smiled thinly. "My point, however, is that if I come across as sounding just a bit breezily confident, I come by it honestly. I can't give you an absolute, categorical assurance that you and Hamish could produce a biological child who will regenerate. The probability that you couldn't, especially with my intervention, is so vanishingly small I literally couldn't quantify it, but it does exist. What I can guarantee you, however, is that with my intervention you won't produce a child who can't regenerate."

She looked straight into Emily's eyes again.

"So tell me, Emily. With that guarantee, do you want a child of your own, or not?"

* * *

"Mr. Secretary, you have a com call from Colonel Nesbitt," Alicia Hampton said from Arnold Giancola's display.

"Ah?" Giancola gave her his best absentminded smile, then shook himself visibly. "I mean, by all means put it through, Alicia. Thank you."

"You're welcome, Sir," she said with a slight, fond smile of her own, and her face disappeared from his display. A moment later, Jean-Claude Nesbitt's face replaced it.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary," he said courteously.

"Colonel," Giancola nodded. "What can I do for you this afternoon?"

"It isn't really anything especially important, Sir. I'm just screening you to let you know I'm about to begin the regular quarterly security review." Giancola's expression never changed, but he felt his stomach muscles tense. "I know it's a pain," Nesbitt continued, "but your personal staff is going to have to be vetted again, as well. Under the circumstances, I thought I'd give you a heads-up so we could try to avoid any scheduling conflicts that might interfere with your planned workload."

"I appreciate that, Colonel," Giancola said, and a particularly attentive observer might have noticed that his eyes narrowed ever so slightly as they met Nesbitt's on the display. "But if you're quite satisfied with your own arrangements, I feel confident we could accommodate our schedule to yours. If you'll contact Ms. Hampton when you're ready to begin, we'll be at your disposal for you to proceed any time you're ready to begin."

"Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I understand," Nesbitt said with a respectful nod. "And I appreciate your readiness to cooperate."

"One can never be too careful where security matters are concerned, Colonel," Giancola said seriously. "Was there anything else we needed to discuss?"

"No, Mr. Secretary. Thank you. I have everything I need."

"In that case, Colonel, good day," Giancola said, and cut the circuit.

* * *

Yves Grosclaude leaned back in the comfortable flight couch and wished his mind were as comfortable as his body as his air car sliced through the night shrouded mountains on autopilot.

None of this was supposed to have happened. None of it.

He'd agreed with Giancola that it was time to take a firmer line with the Manties, and God knew they'd certainly managed to stiffen that ninny Pritchart's spine! But who would ever have expected her to do something like this?

And now that she had, what the hell did they do about it?

He frowned, worrying at one thumbnail with his teeth, wondering how Giancola could remain—or, at least, appear to remain—so unconcerned. He supposed that after this long without detection, he should be feeling less worried, himself. After all, if anyone was going to suspect something, certainly they should have done so by now, right?

But it didn't work that way. Whether anyone suspected now or not, eventually they would, and there was no statute of limitations on treason.

He drew a deep breath and forced his hand back down into his lap. There was nothing to do about it right now, and if the war lasted long enough, and if Giancola played his political cards astutely enough, it was entirely possible that President Giancola would be in a position to quash any unfortunate investigations after the fighting finally ended.

And if he couldn't, at least Grosclaude had tucked away the vital evidence he could undoubtedly trade to the prosecution for at least limited immunity.

That, he knew, was all he could realistically do to disaster-proof his own position. In the meantime, he'd just have to keep his head down and concentrate on being as innocent and aboveboard as possible. It wasn't easy, but he hoped this ski trip would help. It ought to at least let him burn off some of his accumulated nervous energy!

He chuckled at the thought and made himself stretch and yawn, then settled more firmly into the couch. His flight plan was just about to take him through the Arsenault Gorge, one of the most spectacular mountain passes on Haven. It was a huge, axe-blow of a chasm through the Blanchard Mountains, with sheer cliffs towering vertically for as much as two hundred and fifty meters in some places. It was quite a tourist attraction, and Grsoclaude himself loved it. He always programmed his flight path to take him through it, despite the need to slow down around its hairpin bends.

Now the autopilot dipped the air car slightly, dropping a bit lower to give him a better view, and he felt a familiar stir of enjoyment as the rocky, tree-crowned cliffs loomed up on either side of his prow.

And at that moment, something very peculiar happened.

Yves Grosclaude felt something almost like a mental tickle. As if someone were running a finger down his spine, except that it was behind his eyes somewhere. He started to frown, but then the frown vanished into another expression entirely.

He'd never noticed the almost microscopic capsule which had somehow found its way into the yogurt he'd enjoyed with his supper two nights ago. He hadn't been looking for anything of the sort, never suspected anything like it was remotely possible.

Nor was it . . . for the Republic's tech base. That capsule's contents had been well beyond the capability of Haven's own scientists, and as the capsule itself disintegrated in his digestive tract, submicroscopic virus-based nanotech had infiltrated his bloodstream. They'd traveled to his brain, seeking very specifically targeted sections of it, and then waited.

For this specific moment.

Yves Grosclaude jerked in his seat as the tiny invaders executed their programmed instructions. They did no physical damage at all; they simply invaded his body's

"operating system" and overwrote it with instructions of their own.

He watched helplessly, screaming in the silence of his mind, as his hands switched off the autopilot. They settled on the stick and throttle, and his eyes bulged in silent horror as his right hand wrenched the stick suddenly to the right even as his left rammed the throttle to the wall.

The vehicle was still accelerating when it struck a vertical cliff face head-on at well over eight hundred kilometers per hour.

Chapter Seventeen

"All right, Kevin. What's all the mystery this time?"

President Eloise Pritchart's striking, topaz-colored eyes tracked slowly from the FIA director's face to that of the petite, dark-haired woman with him. Presidential Security was never happy when she met alone with anyone, even in her private office, out from under their protective oversight, although at least in this case the person she was meeting with was their ultimate boss. Which, she thought, had undoubtedly helped with Kevin's insistence that this meeting had to be completely off the record. Her personal detachment had made no more than pro forma protests before withdrawing and shutting down the various covert surveillance systems which normally let them discreetly monitor while remaining out of sight but ready to respond instantly. And Kevin's position meant they probably really had turned them off this time, which meant she was enjoying a novel sense of freedom for at least the next little bit.

Of course, she was always more than a bit nervous about anything Kevin wanted kept black.

"Thank you for clearing the time for us," Usher said, and Pritchart's eyebrows rose at his unwontedly formal—and somber—tone. "This, by the way," he indicated her other visitor, "is Special Senior Inspector Danielle Abrioux. Danny is one of my top troubleshooters."

"And why am I seeing the two of you without the additional presence of the Attorney General?" Pritchart leaned back in her comfortable chair. "If I remember correctly, Denis is not simply your direct superior, but also a member of my Cabinet."

"Yes, he is," Usher agreed. "On the other hand, much as I like Denis, and as much as I respect him, he's very much a connect-all-the-dots, follow procedure kind of guy."

"Which is why he's Attorney General, and why the wild cowboy, seat-of-the-pants kind of guy works for him.


"Granted. In this case, however, I think you need to know about this before we decide exactly how to bring him into it officially. His principles are just as cast-in-battle-steel as Tom Theisman's. And in this particular instance, his own dislikes and distrust might push him into a more . .

. confrontational stance than we can afford at this particular moment."

"Kevin," Pritchart said, with very little humor, "you're starting to really worry me. What the hell is all this about?"

The woman with him—Abrioux, Pritchart reminded herself—looked decidedly nervous as the President glared at the FIA Director. Usher, however, only settled deeper into his chair, herculean shoulders tensing as if under a massive weight.

"It's about the diplomatic correspondence the Manties altered," he said.

"What about it?"

"Actually, what I ought to have said," Usher replied, "is that it's about the diplomatic correspondence the Manties are alleged to have altered."

For an instant, Pritchart felt only puzzled by his choice of words. Then an icy dagger seemed to run down her spine.

"What do you mean 'alleged'?" she demanded harshly. "I saw the originals. I know they were altered."

"Oh, they certainly were," Usher agreed grimly.

"Unfortunately, I've begun to have some serious questions about just who did the altering."

"My God." Pritchart knew her face had gone white.

"Please, Kevin. Please don't tell me what it sounds like you're about to tell me."

"I'm sorry, Eloise," he said gently. "At first, I thought it was just because of how much I disliked Giancola. It seemed preposterous, even for him. And, for that matter, it seemed outright impossible. But I couldn't shake the suspicion. I kept picking at it. And a few weeks ago, I put Danny here on it, very, very quietly. It's not only possible, I'm pretty damn sure it happened."

"Sweet Jesus." Pritchart stared at him, more flattened—

more horrified—than she'd been even by the knowledge that Oscar Saint-Just fully intended to have Javier Giscard shot. In which case, he would inevitably have discovered just how she had been covering for Javier for so long.

"How could he possibly have done such a thing?" she asked finally. "Not why did he do it—if he did—but how?"

"Assuming the right accomplice in the right position, and assuming the sheer big brass balls to try it in the first place, it really wouldn't have been all that technically difficult to make the substitutions," Usher said. "I'd pretty much worked out how he could have done it before I ever brought Danny into it, and she's pretty much confirmed that it could have been—and almost certainly was—done that way. She can give you the technical details, if you want them. Basically, though, he could send out whatever version of your agreed-upon diplomatic notes he wanted to. After all, he's Secretary of State. And as long as the fellow playing mailman for him didn't blow the whistle on them, there'd be no way for anyone at this end to know he'd departed from the planned script. And we've also figured out how he could have had access to the Manties'

Foreign Office validation key, which would have let him change the incoming correspondence, as well."

"That—" Pritchart paused and drew a deep breath. "That doesn't sound good, Kevin. Especially given how black you wanted this meeting. If you've figured all that out, and you're not ready to seek an indictment or make open accusations, then there's got to be a boot in the works somewhere. Right?"

"Right," he said grimly, and waved one hand at Abrioux.

"Danny?" he invited.

"Madam President," Abrioux said, her expression more than a little nervous, "I wasn't too sure Kevin—the Director, I mean—hadn't stripped a gear when he sprang all of this on me. I've known him a long time, though, and he is my boss, so I had to take the possibility seriously. And the more I looked into it, the more I realized it really could have been done exactly the way he'd hypothesized. But the key element, as he and I both recognized from the beginning, was that Giancola couldn't have acted alone, couldn't have done it all by simply manipulating the electronic message traffic. He had to have at least one flesh-and-blood accomplice. Someone who could cover for him at the other end and conceal the true content of our actual outgoing correspondence and the Manties' incoming traffic from anyone else in the Republic.

"And as soon as we'd come to that conclusion, it was obvious who his accomplice—if he'd had one—had to have been: Yves Grosclaude."

"Our 'Special Representative,'" Pritchart said, nodding her head grimly.

"Exactly." Abrioux nodded back. "The fact that he had an accomplice was, frankly, the one real chink I could see in his armor. I'm sure there has to be other physical evidence, but we're up against the need to show probable cause before we can go looking for it. If I could pull Grosclaude in and sweat him a little, put a little pressure on him, he might give Giancola up. Or, he might at least provide me with something concrete to lend at least some credence to the rather preposterous scenario the Director had come up with. On the other hand, I needed to approach him a bit cautiously, hopefully without Giancola figuring out I was interested in him at all.

"Unfortunately, either I wasn't cautious enough, or else Giancola's had his own plans for Grosclaude all along."

"Meaning what?" Pritchart demanded when she paused with a chagrined expression.

"Meaning Mr. Grosclaude was killed in a single-air car accident four nights ago," Usher said flatly.

"Oh, shit," Pritchart said with soft yet deadly feeling. "An air car accident?"

"I know. I know!" Usher shook his head. "It's like some sort of bad joke, isn't it? After all the inconvenient people StateSec disappeared in mysterious one-air car accidents, this is going to be just peachy keen when we have to go public, isn't it?"

"Unless we can prove it wasn't one," Pritchart said, eyes slitted in intense thought. "Before, it was always the state claiming it had been an accident. If we claim it wasn't an accident—and if we can prove it—we might actually turn that around and use it in our favor."

"If there is any way to turn this 'in our favor' you may have a point," Usher said. "Honestly, though, the more I've looked at this thing, the less sure I've become there is such a way. And even if there is, I'm afraid that so far it doesn't look as if we're going to be able to prove any such thing."

"Why not?"

"I've tapped very quietly into the investigation of his death, Madam President," Abrioux replied for Usher. "I've kept my interest in it entirely black, which has required calling in quite a few old markers. But the crash investigation team has been through the wreckage of his air car—which, by the way, was reduced to very small pieces—very, very carefully without finding any indication of any sort of mechanical or electronic sabotage. The black boxes came through more or less intact, and they all agree that for some unknown reason, Grosclaude suddenly disengaged his autopilot, put the throttle right through the gate, and flew straight into a near vertical cliff. He impacted at a speed somewhere around Mach one."

"He did what?" Pritchart sat up straight and frowned at the senior inspector.

"There's no question, Madam President. And there's also no explanation. That's one reason the Director and I didn't come to you sooner; we kept hoping we'd find something significantly bogus. But the weather was clear, visibility was good, and there was no other traffic on or near his flight path at the time; the crash team's pulled the air traffic satellite records to confirm that. There's no sign anyone tampered with his vehicle in any way, and there's absolutely no indication of any external factor which could have inspired him to do what he did. At the moment, to be perfectly honest, the crash team is leaning towards the theory that it was a suicide."

"Oh, that's just wonderful!" Pritchart snarled, fear and the sudden cold suspicion that she'd gone back to war because of a lie driving her into an uncharacteristically savage fury. "So now we're not even claiming it was an

'accident.' Now we're going to tell the galaxy our suspect fucking committed suicide! That's going to give us a lot more credibility when we try to pin anything on him!"

"I suppose it's possible it really was suicide," Usher pointed out. Pritchart glared at him, and he shrugged.

"Just playing devil's advocate, Eloise. But it really is possible, you know. An awful lot of people have been killed since the shooting started again, and more are going to be killed, whatever else happens. If he was involved in anything with Giancola, he might well have been feeling a lot of guilt over all those deaths. Or, conversely, he may have wanted to come forward but been afraid Giancola would eliminate him if he tried. In that case, he might have seen this as his only way out."

"And if you believe that fairy tale for a moment, I've got some bottom land I want to sell you," Pritchart said caustically. "Just don't ask me what it's on the bottom of."

"I didn't say I believed it," Usher responded mildly. "I just said it's possible, and it is."

"Bullshit," Pritchart said bluntly. "Much as I'd like to believe you're completely off the beam with this one, Kevin, you're not. God knows it would be better if you were, but Grosclaude's death—especially this way, at this time—is just too damned coincidental. And too damned convenient for Giancola. No." She shook her head. "I don't know how he did it, but somehow he got to Grosclaude."

"So you believe he did alter the correspondence?"

"I don't want to," she admitted heavily, "but you said it would take big brass balls. Well, that's one thing Arnold has. And he's not overly burdened with scruples, either.

Certainly not burdened enough to offset his ambition. I doubt he wanted it to go this far, but . . ."

She shook her head again.

"There is one odd thing about Grosclaude's death, Madam President," Abrioux said after a moment.

The President's topaz eyes swung back to the senior inspector, and she twitched the fingers of one hand in a

"tell me" gesture.

"Given the . . . peculiar circumstances of the 'accident,'"

Abrioux said, "the crash team's lead investigator requested a complete toxicity screen and blood workup as part of the autopsy. Given the nature of the impact, the doctors didn't have a whole lot to work with, you understand. There was more than enough to make a genetic identification of the remains they could find, but nowhere near what they needed for any sort of regular autopsy.

"The medical examiner, however, did note that there appeared to be 'unidentifiable organic traces and DNA markers' in one of the blood samples."

"Meaning what?" Pritchart's expression was intent.

"Meaning we don't know what the hell what," Usher replied. "When he says 'unidentifiable,' that's exactly what he means. All the organic elements he's picked up on could be explained away by a simple case of the flu, except that there's no indication of it in any of the other samples. If you really want to wade through his report, I can get you a copy of it, but I doubt it will mean anything more to you than it did to me. The key element, though, seems to be the DNA he turned up. There's been some speculation in Solarian medical literature for a while now about the possibility of viral nanotech."

"Are they insane?" Pritchart demanded incredulously.

"Didn't those lunatics learn anything from the Final War?"

"I don't know. It's not my field, by two or three light-years. But apparently the people doing the speculating believe it should be at least theoretically possible to control their viruses and prevent unwanted mutations.

After all, we've managed the same sort of thing with nanotech for centuries now."

"Because the damned things don't have DNA and don't reproduce even in medical applications!" Pritchart said snappishly.

"I didn't say I thought it was a good idea, Eloise," Usher said. "I just said there's been some Solly speculation about the possibilities. As far as I'm aware, and I've done some judicious research on the subject since Danny brought me the blood workup results, it's all purely theoretical at the moment. And even if the Sollies can do it, there's no one here in the Republic who could. So assuming these highly ambiguous results—found, I remind you, in only one of the blood samples—mean Grosclaude was murdered using that sort of technology, where the hell did Giancola get access to it?"

"You're just full of sunshine this evening, aren't you?"

"If a shit storm's on the horizon, it's good to know far enough ahead you can at least bring along an umbrella,"

Usher said philosophically, and she grimaced at him. Then she sat thinking hard for several endless seconds.

"All right, Kevin," she said finally. "You've had longer to think about this than I have, and I doubt very much, knowing you, that you asked for this meeting without at least some idea of how we might proceed."

"As I see it," Usher said after a moment, "there are four basic dimensions to this problem. First, there's the war itself and just why in hell we're fighting the damned thing.

Second, there's the constitutional implications of treason on this level by a Cabinet secretary. Not to mention the fact that I'm not even certain what he did—assuming we're right, and he did actually do it—falls under the Constitution's definition of 'treason' in the first place.

Abuse of office, conspiracy, malfeasance, high crimes and misdemeanors; I'm sure we could get him on any of those.

But treason is a rather specific crime. Third, after the constitutional aspects, there are the purely political ones.

Not in terms of interstellar diplomacy and wars, but in terms of whether or not our system is strong enough yet to survive something like this. And, of course, the question of just how effective your administration can be if it turns out one of your own Cabinet secretaries manipulated us into going to war. And, fourth, there's the question of just how we proceed with this investigation, bearing all those other aspects of this particular can of worms in mind."

He looked at the President, one eyebrow raised, and she nodded in glum agreement with his analysis.

"I'm not in any sort of position to comment on the first point," he said then. "That's your bailiwick—yours and Admiral Theisman's. On the constitutional implications, Denis would probably be a much better authority than me.

My gut reaction is that the Constitution probably gives us the scope we need to carry out an investigation and, if it turns out the bastard did it, to bring the hammer of God down on him with a vengeance. However, that brings us to the political aspects. Specifically, I'm worried as hell that we haven't had the Constitution back up and running long enough to weather this kind of crisis."

He met the President's eyes, his strong-featured face as grim as she recalled ever having seen it.

"I've played fast and loose around the margins more than once, Eloise. You know that. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's one of the reasons you wanted me for this job. But I really do believe in the Constitution. I believe the only cure, the only preventative, for the sorts of outright insanity the Republic's been prey to is a powerful consensus on the absolute sanctity of the rule of law. If we pursue this, then it's more than possible, in my estimation, that we could wind up pulling the pillars of the temple down on our own heads.

"If we're going to accuse Arnold Giancola of what I'm almost certain he did, we've got to have proof. Not suspicions, however profound. Not hypotheses, however convincing. Proof. Without that, he and his partisans—and he has a lot of them, as we all know—are going to scream we're simply pulling a StateSec. We're concocting ludicrous charges against a political adversary as a pretext for purging your opposition. Anyone who actually knows you would realize how preposterous that was, but by the time the spin masters on both sides get done with it, no one outside your immediate circle is going to be sure of that.

Which means we might just find Giancola and his supporters seeking to topple your administration on the basis that they're the ones protecting the Constitution from abuse and manipulation. And if he can generate enough confusion, drum up enough support, the consequences for everything we've been trying to accomplish could be very, very ugly."

"It's probably even worse than you're thinking," Pritchart said unhappily. "This war's incredibly popular at the moment. I hadn't realized how much public opinion wants to get our own back against the Manties for the way they kicked our ass in the last round. And at the moment, there's absolutely no question in Congress that the Manties manipulated the diplomatic exchanges. Why should there be? I personally certified that there wasn't!

"So what happens if I suddenly go before Congress and announce that we're the guilty parties after all? Suppose I tell the Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee we went back to war—with Congress's enthusiastic support—on the basis of a lie told not by the Manties, but by our own Secretary of State?"

"I have absolutely no idea," Usher admitted frankly.

Abrioux shook her head, as well. Unlike Usher, however, her expression was that of someone who was entirely certain she was involved with something way, way above her pay grade.

"The first thing that's going to happen," Pritchart told him with absolute certainty, "is that they're going to refuse to believe it. Even with the sort of proof you've already pointed out we need, it would take time—probably quite a bit of it—to convince a majority of Congress of what really happened. And that assumes a majority of Congress is willing to be open-minded enough to even entertain the possibility. Don't forget how many friends Arnold has over there.

"But even if Congress buys our version of it, we're winning the damned war. At least, that's the way it looks right now, and Congress as a whole is absolutely convinced we are. So even if it turns out the shooting started because one of our own cabinet officers deliberately manipulated, falsified, and forged diplomatic notes, there's going to be a sizable number of senators and representatives who don't care. What they're going to see is that this time it's the Manties on the ropes, and there's no way in hell they're going to be willing for us to drop an e-mail to Elizabeth Winton saying 'Oops. Sorry about the misunderstanding.

Let's all make nice now.' Especially not if that means—as it damned well ought to, if Arnold's done what you— we—

think he has—that the Republic publicly acknowledges its war guilt. And if we make what we believe happened public knowledge, we've got to acknowledge our guilt if we're ever going to convince the rest of the galaxy we're not still the People's Republic of Haven."

Her beautiful face was drawn, her topaz eyes shadowed, and Usher nodded slowly.

"I knew it was going to be a shit bucket, whatever happened," he said. "I didn't follow through to realize just how bad it really would be, though."

"It's not your job to worry about the political consequences. It's mine. And if you can come up with concrete proof—proof I can take in front of a judge, proof I could lay in front of an interstellar arbitration panel, or use to convince even our Congress—then I've got no option but to make that proof public and try to survive whatever the political, diplomatic, and constitutional consequences may be. If you give me that proof, then I will by God do it, too."


"No, Kevin. This isn't something we can avoid, or dance around. We can't afford to open it up in public at all without proof. But if that proof exists, we can't afford not to open it up. Sooner or later, if it really happened, and if there's proof it did, then it's going to become public knowledge whatever we do. And I won't—I can't— let the Constitution prove to be something built on foundations of sand. If we're ever going to put the old power games behind us once and for all, then you're right, it has to be done on the basis of the rule of law. And that means we have to follow the law wherever it leads us, whether we want to go there or not."

"All right, Madam President," Usher said with unusual formality, his eyes dark with mingled concern and respect.

"That's your call. Whatever you decide, however you decide to handle it, you know I'll back your decision."

"Yes, I do," she said softly, topaz eyes softening.

"But that brings us to the final consideration. And, frankly, to the reason I did an end run around Denis for this meeting. You say we need proof. I don't know for a fact we're going to be able to find it, even if I'm a hundred percent correct in my suspicions. But before I can find it, if it exists at all, we need to decide how I'm going to go about looking for it. Under a strict interpretation of the law, I need to inform the Attorney General of my suspicions. He, in turn, needs to inform you, and you need to inform the Foreign Affairs Committees of both houses, at the very least, because of their oversight role. And there are probably at least a couple of other committees which also ought to be brought on-line. Plus, an official investigation ought to be opened by the Attorney General, through the FIA, under a finding of probable cause from a magistrate. Unfortunately, all of that requires bringing dozens, almost certainly hundreds, of other people into the investigation.

"If we do that, it's going to leak. At the very least, word of it will get to Giancola from one of his friends. More probably, it'll hit the info boards within a matter of hours.

In which case—"

He shrugged, and Pritchart bit her lip and nodded.

"The worst of all worlds," she acknowledged. "Especially if Arnold decides his best defense is to mount a strong offense before the investigation really gets rolling."

"And particularly if he decides not to restrict himself to due process when he does," Usher pointed out.


She drummed nervously on her desktop with her fingertips, then shook herself.

"I notice you said all of that was what would follow from a strict interpretation of the law. I'm almost afraid to ask this. No, I am afraid to ask it." She grimaced.

"Unfortunately, I don't have much of an option. So, tell me, Kevin. Just how un-strict do you suggest we be?"

"Believe it or not, Eloise, I wish to hell we could do this one one hundred percent by The Book. If we don't, and if the wheels come off, it's going to be at least as bad as anything you've just described. In fact, it's probably going to be worse.

"Even so," he continued implacably, "I don't see any way we can. You're going to have to decide who else you can trust to bring in on this. I think you're going to have to tell Theisman, and God knows how he's going to react. And even though I'm the one who deliberately cut him out of the loop for this meeting, I really want to bring Denis in on it. Not only does he have both a right and a constitutional responsibility to know what we're doing, but if he doesn't know, we're a lot more likely to have someone step on his own reproductive equipment if I'm running some sort of clandestine op he doesn't know about. Especially if he finds out I'm up to something without knowing what that

'something' is.

"But after you've decided who else needs to know, everything else has to be blacker than black until we either have the proof in hand or know with absolute certainty where that proof is and how to get our hands on it. I don't like it, it's dangerous, but it's the least dangerous option I see under the circumstances."

"I wish you were wrong. Dear God, how I wish you were wrong."

Pritchart closed her eyes for a moment, rubbing her forehead, then exhaled noisily.

"Unfortunately, you aren't," she said. "All right. I hereby authorize you to pursue your black investigation. But be very, very careful, Kevin. This one could destroy everything you and I—and Tom Theisman and Javier—have fought for for decades. I'll have to think long and hard about who else to tell, and how, but at least if someone has to be finding our way through the minefield, I'm glad it's you."

"Gee, thanks." Usher made a face, and the President chuckled. There wasn't much humor in the sound, but perhaps it was at least a beginning.

"How are you going to start?" she asked.

"With Danny here." Usher nodded at the senior inspector.

"She's already on board, and she's already black. I'll just keep her that way. However," he looked Pritchart straight in the eyes, "before she makes a single additional move, I want a presidential pardon, signed and in her hand, for any laws she happens to break doing what we're asking her to do."

"You always were loyal to your people in the Resistance,"

Pritchart said with a smile, and looked at Abrioux. "As a matter of fact, Inspector Abrioux, so was I." She looked back at Kevin. "The senior inspector will have her letter of pardon within the hour," she promised.

"Good. And as far as where we begin, Danny is going to have to put together her own team, one we can cut completely out of normal Agency operations. I think she's already got the people she wants in mind, and I'm pretty sure I can do a little creative paperwork on their assignments to make them available to her. And once that's out of the way, we'll probably start by putting the entire life of the late Yves Grosclaude under an electron microscope. If he really was Giancola's accomplice, and the fact that he's dead would seem to suggest very strongly that he was, then he may have been careless and left us something. For that matter, he may have had an insurance file stashed away somewhere. We're not going to get any legal search warrants without proving probable cause, which we've just agreed we can't do without going public, but if Danny and her people can figure out where what we need is, I can probably finagle some semiplausible way to get possession of it in a way which won't irreparably taint it in an evidentiary sense."

Pritchart's nostrils flared, and he shrugged again.

"I'm going to have to do some dancing in the shadows to make this one work, Eloise. You know I am."

"Then I probably need a pardon for you, too," she said.

"No, you specifically don't need a pardon for me," he disagreed. "I'm the cutout. The rogue, working without any authorization from you because of my personal antipathy for Secretary Giancola."

"Kevin—" she began in automatic protest, but he shook his head.

"You've got to have deniability on this one," he said flatly. "If news of what we're doing leaks and we haven't found the proof we need, you're going to need someone to throw off the sleigh. If you don't have it, the consequences are going to be worse than our having gone public from the get-go would have been. And I'm the only logical candidate."

She looked at him, seeing her fellow revolutionary, her longtime friend and sometime lover, and she wanted desperately to disagree with him. She wanted it as badly as she'd ever wanted anything in her life. But—

"You're right," President Eloise Pritchart said. She hesitated only a heartbeat longer, then nodded sharply.

"Do it," she said.

Chapter Eighteen

"Well, Chief," Captain Scotty Tremaine said, "what do you think?"

"Me, Sir?" Chief Warrant Officer Sir Horace Harkness shook his head. "I think the rest of the Navy got itself reamed a new one while we were off at Marsh. And I think they expect us to do something about it now."

"Chief, that is so cynical of you." Captain Tremaine shook his head with a lopsided smile.

"No, Sir. Not cynical, just experienced. Look at it.

Everywhere we've been with the Old Lady, we've kicked ass and taken names. And the minute those assholes working for High Ridge send us off to the back of beyond, what happens? And who do they always send in to do the dirtiest jobs after it all hits the fan? The Old Lady. And us, of course," Harkness added with becoming modesty.

Tremaine's smile grew wider, but he really couldn't argue with Harkness' analysis. And everything he'd seen so far, especially in the classified situation reports and ONI analyses to which his rank allowed him access, suggested things were even worse than the warrant officer knew.

"I'm sure Duchess Harrington is vastly relieved to know you're along, Chief," he said. "In the meantime, we've got an entire squadron of carriers waiting for us to whip their LAC groups into shape. Now, Her Grace hasn't seen fit to tell me exactly what we're going to be doing, but from the force mix I've seen and a few things Admiral Truman's let drop, it's not going to be picketing the approaches to the home system. So I was thinking it's time you and I spent a few productive afternoons thinking up particularly evil training scenarios for those poor souls entrusted to our care."

"Actually, Sir," Harkness said with a grin of his own, "I've already been giving some thought to that. You want to get Lieutenant Chernitskaya in on this?"

"Of course I do. She's our tac officer, after all. And it distresses me to see such innocence and lack of guile in an officer of her seniority and native talent. It's time we began initiating her into the true deviousness of our profession."

"Officers really have a way with words, don't they, Sir?"

"We try, Chief. We try."

* * *

"So you're fairly satisfied with the Cutworm target list, Ma'am?"

"As satisfied as I can be, Andrea," Honor agreed, sitting back from the table and wiping her lips on a napkin. The scattered remains of lunch lay on the table between her, Jaruwalski, Brigham, Alice Truman, and Samuel Miklós, and she looked up with a smile as James MacGuiness refilled her cocoa mug and handed Nimitz a fresh stick of celery.

"I don't like spreading our forces this thinly," she continued more seriously, looking back at her subordinates as MacGuiness silently withdrew from the dining cabin of Imperator's enormous admiral's quarters. "But we've got to get this op moving. We've been sitting here for over three weeks since we finally activated the command, and we still don't have our entire assigned order of battle. Part of me wants to go right on waiting until we do, so we'd have the strength to hit better-defended targets, but we can't.

And given the pressure to move, it's probably as good a distribution as we could hope to come up with."

"That's true enough, Honor," Truman agreed, "although I don't think I'm any crazier than you are over the notion of splitting up into such small penny packets. On the other hand, we ought to catch them fairly unprepared."

"I know." Honor sipped cocoa, letting her mind run back over the framework of the operation which had been assigned the randomly generated codename of "Cutworm."

It was a silly name, but no sillier than "Operation Buttercup" had been. And unlike some navies—including, apparently, the Havenite fleet, upon occasion—the Royal Manticoran Navy had a pretty good track record for selecting operational designators which didn't give clues as to what those operations were intended to do.

"To be honest," she said finally, lowering her mug, "I think part of what I'm suffering from is opening-night jitters. But all of us need to remember that Thomas Theisman and Lester Tourville, at least, have frighteningly steep learning curves. The fact that we're almost certain to get away with it the first time around is really, really going to . . . irritate them. Which means they're going to devote some serious effort to figuring out what to do about us before we come calling the next time."

"Agreed, Your Grace," Miklós said. "Still, their options are going to be constrained by the availability of forces, unless they do exactly what we want them to do in the first place, and divert rear area security detachments from their frontline formations. In which case, we'll have achieved our primary objective."

"Which will no doubt be very satisfying to our next of kin," Truman observed dryly, and a chuckle ran around the table.

"All right," Honor said, sitting a bit more upright in her chair, "given the target list Andrea and Mercedes have come up with, how soon do you two—" she looked at Truman and Miklós "—think we can be ready to move."

"That depends partly on how ready the screen and Alistair are," Truman, as the senior of the two vice admirals, replied after a moment. "Speaking purely for the carriers, I think . . . another week. Miklós?"

She glanced at the other CLAC squadron commander and cocked one eyebrow.

"About that," he agreed. "We could go sooner if Unicorn and Sprite had gotten here on schedule. But—"

He shrugged, and everyone at the table understood his wry expression perfectly.

"They're not really fully up to standard yet, but they're coming along well. I'd be happier with more time for exercises, of course. Any flag officer always is. But, to be perfectly honest, the way we're breaking the formations up pretty much precludes the need for training above the divisional level. And we're hitting them deep enough we'll have another nine days to drill en route."

"That's what I was thinking." Truman nodded. "And on that basis, I think we're in pretty good shape. But if you don't mind, Sam, I've got some training scenarios I'd like to upload to your carriers, as well." Miklós looked faintly curious, and she gave him a rather nasty grin. "It would appear our good Captain Tremaine has pretty accurately deduced what we're going to be doing. He and Chief Harkness have put together some simulator packages built around individual LAC groups."

"Scotty and Harkness?" Brigham laughed. "Why do I find that particular combination of authors just a bit ominous, Ma'am?"

"Because you know them?" Honor suggested.

"Probably," Truman agreed. "On the other hand, Lieutenant Chernitskaya, Scotty's tac officer seems to have made quite a few contributions of her own. I think you'd like her, Honor. She's . . . devious."

"Chernitskaya?" Jaruwalski repeated. "Any relation to Admiral Chernitsky?"

"His granddaughter," Truman said.

"Viktor Chernitsky?" Honor asked.

"Yes. Did you know him?"

"We only met once, after he'd retired. Admiral Courvoisier once told me, though, that he thought Viktor Chernitsky might have been the greatest strategist he'd ever known. He always said it was a great pity Chernitsky was too old for prolong by the time it got to the Star Kingdom."

"I don't know about strategy, but if there's a gene for sneaky tactics, I think he passed that one on," Truman said.

"I'm always looking for new sims," Miklós said. "Mind telling me what's so special about these, though?"

"Mostly the op force. The bad guys in these simulations are about as sneaky as they get, and Scotty and his minions have consistently integrated ONI's most pessimistic assumptions about the Peeps' current hardware, as well.

Somewhere—" Truman smiled at Honor "—he seems to have come up with the notion that the best simulations put you up against enemies who are better than anyone you're actually likely to meet."

"Makes sense to me," Miklós said. "But you said it was mainly the op force?"

"The other part is that Scotty seems to have visualized what we're going to be doing more clearly than most of the other COLACs. His sims are almost all built around raids and how the bad guys might respond. No one's given him any official briefings all the others didn't get, but he's clearly figured out what these operations are going to entail."

"Then by all means let's get them as widely distributed as we can," Honor decided.

"Yes, Ma'am," Jaruwalski acknowledged, making a note in her memo pad.

"And while she's doing that, Mercedes," Honor decided,

"you and I are going to hop one of the shuttle flights back to Manticore. We can make the round-trip in thirty-six hours, even allowing for time at the Admiralty, and I want to touch base with Sir Thomas one last time before we actually kick off."

"Of course, Your Grace," Mercedes murmured, and Honor tasted her chief of staff's carefully concealed fond amusement. Obviously, Mercedes realized she was also looking forward to "touching base" with Hamish Alexander, as well as his First Space Lord. While Brigham clearly continued to nurse some serious reservations about the wisdom of the entire affair—Honor managed not to wince at her own unintentional double entendre—she'd apparently come to the conclusion that it had been good for Honor, at least in a personal sense.

On the other hand, she didn't know about certain rapidly approaching consequences of their relationship.

"While we're there," Honor continued serenely, "I'll inform Sir Thomas that, barring any unforeseen eventualities, we'll be launching Operation Cutworm in approximately seven days from now."

* * *

"All of that sounds excellent, Honor," Sir Thomas Caparelli said. He was tipped back in his chair behind the desk in his Admiralty House office, where Honor and Mercedes Brigham had just finished a final briefing on Cutworm.

"I'm sorry it's taken us so long to get organized, Sir Thomas," Honor said.

"Not your fault." He shook his head quickly. "After episodes like that fiasco in Zanzibar, and the pressure of the Alizon raid, we've been forced to do more redeploying of assets than anyone here at the Admiralty ever wanted to. The delays in building up your order of battle have been entirely our fault, not yours."

"I know. But at the same time, I also know how badly we need to do something to keep them from launching more attacks like the one on Zanzibar."

"We do. But you were absolutely right when you pointed out that attacking in insufficient strength would be worse than useless." He sighed. "I just wish it didn't feel so much like 'insufficient strength' is all we've got."

"We'll just have to maximize the edges we have, " Honor replied. She glanced at Brigham for a moment, then went on. "Mercedes and I haven't mentioned anything about the new targeting systems in our staff sessions, Sir Thomas. We don't like to think about losing people or having them captured, but it can happen, and we decided to restrict that information as tightly as possible. But the last time I spoke to Commander Hennessy, he indicated that Admiral Hemphill's people were planning an all up test over in Gryphon space. Do we have the test results yet?"

"Yes, we do." Caparelli nodded. "I've only seen the preliminary report so far, not the details, but I understand it looked promising. Very promising. No one's talking about deploying it tomorrow, but it's beginning to look like it should be available, at least in small numbers, sometime in the next three to four months."

"That quickly?" Honor smiled. "If it lives up to Hennessy's billing, the Havenites are going to hate that. May I also ask how we're coming on the Andermani refits?"

"That's a bit less cheerful," Caparelli replied. "It's not coming along as well as I'd hoped, nor as badly as I'd feared. It's going to take at least a few weeks more than Admiral Hemphill's original projections suggested to get their pod-layers refitted with our old-style MDMs. The good news is that we'll probably get a bigger 'python lump' of them delivered in a single shot. Of course," he grimaced,

"Silesia's drawing a lot of the Andies' attention just now.

Ours, too, for that matter."

"I haven't been following the reports on Silesia as closely as I should have," Honor admitted. "Still, the last I heard, things seems to be going fairly well."

"Compared to the cesspool the Confederacy used to be?

Certainly. Compared to any halfway honestly governed section of the galaxy, though, it's entirely too interesting for my taste. Admiral Sarnow has his hands full, believe me."

"What do you mean?" Honor asked, just a trifle anxiously.

Mark Sarnow was an old friend, and she would have thought he was an almost perfect choice for the new Silesia Station's CO.

"Oh, it's nothing he isn't going to be able to deal with eventually," Caparelli said reassuringly. "But some of the old Silesian administrators obviously didn't really believe us when we told them it wasn't going to go right on being business as usual. And although most of the appointive system governors were simply retired as part of the annexation deal, almost a quarter of the governors were

'freely elected' by their citizens."

"Trust me, Sir Thomas," Honor said dryly, "there was nothing 'free' about an old-style Silesian election. The winning candidate paid cash on the barrel head for every one of those votes."

"I know, I know. But we can't simply go in and depose elected governors, however they got themselves elected in the first place, without excellent justifying cause. Some of them are stupid enough to think that will let them get away with running things the old way, and, unfortunately, several of the stupid variety had their local Confederacy Navy command structure firmly in their pockets under the previous régime. There's been a lot of passive resistance to Admiral Sarnow's instructions to decommission so many of their older units, obsolescent pieces of junk or not. And there's been even more resistance and obstructionism to his policy of completely reshuffling the star systems'

command staffs. He's made a couple of salutary examples which seem to be convincing all but the most brain-dead we mean business, but unfortunately, we can't account for almost thirty percent of the Confeds' official ship list."

"Thirty percent, Sir?" Surprise startled the question out of Mercedes Brigham, despite her relative lack of seniority, and Caparelli chuckled with very little humor.

"It's nowhere near as bad as that sounds, Commodore,"

he reassured her. "At least half—more probably two-thirds

—of the ships we can't account for were long gone before we ever came along. Hell, one of the more audacious system governors and his local naval commander were listing an entire squadron of battlecruisers—eight ships, and the next best thing to twenty thousand personnel—as present on active duty when they didn't even exist! The two of them, and maybe a half dozen other officers they needed to maintain the charade, were pocketing the nonexistent crews' salaries, not to mention every penny that was supposedly being spent on ammunition, reactor mass, maintenance, etc."

He shook his head, obviously bemused by anything which could operate on that sort of basis and still call itself a


"Still," he continued after a moment, his voice a bit bleaker, "some of those ships really did disappear, crew and all. I suspect that more than a few of the ones that did were already doing a little freelance piracy on the side, and I'm quite certain a lot of them think they can get away with doing it full-time, given how distracted we are by the Peeps. Which means, of course, that the very ship types Sarnow needs to chase them down are also the ones Eighth Fleet needs for operations like Cutworm. And then, of course, there's always Talbott."

"Are the reports about terrorist operations accurate, Sir?" Honor asked quietly.

"I think they've probably been sensationalized a bit by the media, and so far they're highly localized, but, yes.

There've been some ugly incidents, especially in the Split System. Admiral Khumalo isn't exactly the sharpest stylus in the box, either, I'm afraid. Not a bad administrator, under most circumstances, but not really the right man to have on the spot when there's blood in the streets.

Fortunately, Baroness Medusa is quite the opposite."

"I remember her from Basilisk," Honor agreed with a nod.

"Experience dealing with occasionally murderous aborigines is probably standing her in pretty good stead just at the moment," Caparelli said with an alum-tart smile. "Still, whatever I may think of Khumalo, it's hard to fault him for the way he keeps screaming for more ships.

His area of responsibility's actually considerably larger than Sarnow's, and he's spread awfully thin. Unfortunately, there's only so much butter for our bread. We've had to send him at least a few modern ships, but overall, he's just going to have to make do with what he has. And we're just going to have to hope the situation there doesn't get any worse."

Honor nodded again. That seemed to describe the only thing they could hope for in quite a few places, at the moment, she reflected.

"Well, Sir Thomas," she said after a moment, climbing out of her chair and lifting Nimitz onto her shoulder, "we'll just have to do what we can to reduce pressure here closer to home."

"Yes, we will." He rose behind his desk. "And at least it looks like you've got a good command team to do the reducing with."

"That I do. If we don't manage to pull it off, it's not going to be their fault."

* * *

Late afternoon sunlight lay heavy and golden on the emerald green lawns of White Haven as Honor's armored limousine settled on the parking apron. The sting ships lifted away, and she climbed out of the car and stood for a moment, filling her lungs with the crisp northern air while her eyes devoured the towering, ancient trees.

Breeze moved through the swaying branches and plucked at her hair with tiny, gentle hands, and a deep, unabashedly sensual pleasure seemed to purr in her bones and muscles. Part of it was the reaction she always had after spending time on shipboard. The artificiality of her normal working environment was an inescapable fact of her life, but she'd been born and raised in the wilderness of Sphinx. She was as much a child of mountain forests and the vibrant, sometimes wild energy of sailboats on Sphinx's deep, cold oceans, as an officer of the Queen's Navy. It was an odd, sometimes painful, dichotomy which made her appreciate both her worlds even more deeply.

Yet there was more to it than that this time. She felt Nimitz at the back of her mind, savoring her sense of . . .

content. That was the word, she decided, reaching up to rub the 'cat's ears gently. In the deepest sense of the word,

"home," for her, had always been her parents' house on Sphinx. The house Stephanie Harrington's parents had built so many centuries before, which had sheltered so many generations of her family. Harrington House on Grayson was also "home" these days, in another sense, of course.

And she supposed her Manticoran mansion on Jason Bay was, too, although somehow it still seemed more her

"house" than truly home. Perhaps that was why she'd gone along with MacGuiness and Miranda—and her mother—when they insisted on rechristening that "Harrington House" as simply "the Bay House" to distinguish it from her home on Grayson.

But this, she thought, letting the quiet sounds of stirring wind, birds, and the musical sounds of flowing water sweep through her, this had also become home. Certainly more than Jason Bay. More even than Harrington House on Grayson. Possibly as much so as the house in which she'd quite literally been born. Not because of the welcoming tranquility of the grounds, the sense of being welcomed and enveloped by the ancient house and its lovingly maintained grounds, although she certainly felt that, as well. But what made this truly home were the people who lived here.

Her three-man detail fell into formation about her even here as she headed up the graveled path. The door opened as they approached, and her heart leapt as Hamish Alexander stepped out of it. Nimitz's purr buzzed in her ear, rich with loving amusement as he tasted and shared her brilliant flash of joy, and then a float chair drifted smoothly and silently out of the door behind Hamish.

Samantha lay curled up on Emily's chest like a long, sinuous question mark, her chin resting on Emily's right shoulder, and Nimitz's purr abruptly redoubled. Honor laughed, but she couldn't really fault his reaction. Not when her own sense of homecoming had just redoubled, as well.

"Welcome home," Emily said softly, almost as if she'd been reading Honor's mind, as Honor climbed the steps.

"I can't believe how good it feels to be here," Honor replied, and then her eyes widened in surprise as Hamish put his arms around her. She stiffened for just an instant, in startlement, not resistance, looking over his shoulder at Emily. They had always been so careful to never openly embrace one another in front of her armsmen or the White Haven staff. In front of anyone, actually. And perhaps especially, by unspoken agreement, in front of Emily.

But as Honor looked at Emily, tasting her emotions, she realized they needn't have worried. There was still that thread of bittersweetness, that descant of sorrowful regret for all Emily had lost, but there was also a sense of intense

. . . satisfaction. A welcoming happiness that echoed Hamish's own with a joy all Emily's own.

Honor's stiffness vanished. Her eyes prickled, and she let her cheek rest on Hamish's broad shoulder, hugging him with her left arm while she reached her right hand past him to Emily.

"It ought to feel good here," Emily said gently. "It's where you belong."

* * *

Honor looked narrowly back and forth between Hamish and Emily as they escorted her into the house. Now that the initial emotional high of homecoming had started to ebb just a bit, she realized there was something else going on under the surface of their emotions.

Nimitz sensed it, too. He had leapt lightly from Honor's shoulder to Emily's float chair, joining Samantha, but now he looked up at his person, and she tasted his own curiosity.

They're up to something, she thought. They've got some sort of surprise in store for me.

She started to say something, then stopped. Whatever they had in mind, they were obviously looking forward to it with anticipation, and she wasn't about to do anything to spoil their surprise. And it was a surprise when they walked into Emily's atrium and found both her parents waiting for them.

"Mother? Daddy?" Honor stopped dead in the doorway when she saw them. "What are you doing here?"

"Always the diplomat," Allison Harrington said mournfully, shaking her head. "No soft soap from this girl.

Brisk, businesslike, and straight to the point. Always makes you feel so welcome, doesn't she Alfred?"

"I think someone needs a spanking," her husband said tranquilly. "And not our daughter."

"Ooooooh! Promise? " Allison demanded, smiling at him wickedly.

" Mother! " Honor protested with a laugh.

"What?" Allison asked innocently.

"Filial piety precludes my answering that question the way it really deserves," Honor said repressively. "So, if you don't mind, and to return to my original question. What are you doing here? Not that I'm not delighted to see you both, of course. But having the entire Harrington family at White Haven at the same time doesn't exactly come under the heading of a discreetly low profile, now does it?"

She glanced at Hamish and Emily as she spoke, but neither of them seemed particularly worried. In fact, they seemed inordinately pleased.

"So you really were surprised," Emily said with immense satisfaction, confirming Honor's impression. "Good! You have no idea how difficult it can be to try to surprise someone who's an empath!"

"I'd figured out you were up to something," Honor told her, "but it never occurred to me that Mom and Dad might be sitting in here waiting for us. Which, if no one especially minds," she added pointedly, "brings me back to my original question. Again."

She swept the entire quartet—and the two obviously amused treecats, as well—with a demanding gaze, and Emily laughed. Laughed, Honor realized, around a bubble of intense joy. One which included her happiness at seeing Honor again, but which also partook of something else—

something at least as powerful and even deeper.

"No one could possibly object to their presence," Emily said. "After all, it's a matter of public record that I invited you to dinner—I thought it was rather clever of me to time the invitation for a moment when I knew you'd be in Tom Caparelli's office and then go through the switchboard. And it's perfectly reasonable, when I invite a friend to supper, for me to invite her parents, as well. Especially," her voice softened, "when one of those parents is my newest physician."

"Physician?" Honor repeated.

"Yes." Emily smiled with a curious serenity. One that felt somehow more . . . whole in some indefinable fashion.

"Your mother and I had a very interesting discussion when she told me you wanted my voice, as well as Hamish's, for the Briarwood recordings. The fact that you did meant a lot to me. But, in some ways, what your mother had to say meant even more. Hamish and I have an appointment of our own over there next week."

It took Honor an instant to realize what Emily had just said. Then the implications shot home.

" Emily! " Somehow, Honor found herself on her knees beside the float chair, holding Emily's right hand to her cheek with both of her own hands. The tears which had prickled at the backs of her eyes when Hamish and Emily welcomed her "home" spilled free, and Emily blinked her own eyes hard.

"That's wonderful!" Honor said. "Oh, Emily! I wanted to suggest the same thing so badly, but—"

"But you thought I wasn't ready for the notion," Emily interrupted, the force of her happiness at Honor's instant and obvious joy at the news flooding through the younger woman. "Well, I thought I wasn't, as far as that goes. That was before I discovered where you get your stubbornness, of course."

"I am not, and never have been, stubborn," Allison said with enormous dignity. "Determined, forceful, a compassionate healer— always a compassionate healer.

Clearly committed. Insightful. Blessed with a unique ability to visualize the most successful possible outcome in any given situation. Always forging ahead in pursuit of—"

"Definitely a spanking," Alfred decided.

"Bully." Allison smacked him gently on the shoulder.

"Bounder. Cad!"

"'Stubborn' is a remarkably pale word to describe my esteemed female parent," Honor said, sitting back on her heels to look deeply into Emily's eyes, and wondering just how . . . forceful her mother's "suggestions" might have been. "I've often thought 'obstinate' would be a better fit."

"I imagine that's part of what makes her such a successful physician," Emily replied, her happiness and deep satisfaction an unspoken answer to the question Honor hadn't asked.

"Yes, it is," Honor agreed. "But this is really what you want? Truly?"

"More truly than you can possibly imagine," Emily said softly.

* * *

" . . . so I called Briarwood and made the appointment,"

Emily said much later, as all five of them sat in her private dining salon looking out into the embers of sunset as they sipped after-dinner coffee or chocolate.

"Who's your doctor?" Honor asked.

"Illescue," Allison replied for Emily, and grimaced when Honor looked at her. "I really would have preferred Womack or Stilson, but it was probably inevitable that Illescue would assign himself. And I have to admit, he's very good at what he does."

"Mother," Honor said in a semi-accusing tone, "when I met Dr. Illescue, I had the distinct impression I wasn't exactly his favorite person in the entire galaxy. Which I found peculiar, since I've never met the man before. Is there something you'd like to tell me? Something which, perhaps, you might have told me before I went to Briarwood myself?"

"Don't look at me, dear," Allison said, and jabbed her husband in the ribs with a knuckle. "This overgrown adolescent is probably responsible for any slight hostility you might have detected."

"Meaning what?"

"Meaning the two of them were at medical school together on Beowulf, and they didn't exactly see eye to eye."

"Daddy?" Honor leveled her gaze on her father, who shrugged.

"It wasn't my fault," he assured her. "You know what an invariably easy-going, pleasant sort I am."

"I also know where I get my temper," Honor told him tartly.

"Never laid a finger on him," Alfred Harrington said virtuously. "I was tempted a time or two, I'll admit. It's hard to imagine someone who could have been a bigger snot than Franz Illescue at twenty-five. He comes from one of the best medical families here in the Star Kingdom—his family's been physicians ever since the Plague Years—and he wasn't about to let a mere yeoman from Sphinx forget about it. Especially not a yeoman who was being sent to med school by the Navy. He was one of those people who thought the only reason people joined the Navy was because they couldn't get jobs in the 'real world.' I understand he's mellowed a bit with time, but the two of us were like a leaking hydrogen canister and a spark when we were younger."

"Tell her everything, Alfred," Allison admonished.

"Oh, well, there was one other minor matter," Alfred said. "He'd asked your mother out once or twice before I came along."

"Once or twice!" Allison snorted. "He'd been just a bit more persistent than that. I think he was trophy hunting—

he always did think of himself as quite the ladies' man."

"Maybe he was," Alfred acknowledged. "But if so, at least he had impeccable taste, Alley. You have to admit that."

"Such a sweet man," Allison said, patting his cheek, and looked at Emily. "You see why I keep him?"

"Does all that history mean you're going to have a problem working with him, Mother?" Honor asked with an edge of seriousness after the chuckles had subsided.

"I've worked with him before," Allison told her calmly.

"He's grown up quite a bit over the last half-century. And, as I say, he really is very good in his area. He wouldn't be Briarwood's senior partner if he wasn't. Given what the two of us do, it was inevitable we'd wind up at least consulting from time to time, and both of us recognized that long ago. So while I'd really prefer one of the other docs, I don't foresee any difficulty working with Franz."

"Good." Honor shook her head with a crooked smile. "The things one finds out about one's parents. And here for all these years I thought I was bad about picking up feuds."

"Well, you've refined an inherited ability to a truly rarefied height," her mother said, "but I suppose you did come by it honestly in the beginning."

* * *



, this is India-Papa-One-One, requesting approach instructions."

"India-Papa-One-One, Imperator Flight Ops. Be advised our approach pattern is currently full. Please stand by."

"Flight Ops, India-Papa-One-One. Understand approach pattern is currently full. However, be advised that I have Eighth Fleet flag on board."

There was a moment of silence, and the pinnace's pilot grinned at his copilot.

"Ah, India-Papa-One-One, Imperator Flight Ops." The controller aboard the flagship sounded suddenly much brisker. "Come to approach vector Able-Charlie. You are cleared for immediate approach to Boat Bay Alpha."

"Thank you, Flight Ops. India-Papa-One-One copies approach vector Able-Charlie for immediate approach to Bay Alpha," the pinnace pilot acknowledged, without allowing even a trace of satisfaction to show.

* * *

"How was your visit to the Admiralty, Ma'am?"

"Good, Rafe." Honor looked at her flag captain as the two of them, accompanied by Nimitz, Mercedes Brigham, her three armsmen, and Timothy Meares rode the lift car from the boat bay towards Flag Bridge. "That's not to say everything Sir Thomas had to tell me was something I wanted to hear, but at least we're all on the same page.

And," her mouth tightened slightly, "it's more important than ever that we get Cutworm launched successfully."

"Everything's ready, Ma'am," Cardones told her soberly.

"I expected it would be." Honor brought up the time display in her artificial eye, then looked over her shoulder at her flag lieutenant.

"Tim, general signal to all flag officers. They're all invited to supper. We should just about have time for that before we all pull out."

Chapter Nineteen

"Alpha translation in seventeen minutes, Ma'am,"

Lieutenant Weissmuller said.

"Understood," Lieutenant Commander Estwicke acknowledged, and turned to her com officer. "Pass the final readiness signal to Skirmisher."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," Lieutenant Wilson acknowledged, and Estwicke nodded to her executive officer.

"Bring the ship to general quarters, Jethro."

"Yes, Ma'am." Lieutenant Jethro Stanton replied, and pressed the GQ button on his console. Alarms blared throughout the ship, although they were scarcely needed.

HMS Ambuscade's crew had closed up to their action stations over half an hour ago, taking their time, making certain they'd done it right.

Readiness reports flowed back to the bridge steadily, and Stanton listened carefully, watching the icons in his display's sidebar blink from amber to a steady, burning red.

"All battle stations report manned and ready, Skipper,"

he reported formally as the last symbol turned red.

"Very good." Estwicke swiveled her chair to face Lieutenant Emily Harcourt, her tactical officer. "Stand by to deploy the remotes."

* * *

"Unidentified hyper footprint! Correction—


hyper footprints! Range four-six-point-five light-minutes! Bearing one-seven-three by oh-niner-two!"

Captain Heinrich Beauchamp looked up sharply, swiveling his chair to face the petty officer. The twin, rapidly strobing blood-red icons of unknown hyper translations glared in the depths of the master plot, and the chief of the watch was leaning forward over the shoulder of one of the other sensor techs, watching her display as she worked to refine the data.

"What do we have so far, Lowell?" Beauchamp asked the petty officer who'd made the initial report.

"Not a lot, Sir," the noncom said unhappily. "That far out, we don't have any of the FTL platforms close enough for a good look, and the sub-light—"

He broke off as the crimson icons vanished as abruptly as they had appeared.

"Did they translate out?" Beauchamp demanded.

"Don't think so, Sir," Petty Officer Lowell replied.

"Definitely not, Sir," Chief Torricelli said, looking up from where he'd been watching the sensor tech work the contacts. "Whatever they are, they've gone into stealth."

"Damn," Beauchamp muttered. He let his chair swing back and forth in a tight arc for a few seconds, then shook his head. "All right, Chief. How much did we get?"

"Not much, Sir," Torricelli admitted. "We only had them on sensors for about eight minutes, and like Lowell says, that's an awful long way out for any kind of detail. Best I can tell you is they weren't anything really big. Might've been a pair of light cruisers, but it looked more like destroyers, from the little we got."

"If that's all we've got, it's all we've got," Beauchamp said, more philosophically than he really felt, and punched the com stud on the arm of his bridge chair.

"System HQ, Commander Tucker," a voice responded in his earbug.

"George, it's Heinrich," Beauchamp said. "I know the Commodore just turned in, but you might want to wake him."

"This better be good," Tucker replied. "He was dead tired before I managed to chase him off to bed."

"I know. But we just picked up two unidentified hyper footprints—destroyer or light cruiser range. We had them on sensors for a bit less than eight minutes, then lost them. Our best estimate is that they're still out there, just in stealth."

"Shit." There was silence for several seconds, then Beauchamp heard Tucker inhale deeply. "Not good, Heinrich. I guess I really will have to wake him back up."

* * *

"Good light-speed telemetry on the arrays, Skipper,"

Lieutenant Harcourt reported, studying the readings coming back over the whisker lasers. "Deployment profiles look optimal."

" Skirmisher reports good deployment as well, Ma'am,"

Wilson added from Communications.

"Good," Estwicke replied to both officers simultaneously.

"Any sign they got a hard read on us, Emily?"

"Impossible to say, Ma'am," Harcourt replied in the respectfully formal tone she kept for those rare special occasions when her commanding officer asked a silly question. "We didn't pick up any active sensors, of course.

But there's no way of knowing whether or not we came out close enough to one of their platforms for it to get a good read on passives."

"Understood." Estwicke's wry smile acknowledged the ever so proper smack on the wrist the tac officer had just given her.

"I haven't picked up any grav-pulse transmissions,"

Harcourt added. "Anything they did get on us, aside from our footprint itself, has to be coming in light-speed. So whatever it might be, they won't have it for another twenty-five minutes or so."

"By which time we'll have cut even the laser links and be very tiny needles in a very large haystack," Estwicke said with a nod of satisfaction.

"Exactly, Skip," Harcourt agreed. Then she cocked her head. "By the way, Skipper, there's something I've always meant to ask."

"And what might that be?"

"What the hell is a 'haystack,' anyway?"

* * *

"I don't like this, George," Commodore Tom Milligan said.

"I don't like it a bit."

The Commanding Officer, Hera System Command, and his chief of staff were hunched over the latest report from the Hera System's sensor arrays.

"I don't either, Sir," Commander Tucker agreed. The chief of staff's face was tight with worry, but far less exhausted-looking than Milligan's. Then again, he was sleeping better than Milligan was.


he thought,

because the ultimate

responsibility is his, not mine.

"Those damned ships have been hanging around for two frigging days," Milligan continued harshly.

"We think they have, Sir," Tucker amended conscientiously.

"Oh, of course." Milligan's irony was withering, although Tucker knew it wasn't actually directed at him. He was simply unfortunate enough to be in range. "Well, I think they're hanging around for a reason," the commodore continued in slightly less sarcastic tones. "And I don't like these readings, either."

He tapped another paragraph of the report, and Tucker nodded silently.

"They aren't very strong, Sir," he pointed out after a moment. Milligan looked at him, and the commander shrugged slightly. "I wish they were a little stronger. Maybe then we could at least have gotten a directional bearing for the LAC sweeps."

The chief of staff wasn't happy about how much wear and tear they'd put on their LAC personnel. The LACs were the only search platforms they had with a chance of running down something as elusive—and fast—as a stealthed Manty destroyer. Unfortunately, they didn't have very many of them, and as the last two days had demonstrated, even their chance was a piss poor one without at least some sort of sensor clue to give them an edge.

"Wouldn't have mattered much if we had," Milligan said moodily. "Our birds are too slow to run them down before they could break back across the limit and translate out.

Besides, we may not know where they are, but we sure as hell know what they are."

Tucker nodded again, not even tempted to play devil's advocate this time. The only thing those transmissions could be were scraps of backscatter from Manticoran directional FTL transmissions. Which, of course, meant the ships which had deployed the recon platforms producing them were still in the system receiving their reports . . .


Or at least one of them was, anyway.

"Well," Milligan said again, bracing both hands on the tabletop and straightening his back, "I can only think of one reason for them to be hanging around this way."

"I'm afraid I agree, Sir." Tucker smiled without humor.

"Which isn't to say I wouldn't like to discover that all they're doing is screwing with our minds."

"Just trying to convince us they have something nastier in mind, you mean?" Milligan snorted. "That would be better than what I'm pretty sure they're really up to.

Unfortunately, I don't think we're going to be that lucky."

"Me either," Tucker admitted.

"And I don't much like what their damned sensor arrays are telling them, either," Milligan continued more heavily.

"Damn. Who would've expected the bastards here?"

That, Tucker thought, was a very good question. The Hera System was just over sixty light-years from Trevor's Star . . . and barely thirty light-years from the Haven System itself. That was closer to the capital system than the Manties had ever come, even during Operation Buttercup, but Hera was scarcely a major bastion like the Lovat System. It was important, true, but clearly a second-tier system: a significant industrial node, but not vital enough to demand a heavy fleet presence for its security.

Especially not when it was only four days from the capital itself, which meant it could be quickly reinforced in the unlikely event that the Manties managed to mount a second Buttercup.

Except that wasn't what was going to happen.

"We've sent for help, Sir," Tucker said after a moment.

"And we've brought the local defenses to Condition Two. I wish there were something more we could do, but I don't think there is."

"No, there isn't," Milligan agreed. "It's just—"

"Excuse me, Sir." Both officers turned to face the office door as the duty communications tech appeared in it.

"Sorry to disturb you," the young woman continued, her face tight with worry, "but Perimeter Watch just picked up unidentified hyper footprints."

"How many?" Milligan demanded sharply.

"It looks like at least six ships of the wall, split into two groups, Sir," the com tech said. "They're coming in on converging courses, and Captain Beauchamp estimates they're accompanied by six additional cruiser-range vessels."

Milligan's jaw tightened. Six wallers—even six old-style wallers—would go through his "System Command" like a pulser dart through butter. And if they were coming in separated but on converging courses, they undoubtedly meant to pincer any defensive forces between them.

However unnecessary that particular refinement might actually be.

"Very well," he said after a moment. "Instruct Captain Beauchamp to keep us informed. Then transmit a general signal to all units. Set Condition One. After that, inform Captain Sherwell that the staff and I will be joining him aboard the flagship directly. He's to immediately begin and expedite preparations for getting underway. And—" he glanced at Tucker "—inform Governor Shelton that I'll be speaking to him shortly."

"Yes, Sir." The communications tech braced briefly to attention and disappeared.

"Sir," Tucker said very quietly, "if this really is six wallers, we're not going to stop them."

"No," Milligan said bleakly. "But if they're doing what I think they are, we couldn't avoid action with them even if we tried."

Tucker started to open his mouth, then changed his mind and nodded, instead.

"Get with Stiller," Milligan continued. "I want an immediate evacuation of the entire orbital infrastructure.

I'll get Shelton to confirm that when I speak to him."

"And our civilian shipping, Sir?"

"Anything that's hyper-capable and can reach the hyper limit before the Manties can bring it into range, runs for it.

Get that order out immediately. Anything in their way, tries to evade, but I don't want any more dead heroes than I can help. If a ship's crew is ordered to abandon or, God help us, simply fired on, I want them to take to the boats immediately."

"Yes, Sir."

"As for the system defense units, we'll just have to do our best. Maybe," Milligan showed his teeth in a rictuslike caricature of a smile, "we can at least scratch their paint."

* * *


Unidentified hyper footprints!

Many unidentified footprints at eighteen light-minutes, bearing oh-niner-oh by oh-three-three!"

Rear Admiral Everette Beach, CO, Gaston System Command, wheeled towards his operations officer, blue eyes widening in disbelief.

"How many? What class?" he barked.

"We can't say yet, Sir," the ops officer replied. "Looks like a couple of ships of the wall—might be CLACs, instead

—with at least a dozen battlecruisers or cruisers. Probably at least a couple of destroyers, as well. And—" she turned to look Beach straight in the eye, and her voice harshened almost accusingly "—we've got a single destroyer-range impeller signature already in-system and moving to meet them."

Beach's jaw tightened, and anger sparkled in his eyes.

But angry as he was at Commander Inchman, he knew even more of his anger was directed at himself. Inchman had tried to convince him that the "sensor ghost" the arrays had picked up two days ago was really there, but Beach had disagreed. Oh, it had looked like a hyper footprint, but almost a full light-hour beyond the system hyper limit? At that range, given the rudimentary state of Gaston's sensor net, it could have been almost anything. And whatever it was, it had vanished within minutes of appearing in the first place.

Sure it did, he thought harshly. And you were so damned sure Inchman was wrong about its simply going into stealth, weren't you Everette? You stupid shit. You've been whining to the Octagon ever since you took over here that you needed a better sensor net. Well, genius, why didn't you at least pay attention to what you had?

"You were right," he made himself say, a little surprised his voice sounded so close to normal. "They were scouting us."

Inchman didn't reply. Not that he'd really expected her to. But he'd owed her that apology, and assuming he survived, he'd have to make it official in his after-action report. The one he'd no doubt have plenty of time to write after the board of inquiry beached him.

"Signal to all units," he continued, "Condition Red-Three.

Axis of threat is oh-niner-oh, oh-three-three. All merchant shipping to immediately get underway. Order the industrial platforms to commence evacuation at once."

"Yes, Sir."

* * *

"Right on the tick, Your Grace," Mercedes Brigham observed with immense satisfaction as Commander Estwicke's


accelerated steadily towards rendezvous with


. "And exactly where she's supposed to be," the chief of staff continued, watching the destroyer's icon on the huge plot on


's flag bridge.

"So far, so good," Honor agreed. She stood beside the admiral's command chair, watching the plot as Ambuscade's fresh tac data started coming in. Commander Daniels' Skirmisher had delivered the basic take from the two destroyers' heavily stealthed arrays six hours ago, at the prearranged rendezvous, but Estwicke had remained behind to make sure there'd been no important changes after Skirmisher's departure. Now Honor gazed intently at the star system's schematic while a skinsuited Nimitz perched on the chair's back. She felt him at the back of her mind, sharing her tension as he had so many times before, and she reached out to him with a quick mental caress.

"I hope the other groups' timing is as good," Andrea Jaruwalski said from Honor's other side, and Honor glanced at her. "I know it doesn't really matter all that much in the greater scheme of things, Your Grace," the ops officer said with a crooked smile, "but this is opening night, so to speak. I want our audience to appreciate all the trouble we've gone to in order to impress them."

"Oh, I imagine they'll get the message," Honor said with a half-smile of her own. She could taste Jaruwalski's excitement and anticipation, and the information from her scouting destroyers' spy mission strongly suggested that Hera was going to prove a case of severe overkill. No wonder the captain was confident of success.

So was Honor. In fact, she'd suspected from the beginning that they were bringing along more firepower than was going to be required. But Hera was the closest of their targeted systems to Nouveau Paris, and this was the only attack going in without any carrier support at all. So she'd brought along Alistair McKeon's entire squadron . . .

in no small part to make the point to Thomas Theisman that the Alliance could—and would—operate even its most modern superdreadnoughts aggressively this deep behind the front line systems. But, unlike Jaruwalski, Honor wasn't really looking forward to what they were about to do.

Or to killing all the men and women who were about to die.

" Ambuscade's upload is complete, Commodore Jaruwalski," one of the ops officer's plotting team's petty officers announced.

"What does it show?" Jaruwalski asked, as she and Honor both moved closer to the plot.

"CIC sees no changes from Skirmisher' s data, Ma'am. It still looks like two battleships, four battlecruisers or big heavy cruisers, and less than a hundred LACs."

"I still find that hard to believe," Jaruwalski muttered, then grimaced as Honor cocked a sardonic eyebrow at her.

"Sorry, Your Grace. I don't mean to suggest Daniels and Estwicke didn't do a good job. I'm just surprised their system picket is that light, even this close to Nouveau Paris."

Honor shrugged, never taking her gaze from the icons of the ships trapped between her own incoming forces.

Skirmisher's report had allowed her to plot her own alpha translations perfectly, and the defenders found themselves caught squarely between the two prongs of her attack.

They'd obviously realized the system was being probed and brought their mobile units—such as they were—to a high state of readiness, because they were already underway. In fact, they were accelerating hard, almost directly towards her flagship and its division mate, HMS

Intolerant. Clearly their commander had realized she could never get outside the attackers' MDM envelope and had elected to attempt to stay as far away as possible from the four SDs of McKeon's first and third divisions. The defenders' outclassed, obsolescent ships and sparse LAC

force stood no chance of survival against a pair of Invictus-

class superdreadnoughts, but they probably had a marginally better chance of inflicting at least some damage on her single division before they died.

"They can't be strong everywhere, Andrea," she said after a moment. "That's the whole point behind Cutworm.

And don't forget that Ambuscade and Skirmisher probably didn't get reliable reads on any system-defense pods they may have deployed."

"Agreed." Jaruwalski nodded. "Still, they're hanging all but naked. And I've got to say, I didn't expect to see any battleships still in commission."

"I didn't either. On the other hand, this is an awful long way from the front. I suppose if they've got one or two left, it makes more sense to use them here than somewhere more likely to be attacked. Of course," Honor's smile was knife-blade thin, "they're going to be reevaluating where attacks are 'likely' very shortly now."

* * *

"It's confirmed, Sir." Captain Beauchamp's expression was grim on the com screen connecting Milligan's flag bridge to the system's planet-side Defense Headquarters. "Bogey Alpha is two superdreadnoughts and three big heavy cruisers—they look like the new


s. Bogey Beta is four SDs and three light cruisers. From the emissions signatures, two of Beta's wallers are


-class SD(P)s.

We don't have positive IDs on Beta's other SD, or on either of Alpha's, but all three of them are even bigger than a Medusa."

" Invictuses," Tucker said bitterly. "They've got to be."

"Here?" Milligan shook his head. "According to NavInt, they can't have more than a handful of them. Why in God's name would they send three of them this deep into the Republic to hit a target as secondary as Hera?"

"At a guess, Sir, they're sending a message," Tucker replied. Milligan looked at him, and the chief of staff waved one hand at the ominous light codes in the plot.

"We've all been assuming they'd have no choice but to pull in their horns and fort up after Thunderbolt, and especially after Grendelsbane." He shrugged. "Well, Sir, I'd say they intend to suggest we were mistaken."

* * *


"Yes, Your Grace?"

"Record a message for the system commander."

"Of course, Your Grace." If Lieutenant Brantley thought there was anything odd about sending a message to the commander of a naval force one intended to destroy momentarily, no sign of it showed in his voice or expression.

"Live mike, Ma'am," he said after a moment, and Honor looked directly into her pick up.

"This is Admiral Honor Harrington, Royal Manticoran Navy," she said levelly. "By this time, you must be aware of the disparity of combat power between your forces and mine. I am here to destroy the industrial infrastructure in this star system, and I will do so, however regretfully. I have no interest in killing anyone when that can be avoided, however. I submit to you that the forces under your command, even assuming—as I do—that they're backed by a substantial number of previously deployed missile pods, can't hope to seriously damage my own units.

Your vessels, on the other hand, are little more than targets. Courage alone cannot substitute for tactical inferiority on this scale. You are already inside my powered missile envelope; you won't survive to bring us into your shipboard range. Nor will your LACs survive to reach attack range of us."

She paused for just a moment, then continued in that same level, measured voice.

"It's obvious from your maneuvers to this point that you're prepared to do your duty in defense of this star system, however hopeless you must know that defense to be. I respect that, but I also implore you not to throw away the lives of the men and women under your command. If you continue to close, I will fire on you. If, however, you choose to abandon ship and scuttle at this time, I will not fire upon your small craft or life pods. Nor will I fire upon your LACs if you order them to withdraw and stand down. I'm not asking you to surrender your vessels to me; I'm simply asking you to allow your personnel to live.

"Harrington, clear."

"Clean recording, Your Grace," Brantley said, after replaying it to be certain.

"Then send it," she said.

"Do you think it will do any good, Ma'am?" Mercedes Brigham asked, leaning close to Honor's command chair and speaking quietly into her ear.

"I don't know," Honor replied bleakly, rubbing Nimitz's ears as he curled in her lap. "I like to think I'd be rational enough to abandon in her shoes, but, to be completely honest, I'm not certain I would. I just know I don't want to slaughter people who can't even shoot back."

* * *

" . . . asking you to allow your personnel to live.

Harrington, clear."

Tom Milligan watched the message from the tall, level-voiced, exotically attractive woman in the black-and-gold uniform and white beret silently, his eyes hard. There was no doubt in his mind that Harrington— God, it would be Harrington , wouldn't it?— had summarized his command's chances of survival with agonizing accuracy.

Of course, she did wait until—as she herself just pointed out—she'd trapped us into entering her missile envelope, whether we'd wanted to or not, didn't she? Obviously, however concerned she may be with sparing people's lives, she's not especially concerned about what's likely to happen to my career!

He surprised himself with a chuckle, but it was short-lived.


He turned his head. Commander Tucker stood beside his bridge chair, where he'd viewed the message along with his commodore, and his expression was profoundly unhappy.

"Yes, George?" Milligan asked, his voice remarkably calm.

"Sir, she may be right about our relative combat power.

But we can't just blow up our own ships!"

"Even if she's going to do it for us sometime in the next ten or fifteen minutes?"

Milligan nodded his head at the implacably advancing icons in the plot. Harrington's converging superdreadnought divisions were already up to a velocity of over twelve thousand kilometers per second, forging straight ahead, like twin daggers plunged directly into the heart of the Hera System. He felt a spike of pure, burning rage at the complete—and completely justified—

confidence of their unwavering approach.

Harrington. "The Salamander" herself, coming straight down his throat with a pair of SD(P)s while four more came right up his backside, and armed with the advantage of detailed tactical scans of the star system and his own defensive forces. No wonder she was "confident!"

"But, Sir—!" Tucker protested, and Milligan smiled grimly.

"George, for what it matters—and, at this particular moment, it doesn't matter a whole hell of a lot—my career crashlanded the instant those ships came over the hyper wall. I realize that, unlike the previous management, Admiral Theisman's unlikely to have me shot for something that obviously wasn't my fault, but someone's still going to have to carry the can for this one, and I'm elected. Under the circumstances, it's not going to make things much worse for me personally if I do what she's suggesting. And, in case you've forgotten, there are over six thousand people aboard these two obsolete, piece-of-crap battleships, alone. I'm not sure I'd take a lot of consolation from the knowledge that I got them killed for absolutely no return. In fact, what I most regret right now, is that I didn't simply order them all to turn tail and run from the outset."

"You couldn't do that, Sir."

"I could have, and I damned well should have! Not that it would've done much good, given her approach vectors, although at least the LACs might have been able to stay away from her," Milligan said with quiet, intense bitterness. Then he inhaled deeply.

"Inform Captain Beauchamp that he's to coordinate the missile pod engagement from dirt-side," he said flatly.

"Then instruct the LAC crews to return immediately to their launch platforms. They're to abandon and evacuate to the planetary surface, and the platform skippers are to set their demolition charges and accompany them."

Tucker was staring at him in something like shock, but Milligan continued steadily.

"In the meantime, I'll contact Admiral Harrington. I'll accept her offer on behalf of our mobile units, and we'll abandon ship."


"God damn it, George!" Milligan grated. "I am not going to get thousands of people killed for nothing! I won't do it.

We'll take our best shot with the missile pods, but those ships—" he jabbed his finger at the hostile icons "—can kill anything we have from outside any range where we can even shoot back. Our 'main combatants' don't have MDMs, and our LACs are Cimeterres, not frigging Shrikes. They'd never live to reach their own range of superdreadnoughts without MDM support to cover their approach. We're fucked, and nothing we can do can change that. Do you understand me?"

"Yes, Sir," Tucker said finally, slowly, and turned away.

"Communications," Milligan said heavily, "raise Admiral Harrington for me."

* * *

"There they go, Your Grace," Andrea Jaruwalski said, and Honor nodded. Her remote sensor arrays were close enough to see the drive signatures of the Havenite warships' small craft. Individual life pods were much harder to detect, even at that range and even with Manticoran sensors, but their beacons showed as a fine green haze of diamond dust glittering around the warship icons, and the ships themselves had struck their wedges five minutes earlier.

"That isn't a happy man over there," Mercedes Brigham murmured, and Honor looked at her.

"I've been in his shoes, Mercedes. When I ordered Alistair to surrender his ship. It isn't easy, however hopeless the situation might be. Milligan showed a lot of moral courage when he accepted my offer, although I doubt most of his critics will see it that way."

"From his tone, I think he agrees with you, Ma'am."

Honor snorted softly at Brigham's understatement.

Milligan had actually thanked her for offering an out which would spare his people's lives, but he'd looked—and sounded—like a man chewing ground glass.

"I noticed he didn't say anything about any missile pods, Your Grace," Jaruwalski observed quietly.

"No, he didn't, did he?" Honor looked at her opns officer.

Jaruwalski was as professionally focused as ever, but Honor tasted something very like frustration under the younger woman's surface. That wasn't exactly the right word for the emotion, but it came close. Andrea Jaruwalski was no more enamored of killing people just to kill them than Honor was, but the tactician in her couldn't help . . .

regretting the lost opportunity to carry through with their neatly planned mousetrap and finish off the enemy ships herself.

"I didn't ask him to stand down the pods, either, Andrea," Honor continued. "Mostly because I knew he'd refuse, just as you or I would have in his position. If I'd made the stand down of all of his defenses a precondition for my offer, he would have rejected it."

"It might have been worth a try, anyway, Your Grace."

Jaruwalski's tone was mostly humorous, but she grimaced and gestured at one of the secondary plots. "We're beginning to pick up active targeting emissions. A lot of them."

"As expected." Honor examined the indicated plot.

"Actually," she said after a moment, "there aren't as many as I'd expected. I wonder if that means they're as light on pods as they were on ships?"

"We can hope, Ma'am," Brigham said. "Of course—"

"There go the scuttling charges, Commodore Jaruwalski!"

Honor and both her staffers turned towards the main plot once more. The range was still long enough that in the visual display, the brief, bright stars which once had been warships of the Republic of Haven were little more than short-lived, brilliant pinpricks. The presentation in the plot was even less dramatic than that. Seven crimson icons simply blinked once, and disappeared.

The bright ruby light chips representing the Hera System's LACs were still there, but they continued to accelerate steadily away from Honor's ships, obviously bound—as Commodore Milligan had promised—for their base platforms.

"You think they'll turn around if their missile pods get lucky, Ma'am? Brigham asked softly, gazing at the retiring light attack craft.

"That's hard to say." Honor considered the question for a few seconds, then shrugged. "Their pods would have to get awfully lucky to make any difference. If those were Shrikes or Ferrets, it might be different, but they aren't."

" Missile launch! " a Plotting rating announced suddenly.

"Multiple missile launches! Time to impact four-point-six minutes!"

* * *

"Captain Beauchamp has launched, Commodore!"

Tom Milligan looked up at the announcement. He'd been staring moodily and silently out the pinnace's viewport, gazing out into the endless emptiness which had swallowed up the dispersing plasma of his command. Now he shoved himself out of his seat and stepped quickly to the cramped command deck's hatch.

A pinnace's sensor capability wasn't particularly good at the best of times, and the display was far too small to show much detail, but he could see the wavefront of Beauchamp's outgoing missiles. He'd been surprised when Harrington hadn't tried to insist that he agree to stand them down, as well. In her place, he certainly would have at least made the attempt. Unless, of course, her scouting destroyers had managed to tell her just how threadbare all of Hera's defenses were.

* * *

"Estimate eleven hundred—I say again, one-one-zero-zero—inbound," Plotting reported. "Target is Second Division."

"Makes sense," Brigham said quietly. "We're closer to most of their platforms, and two superdreadnoughts have to have less missile defense than four of them."

Honor didn't respond. In fact, she was almost certain her chief of staff didn't even realize she'd spoken aloud.

The tornado of multi-drive missiles howled towards them, and whoever had programmed their launch times and accelerations had done her job well. Despite how widely separated many of the launching pods were, their coordination was flawless. All of those missiles would arrive on target simultaneously as a single, tightly focused hammer blow.

The quiet murmur of voices behind her grew louder, more clipped and intense, as Jaruwalski's plotting parties and tactical crews concentrated on their tasks. Not that there was a great deal for them to actually do at this moment. Everything an admiral's staff could do for a situation like this had to happen earlier, in the planning and training stages, when the crews of the individual ships of the admiral's command were learning what was expected of them, and how to perform it.

As Imperator, Intolerant, and their screening heavy cruisers were performing it now.

As little as five or six T-years earlier, that many missiles, fired at a mere pair of superdreadnoughts, would have been both enormous and deadly. Today, it was different.

In an era of pod-laying ships of the wall, missile densities like that had become something defense planners had to take into the routine calculations.

Doctrine and hardware had required major modifications, and the modifying process was an ongoing one. The Mark 31 counter-missiles Honor's ships were firing represented significant improvements even over the Mark 30 counter-missiles her command had used as recently as the Battle of Sidemore, only months before. Their insanely powerful wedges were capable of sustaining accelerations of up to 130,000 for as much as seventy-five seconds, which gave them a powered range from rest of almost 3.6

million kilometers.

Kill numbers at such extreme ranges were problematical, to say the least, and the incoming Havenite missiles were equipped with the very best penetration aids and EW

systems Shannon Foraker could build into them. That made them much, much better than anything the People's Navy had possessed during the First Havenite War, but BuShips and BuWeaps hadn't precisely been letting grass grow under their feet, either, Honor thought grimly. Her ships mounted at least three times as many counter-missile launchers as ships of their classes had mounted before the advent of pod-based combat.

Their telemetry and control links had been increased by an even higher factor, and each of her ships had deployed additional Mark 20 electronics platforms at the ends of dedicated tractor beams. Nicknamed "Keyhole" by the Navy, the Mark 20 wasn't a traditional tethered decoy, or even an additional sensor platform or Ghost Rider EW

platform. These platforms were placed much further from the ships which had launched them, and they had only one function—to serve as fire control telemetry relays. They extended well beyond the boundaries of their motherships'

impeller wedges, like an old-style wet-navy submarine's periscope, and they gave the tactical crews aboard those ships the ability to look "down" past the blinding interference of their own outgoing counter-missiles'


To a civilian, that might have sounded like a small thing, but the implications were huge. The Keyhole platforms were massive and expensive, but they allowed a ship to control multiple counter-missiles for each dedicated shipboard fire control "slot." And they also allowed counter-missile launches to be much more tightly spaced, which added significant depth to the antimissile engagement envelope.

And as a final refinement, the grav-pulse com-equipped reconnaissance arrays deployed in a shell three and a half million kilometers out watched the incoming missiles' EW

with eagle eyes, and their FTL data streams provided the missile defense crews aboard Honor's ships a priceless eleven-second advantage. Although the missile controllers and their AIs were still limited to light-speed telemetry links, they were able to refine and update targeting solutions with much greater speed and precision than had ever been possible before.

Shannon Foraker had been forced to rely on mass and sheer numbers, to build a wall in space using thousands of weapons whose individual accuracy was very low.

Manticore had approached the problem from a different direction, relying on its technological advantages and superior technique.

The first counter-missile launch killed only a hundred and six of the incoming MDMs. The second, intercepting them less than ten seconds later killed another hundred.

But the third launch, with almost twenty seconds for its controllers to react, killed three hundred.

* * *

Tom Milligan turned away from the pinnace's tiny display without a word. He returned to his seat, staring out the viewport once again, and his expression was bleak.

One hit, he thought. Surely one frigging hit wasn't too much to ask for!

But the Republic hadn't gotten it. Only forty of Beauchamp's MDMs had broken through the Manties'

counter-missiles, and the point defense laser clusters—

whose numbers also seemed to have been hugely increased

—had blasted those threadbare survivors out of existence well short of attack range.

We knew they were improving their antimissile doctrine, but nothing I ever saw suggested that they'd improved it this much! And it's going to play hell with our system defense doctrine.

Hera's defenses had been weak, even by the existing standards of the Republican Navy. He should have had at least three times the missile pods he'd actually been able to deploy, and they ought to have been backed up by a much stronger LAC force, at a bare minimum. But given what he'd just seen, even the defensive strength he ought to have had wouldn't have stopped Harrington.

I've never failed this completely at anything before in my life, he thought bitterly. At least I didn't get all of my people killed for nothing, but just at the moment, that's pretty cold comfort.

He stared broodingly into the endless ebon infinity of space. It looked so peaceful out there, so calm. And that cold, merciless vista was infinitely preferable to what was about to happen closer to the life-giving beacon of the star called Hera.

* * *

"That's the last of them, Your Grace," Jaruwalski said.

"They may have some additional pods squirreled away, but if they could have reached us with more of them, they would have. Anything else they throw our way will be lighter, easier to handle."

Honor didn't respond for several seconds. She was gazing into her plot, her eyes picking out the icons of orbital factories, extraction facilities, power satellites, warehouses. By the standards of a wealthy star system like the Manticore home system, or of a major transportation node, like one of the Junction's termini, Hera's orbital and deep-space facilities might seem sparse, but they still represented decades of investment. They were where people worked, what powered over half the star system's economy. They represented literally billions of dollars of investment, and even more earning potential, all in a star nation struggling doggedly to overcome more than a century of ongoing economic disaster.

And she was here to destroy them. All of them.

"One of the platforms in planetary orbit just blew up, Ma'am," Brigham reported. Honor looked at her, and the chief of staff pointed into the plot, indicating the icon of the platform in question.

"That one," she said. "According to CIC, it was one of the LAC basing platforms, so it looks like they're making good on Milligan's stand down order."

"Yes, it does." Honor's chocolate eyes were sad, and her fingers caressed Nimitz's silken coat while she drew strength from the bright, fierce power of his support and love, but her voice was calm, unshadowed.

"All right, Mercedes, Andrea," she said after a moment, turning her command chair to face them. "We came to wreck this system's space-going economy, and it would appear the way is clear. So let's be about it."

Chapter Twenty

"What the hell are those things?" Rear Admiral Beach murmured. Behind him, he could hear the disciplined bedlam as his communications staff coordinated the evacuation of Gaston's deep-space industrial infrastructure, but his attention was focused on two of the tentatively identified Manty battlecruisers.

"They've got to be battlecruisers," Commander Myron Randall, his chief of staff, replied.

"I know that," Beach said, just a bit impatiently. "But look at the tonnage estimates. According to CIC, these things mass dammed close to two million tons. That's a big dammed battlecruiser, Myron!"

"The Graysons' Courvoisier IIs mass over a million tons,"

Randall pointed out.

"Which is still considerably smaller than these are."

Beach shook his head. "I'll bet you this is the Manties'

version of a pod-laying battlecruiser."

"Wonderful," Randall muttered.

"Well," Beach said, glancing at the shoals of LACs which had launched themselves from the incoming CLACs, "how much worse can it get, Myron? We've got three hundred Cimeterres, the missile pods, and four battlecruisers. I don't think the fact that they've brought along some of their newer toys is going to make a lot of difference in the long run."

* * *

"Message from Admiral Henke, Ma'am."

"Put it on my tertiary display," Dame Alice Truman replied, and a moment later Michelle Henke's ebony face appeared on the tiny flatscreen by Truman's knee.

"Mike," the vice admiral greeted her.

"Admiral," Henke responded.

"To what do I owe the honor?"

"We've been going over the fresh data from Intruder's platforms over here, Ma'am. Have your people noticed that odd little cluster of blips they're picking up in Charlie-Two-Seven now that they've gone active?"

"Just a minute, Mike." Truman looked up from the display, and beckoned to her chief of staff. Captain Goodrick crossed to her immediately, and she waved him forward into the field of her own com pickup. "Would you repeat that for Wraith, Mike?"

"Have your people noticed that cluster of blips in Charlie-Two-Seven?" Henke asked, after nodding a welcome to Goodrick.

"You mean the ones just to system north of the refitting platform?" She nodded again, and he shrugged. "We've seen them, but so far we've put them down as just orbital clutter. You know how sloppy a lot of civilian facilities are about disposing of their trash."

"Tell me about it," Henke said sourly. "In this case, though, I don't think that's what it is." Goodrick raised his eyebrows, and she grimaced. "The arrays aren't getting very clear returns off of them. In fact, it looks to us over here as if that could be because we're not supposed to."

"Low-signature platforms?" Truman asked.

"Definitely a possibility," Henke agreed. "Especially if you look at how they're distributed. Captain LaCosta's tactical section agrees with us that they look like what could be missile pods dispersed just widely enough to clear their birds' impeller wedges when they launch."

Goodrick was leaning over a secondary display, reexamining the sensor data for himself. Now he looked up and nodded to Truman.

"I think Admiral Henke has a point, Ma'am," he said. "As a matter of fact, it looks to me like what we're seeing here could be just a portion of the entire pattern. I'd say there's a good chance they've got a lot more of them than we've actually picked up."

"Well, we expected something like it," Truman observed.

She considered for a moment, then shrugged. "I don't think it really changes anything, Wraith. But launch an additional shell of arrays and pass the word to Scotty. I want them sweeping the space in front of him like a fine tooth comb, and I want him tied directly into their take."

"Yes, Ma'am. I'll get right on it."

Goodrick began issuing orders, and Truman nodded to Henke over the com.

"Good catch, Mike. Aside from that, how are things looking from your side?"

"Nominal, so far." Henke's smile was unpleasant. "I know it's on a lot smaller scale, but I think we're about to get a tiny bit of our own back for Grendelsbane."

"That's what we came for," Truman agreed, and leaned back in her command chair, studying the plot.

Given Eighth Fleet's command structure, she was actually wearing three separate "hats." She was Honor's second-in-command and carrier commander; the commanding officer of CLAC Squadron Three; and the CO

of CarRon 3's first division, the carriers Werewolf and Chimera. Of course, two of those three slots weren't especially relevant just now, she thought, watching Werewolf's and Chimera's LACs moving steadily away from their carriers. And, speaking as the commander of the first division—and the senior officer of the Gaston attack force—

things seemed to be going quite well at the moment.

Knock on wood, she reminded herself. Knock on wood.

* * *

"They're coming right in on us, Sir," Commander Inchman said flatly.

"But they aren't closing into standard missile range, are they, Sandra?" Beach observed, standing at her shoulder and looking down at the icons on her plot.

"Their hyper-capable units aren't, Sir; it looks like they're decelerating to rest relative to the planet at about one light-minute. But their LACs are still boring straight in."

"And if anyone thinks they're going to leave our hyper-capable units intact to shoot at their LACs, they're dreaming," Myron Randall muttered from behind the rear admiral.

"Probably not," Beach agreed grimly, and Randall colored slightly. Obviously, he hadn't realized he'd spoken loudly enough for his admiral to overhear.

"On the other hand," Beach continued, "they are going to come into range of our missile pods." He showed his teeth in what only the most myopic might have called a smile.

"Pity they didn't wait another couple of months."

"You've got that right, Sir," Inchman agreed, her voice harsh with angry frustration.

"Maybe, and maybe not, Sandra." Beach put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. "Odds are Supply would've been sending us their regrets again."

He understood Inchman's frustration—and anger—

perfectly. The additional pods they'd been promised would have increased their long-range missile power hugely. Then again, they'd been "promised" for quite some time.

"I know, Sir. It's just—" Inchman bit off what she'd been about to say, and Beach sighed.

"They're shipping them to the front line systems as quickly as they can, Sandra. Someone's got to suck hind teat when quantities are limited. And to be fair, if you'd been in charge of prioritizing deliveries, would you have predicted an attack on Gaston, of all damned places?"

"No, Sir," she admitted.

"So we do the best we can with what we've got," Beach said as philosophically as he could. He looked over his shoulder at Randall.

"How long until we can get underway, Myron?"

"Another twelve minutes," Randall said, after checking his chrono quickly. "Captain Steigert's engineers are doing their best, but—"

"Understood." Beach gave a bitter chuckle, and squeezed Inchman's shoulder again. "If I'd listened to Sandra, at least I'd have had our impellers at a higher state of readiness."

He brooded down at the ops officer's plot, then drew a deep breath and turned away.

"They'll be in range to engage us in another thirty-five minutes, even if we just sit here in orbit. To be honest, if I thought it would do any good, I'd order all of our hyper-capable units to just bug out."

Randall looked at him with an expression which mingled surprise and disapproval, and Beach snorted.

"Of course I would, Myron! It might not be particularly glorious, but if those are pod-laying battlecruisers out there—and their deceleration profile certainly suggests they are—then we're truly and royally screwed. Dying gloriously sounds good in bad historical novels. Speaking for myself, I think doing it in real life when you don't have to is fucking stupid, and it irritates the hell out of me that we don't appear to have any choice."

He couldn't quite keep the bitterness out of his voice, but he drew another breath and gave himself a mental shake.

"Since we can't avoid action with them, and since we can't match their engagement range, I want all of our ships moved around to the far side of the planet. We'll keep it between us and them as long as we can."

Randall looked vaguely rebellious. He didn't say anything, but Beach read his thoughts without much difficulty.

"No, it's not particularly glorious. And I doubt it's going to make a lot of difference in the end, for that matter. But if whoever's in command over there is feeling particularly stupid, he may send in his LACs to flush us out of cover. If he does, we might actually manage to pick a few of them off. Even if he doesn't, he'll have to maneuver his MDM-capable units to clear the planet if he wants a shot at us.

For that matter, he may decline to fire from extended range at us at all, if we're close enough to the planet."

"I think the Admiral has a point, Myron," Inchman said.

Both men looked at her, and she shrugged. "Given all the other irons the Manties have in the fire right now, they certainly aren't going to court a violation of the Eridani Edict, and even their MDMs' targeting discrimination is pretty shaky at long range. This is our best chance to at least draw them into a range where we'll get to shoot back."

* * *

"They're pulling back behind the planet, Ma'am,"

Commander Oliver Manfredi said.

"Not very obliging of them," Michelle Henke observed dryly, and Manfredi chuckled without much humor.

Henke smiled and tipped back in her command chair, steepling her fingers under her chin in a posture she'd seen Honor assume scores of times. She couldn't say the Peep CO's choice of tactics was totally unexpected, but that didn't make it any more welcome.

"All right, Oliver," she told her golden-haired chief of staff after a moment. "Make sure Dame Alice has that information, and inform her that unless she disapproves my actions, I intend to execute Grand Divide."

"Aye, Ma'am," Manfredi replied.

The chief of staff's own smile creased his classically chiseled features and showed perfect white teeth, and Henke suppressed a mental laugh as he turned towards Lieutenant Kaminski, her communications officer. It wasn't anything Manfredi had done; it was simply the way he looked. He was as competent as he was decorative, but he really ought to have been on Truman's staff, not Henke's.

For some reason, Alice Truman always seemed to have an executive officer, or a chief of staff, or a flag captain who was as golden-haired and blue-eyed as she was.

But not this time, Henke thought with amused satisfaction. This time, I've got him . . . not to mention the rest of my "harem."

It was harder not to laugh this time. Unlike her friend Honor, Truman had always enjoyed an . . . energetic love-life, although she'd never allowed it to spill over on to her professional life. This time, though, it had been Honor's turn to twit her from the moment Henke had invited her to dinner aboard Ajax and she'd laid eyes on Henke's assembled staff. Manfredi was certainly the most gorgeous of her staffers, but every single one of them was male, and there wasn't a homely one in the bunch.

She pushed the thought aside and straightened in her chair. Grand Divide was the approach she'd worked out with her staff to deal with a situation like this one. It wasn't a perfect solution, but that was because there weren't any "perfect solutions." It was just the best available.

She glanced at the master plot, watching the projected vectors of her ships began to shift. She had only four of her six battlecruisers actually under her own command—her third division, HMS Hector and HMS Achilles—had been attached to Samuel Miklós' force for the attack on Tambourin, which left her only Agamemnon, Ajax (her own flagship), and the second division's Priam and Patrocles.

They had four of the Edward Saganami-class heavy cruisers in support, including Henke's old ship, the Saganami herself, but none of them were equipped to fire internally launched MDMs. On the other hand, they did have several dozen of the new-style missile pods tractored to their hulls.

Now Agamemnon and Ajax, accompanied by two of the heavy cruisers, began to angle away from Priam, Patrocles, and the other two heavy cruisers. By spreading her forces, she ought to be able to bring the defenders'

starships under fire with at least one of them. After all, the opposition commander couldn't keep the planet between her ships and everybody. But it meant Henke would probably be able to engage with only half her total platforms. Worse, it meant her two attack groups were moving steadily out of mutual support range for missile defense.

If the destroyers which had scouted the system had detected larger numbers of deployed missile pods, Henke would never have dared put Grand Divide into action. Even against the number of pods the destroyers had detected, she was risking significant damage. But they couldn't take out the system's industrial base without going in close, not when virtually all of it orbited the system's inhabited planet. Which meant the defending ships had to be neutralized first.

Well, at least it should be interesting, she told herself.

* * *



splitting up, Sir," Inchman reported. Her in-system sensor platforms had the Manticoran units under observation, and she indicated the changing vector analyses under the icons of the two diverging cruiser forces. "CIC is designating this force Alpha and this one Beta."

"They're going to pincer us," Beach grunted. "About what I expected. Too bad they didn't just go ahead and send in the LACs as beaters."

"But look at this, Sir," Randall said, indicating the red arrows of projected vectors. "They may be going to try to open clear lines of sight to us, but on their current headings, the range will be less than seven million klicks."

"So they are a little nervous about Eridani violations,"

Beach observed, and smiled humorlessly. "On the other hand, our ships' best powered envelope from rest is under two million. Not a huge improvement."

"Except that we haven't fired any of our orbital pods yet, Sir," Inchman pointed out. "And the closer they come before we do, the better our firing solutions are going to be."

"True." Beach nodded and frowned thoughtfully down at the plot. "I know doctrine says to kill the CLACs as our first priority in a situation like this one," he said, after a moment, "but they aren't being obliging enough to bring them in closer. If we had more pods, if we could get a better salvo density, it might still make sense to go after them, first. Under the circumstances, though, I think we'll hold our fire as long as we can, then concentrate it all on Alpha. Run your firing solutions accordingly, Sandra."

"Yes, Sir."

"And while we're waiting, Myron," Beach turned to the chief of staff, "tell the LACs to continue to fall back. If they can, I want them drifting towards system east."

"You want them in position to hit Alpha if the pods actually get through, Sir?"


"What about us, Sir?" Randall waved one hand at the icons representing Beach's battlecruisers.

"It's tempting, but it wouldn't work." Beach shook his head. "We're too far away. Even at our best acceleration, it would take us over an hour to get into our range of them. Unless the pods and the LACs do a hell of a lot better than I expect, they'd pick us off with MDMs before we ever reached them. Worse, as soon as we left the planetary shadow, Beta would nail us." He shook his head again. "No. We stay put, using the planet for cover against Beta. If we can hammer Alpha, so much the better, but we can't afford to get out into deeper water against sharks like these."

* * *

"That's a pretty cool customer over there, Ma'am,"

Commander Manfredi said.

"That it is, Oliver," Henke agreed. "I don't think it's going to do her a lot of good in the end, though. She's obviously decided to play it all the way out, but she's holding a losing hand."

She swivelled her command chair to face Lieutenant Commander Stackpole, her operations officer.

"John, I think she's going to hold fire on her pods to the last possible minute. I know I would, in her place. And notice the way her LACs are shifting oh so casually over to flank our vector."

"You think he's going to concentrate on us and ignore the carriers, Ma'am?"

"It's what I'd do. She can't possibly hope to kill them, anyway, and she's not going to beat off our attack. So the only thing left for her to do is to inflict whatever losses she realistically can. Which means us."

Stackpole considered it for a moment. Although he was physically attractive—taller than Honor and almost as dark as Henke herself, with high cheekbones and a powerful nose—he was nowhere near as decorative as Manfredi's holo-star good looks. He was probably, however, even better at his job.

"You're thinking about the pods, aren't you, Ma'am?"

"I am."

"Well," he said thoughtfully, "we've still only picked up a couple of hundred of them. With hard locks, I mean. CIC's projecting general zones for about twice that many, but we don't have anything we could use for reliable targeting information on them. We could kill most of those we've actually found with proximity warheads, but they're all awfully close to the planet, Ma'am."

"Too close," Henke agreed. "Especially for MDMs at this range. We might have a nasty accident, and Duchess Harrington wouldn't like that."

"No, Ma'am, she wouldn't," Stackpole agreed with feeling.

Honor had made it abundantly, one might almost say painfully, clear that she would not be amused by anything which might be remotely construed as a violation of the Eridani Edict's prohibitions, even by accident. And if smacking an inhabited planet, however accidentally, with a ninety-five-ton missile moving at fifty percent of light-speed couldn't be construed as using a "weapon of mass destruction" against it, very few things could be.

"I think we've still got to find a way to make them use them at longer-range, though," Henke said. "Albert."

"Yes, Ma'am?" Lieutenant Kaminski replied.

"Message to Admiral Truman. My compliments, and I would appreciate it if she could order the LACs to go after the pods."

"Yes, Ma'am."


"Yes, Ma'am?" Lieutenant Commander Braga, her astrogator, responded.

"Compute us a new course. I want to end up in the same spots, but assuming the Admiral agrees to let the LAC

jockeys kill pods for us, I want to reduce our acceleration to give them more time."

"Yes, Ma'am. How much more time?"

* * *

"They've reduced their acceleration, Sir."

Beach swung his command chair to face Commander Inchman.

"By how much?"

"Almost fifty percent," Inchman replied.

"And their LACs?"

"Changing course and coming straight in on the planet, Sir." It was apparent from Inchman's tone that she'd anticipated her admiral's second question, and Beach nodded unhappily.

"So they aren't going to reach their originally projected firing points until after the LACs' get close enough to start killing pods," he said.

"No, sir, they aren't. And," Inchman turned her head to meet Beach's eyes, "if they're close enough to kill pods, they're also close enough to kill all our orbital platforms on their side of the planet."

"Are the LACs on profile for a zero-zero approach?"

"Yes, Sir. They'll hit turnover on their current profile in about twenty minutes."

"Crap." Beach drummed on the arm of his command chair for a moment, then shrugged.

"So much for using the Cimeterres against Alpha.

Contact Captain Abercrombie. Order him to reverse course and engage the Manties' LACs."

"Aye, Sir."

"At least they'll meet far enough from their battlecruisers and cruisers to be out of standard shipboard weapons range," Commander Randall observed quietly.

"That should help some," Beach agreed, although both of them knew it wouldn't make a great deal of difference.

Gaston System Command had three hundred and twenty Cimeterre-class LACs. The Manty attack force had just over two hundred Shrike and Ferret-class LACs, and they must know about the "Triple Ripple" by now. Given the difference in the basic capabilities of the two sides, Beach's LACs were about to face a painful exchange rate.

In theory, Beach could have moved his battlecruisers out to support them, since the Manty LACs would have to enter the reach of his own shorter-ranged shipboard missiles. But that would have required him to come out from behind the planet and expose his ships to MDM fire.

He couldn't do that. And so he sat in his command chair, watching the plot, as his Cimeterres swept around and headed directly towards their much more dangerous foes.

* * *

"Vector change!" Lieutenant Veronika Chernitskaya announced. "Their LACs are coming back around, Skipper."

"They have to protect their pods, Vicki," Captain Tremaine replied philosophically. "Frankly, I'm a bit surprised they didn't make the move sooner."

"Probably didn't like the odds, Skip," Chief Harkness replied from HMLAC Dacoit's engineering station. "Might've taken whoever's in command a few minutes to decide he had to bite the bullet and do it anyway."

Tremaine nodded, but his attention was focused on Dacoit's plot as the tight formation of Havenite LACs accelerated towards his own formation at almost seven hundred gravities. Numerically, the odds were better than three-to-two in the Havenites' favor; in terms of actual combat power, they weren't even close. Examination of the Havenite light attack craft captured at the Battle of Sidemore made it clear the Cimeterres carried more missiles than even a Ferret, but those missiles were much less capable than those in Tremaine’s LACs' magazines.

And the Havenites had nothing remotely comparable to the massive grasers built into his Shrikes.

Of course, it didn't take weapons that powerful just to kill another LAC. Anything would kill a LAC . . . assuming it could score a hit in the first place. But the Havenites'

sidewalls and EW were both far inferior to their Manticoran counterparts, and none of the Cimeterres at Sidemore had mounted a bow or stern wall at all. Worse, from the Havenites' perspective—though they might not realize it yet—six of Tremaine's squadrons were Grayson Katanas.

Designed specifically as "space superiority" LACs, the Katanas were the Alliance's conceptual equivalent of the Cimeterre itself. Unlike the Cimeterre, however, the Katana incorporated all of the Alliance's tech advantages.

It was smaller than its Havenite rival—and also faster, more maneuverable, far better protected, with enormously superior electronic warfare capabilities and the LAC-sized version of the new bow wall "buckler," and equipped with what were for all intents and purposes a trio of superdreadnought point defense laser clusters, in addition to the Grayson-designed Viper anti-LAC missile.

The Viper was about two-thirds the size of a standard LAC missile, but it was quite different. It carried a much smaller warhead, without the multiple lasing rods of a conventional warhead, in order to incorporate significantly better seekers and an enhanced AI. And it also was designed for engagements at much shorter ranges.

Engagements in which massive acceleration, agility, and the ability to reach targets quickly were vastly more important than endurance. Which was why the Viper used the same drive systems as the Mark 31 counter-missile.

"Central, Dagger One," he said to Dacoit's com system. A tone sounded in his earbug as the AI which had replaced the regular communications officer aboard the highly automated LACs routed his transmission to Commander Crispus Dillinger, the senior Katana Squadron CO.

"Dagger One, Ramrod," Tremaine said, identifying himself as the Third Carrier Squadron's COLAC.

"Ramrod, Dagger One," Dillinger's voice came back instantly.

"They're coming to meet us after all, Chris. I think it's time your people took center stage. We'll go with Bushwhack Three."

"Ramrod, Dagger One copies Bushwhack Three."

"Go get them," Tremaine replied. "Ramrod, clear."

* * *

Captain Boniface Abercrombie watched the Manticoran LACs on the plot of his command LAC. He didn't much care for the odds. The


was a pure attrition unit, designed to overpower the individual superiority of its Manty opponents by means of massive numerical superiority. Abercrombie knew Admiral Foraker and her staff were working furiously to improve the


's capabilities in the Republic's second-generation light attack craft, but the limitations of their tech base, even with the rumored upgrades from the Erewhonese, meant her teams simply couldn't match the Manties' capabilities.

Current doctrine called for engaging Manty LACs at minimum odds of four-to-one. Even at that level, Republican casualties would probably be heavy in a straight-up fight. It was hard to say for certain, because the only LAC-on-LAC engagements so far had been dominated by the Republic's surprise "Triple Ripple" tactic.

But the MDM missile profiles employed against Captain Schneider at Zanzibar were chilling proof the Manties knew all about the Ripple. They'd undoubtedly adjusted their LAC tactics even more than their MDM doctrine, and Abercrombie didn't look forward to being the first Republican COLAC to discover exactly how they had.

Unfortunately, it appeared he didn't have any choice.

"Stand by for Zizka," he said tautly. Lieutenant Banacek, his tactical officer, looked at him, and he shrugged. "I don't know if they're going to give us the opportunity to use it, but if they do, I want it ready."

"Yes, Sir," Banacek acknowledged.

"It's more likely we'll be looking at a close-in dogfight,"

Abercrombie continued. "I want squadron discipline maintained. They're going to have the range advantage, and our point defense is going to have to carry the load until we get close enough to hurt them."

"Understood, Sir." There was the slightest edge of a tremor in Banacek's voice, but her gray eyes were steady, and Abercrombie gave her a tight smile of approval.

* * *

"Range four-point-six-eight million klicks. Closing velocity one-two-thousand KPS."

Commander Crispus Dillinger, call sign "Dagger One,"

grunted in acknowledgment of Lieutenant Gilmore's report while his brain whirred steadily, balancing variables and possibilities.

At their closing velocity, the missile geometry extended their powered missile envelope at launch by almost five hundred thousand kilometers from the 3.6 million kilometers the Viper could attain from rest. Which meant they'd be in extreme range in another thirty-five seconds.

He wondered why the Peeps hadn't fired yet. The one drawback of the Viper was that its maximum range was little more than half that of a more conventional anti-ship missile. In theory, that had given the Peeps almost three minutes in which they could have fired upon their opponents without taking return fire. From the Katanas, at least; if they'd opened fire from that far out, the Ferrets backing the Dagger squadrons would have replied in kind.

Probably holding their own birds as long as we'll let them, he thought. All the indications are that their accuracy sucks compared to ours, and their tac crews have to baby them more on the way in, so they've got to worry more about light-speed transmission lags. They'll want to get to as short a range as they can in order to maximize their hit probabilities. And they may think they can get away with that damned EMP maneuver of theirs. If they do, it's time we . . . disabused them of the notion.

"All Daggers, Dagger One," he said over the net.

"Bushwhack Three is confirmed. Repeat, Bravo-Whiskey-Three is confirmed. Stand by to initiate launch sequence on command."

Acknowledgments came back from his squadron commanders, and he felt himself settling deeper into his flight couch as the range flashed downwards. Then he nodded sharply to Gilmore.

"Initiate!" she said sharply. "Repeat, initiate! "

* * *

"Missile separation!" Lieutenant Banacek called out.

"Multiple missile separations. Flight time . . . seventy-five seconds? "

Disbelief burned in her voice as her computers reported the enormous acceleration rate of the incoming missiles, and Boniface Abercrombie didn't blame her a bit.

"Christ," somebody whispered, and Abercrombie felt his own jaw tighten.

"So that's their answer to the Ripple," his XO said quietly, bitterly.

"That's got to be Katanas launching," Abercrombie replied, almost calmly. He'd wondered what the infernally inventive Graysons had come up with. NavInt had managed to confirm that they had, indeed, developed a dedicated space control LAC, but no one in the Republic had had any idea exactly what they'd done.

Until now.

"They can't sustain that kind of accel for long," the XO

said. "It's got to be some adaptation of a counter-missile."

Abercrombie nodded, never taking his eyes from the plot.

"They'll be short-legged," he agreed. "But they're going to be a real bitch to stop. Worse, they're launching staggered."

It was the XO's turn to nod. He and Abercrombie had discussed it often enough, and it seemed the Manties—or Graysons, as the case might be—had come up with the same solution to the Ripple as they had. They weren't going to let their onboard sensors be blinded again; that part had been a no-brainer, once the Manties realized what had been done to them. Nor were they going to expose their decoys and EW platforms any sooner than they must, and it was a given that they'd have spread their remote recon platforms as widely as possible in order to get them outside the Ripple's area of effect.

And now they'd taken Zizka out of the equation, as well, by the simplest expedient of all. They knew Republican missile defense doctrine, especially for LACs, relied more on mass and volume than individual accuracy, so they'd realized it was less the density of a missile salvo than its duration which really mattered. At any sort of extended range, Abercrombie's LACs had no choice but to attempt to saturate the incoming missile patterns rather than attempting to pick off individual threats, the way Manty missile-defense crews would have. So it wasn't really necessary for the Manties to achieve the sort of precise time-on-target concentrations which would have been used to saturate more sophisticated defenses. Or, to put it another way, Abercrombie's defenses were too crude to be significantly degraded by that sort of sophistication.

So the Manties had staggered their launches, spreading them out in time, and seeded their attack birds with their damnably effective EW platforms. Coupled with the impossibly high speed of the attack missiles themselves, those decoys and jammers were going to degrade point defense kill probabilities catastrophically. And by stretching out their launch envelope, by creating what was effectively a missile stream, rather than a single, crushing hammer blow, they'd made it impossible for a single Ripple launch to kill more than a fraction of their total attack.

Worse, the LACs who'd launched the Ripple could no more see through it than vessels on the other side could, and Abercrombie couldn't afford to further hamstring his missile defense by providing the enemy with the opportunity to effectively attack "out of the sun."

A part of him cried out to issue orders, enforce his will on the engagement, do something to give his people a better chance. But there was no time for that, no last-minute adjustments that would have any impact on what was unfolding. For all intents and purposes, he was a passenger now, waiting to see how well his battle plan worked.

He didn't entertain very high hopes in that regard.

* * *

Commander Dillinger's missiles streaked towards the Havenite LACs.

It was the first time they'd ever been used against live targets, and even Dillinger was a bit surprised by how well they performed. Their AIs were better than those of any previous missile remotely close to their size, and those AIs had been carefully optimized to go after small, fast, fragile targets. They were far more capable of independent engagements, with less need for telemetry links to the vessels which had launched them. After all, LAC EW—or, at least, the Havenite version of it—was much less capable than that of a starship. There was less need for fire control officers to correct for the sort of sophisticated razzle-dazzle larger ships could perform, and their shorter powered envelope meant the Vipers' sensors had a much better look at their target when they were launched.

In effect, they were launch-and-forget weapons, which saw to their own midcourse corrections, and the Katanas were free to maneuver, and to employ all of their fire control links for counter-missiles, once they'd gotten the Vipers away.

And it was obvious the Peeps hadn't had a clue that they were going to face attack missiles whose acceleration had just been increased by forty-two percent. The incoming Vipers were actually over thirty percent faster than the counter-missiles trying to kill them.

* * *

Boniface Abercrombie listened to the combat chatter, jaw clamped as he heard the consternation—in all too many cases the outright panic—of missile-defense crews who'd suddenly discovered all of their defensive programs'

threat parameters were out of date. He turned his head, watching Banacek working frantically, trying to update her tracking and threat prioritization in the seventy-odd seconds she had.

Then he looked away. Not even Shannon Foraker could have pulled that one off, he thought grimly.

* * *



fired twenty-five Vipers.

The six Dagger squadrons between them put eighteen hundred of them into space over a thirty-second window, and they scorched through the shell of Havenite counter-missiles like white-hot awls.

Some of them were killed.

A few of the counter-missiles—a very few—managed to discriminate between real threats and the false targets of the Dragon's Teeth platforms. Managed to see through the blinding strobes of jamming. Managed to steer themselves and their wedges into the path of the preposterously fleet attackers. But they were the exception. Most of the kills were attained only because even against an attack like this, Shannon Foraker's layered defense was at least partially effective. There were simply so many counter-missiles that blind chance meant some of them had to find and kill Vipers.

Under the circumstances, any kills were an impressive achievement . . . but the counter-missiles managed to actually stop less than three hundred.

Laser clusters began to fire as the Vipers scorched in, clearly visible to fire control at last as they broke clear of the blinding interference of outgoing counter-missile wedges. The missile-defense crews were highly trained, highly disciplined. A substantial percentage were veterans of the bloody multisided civil war Thomas Theisman had fought against breakaway adherents of the old régime.

Even now, very few of them panicked, and they stood to their stations, firing steadily, doing their best.

But their best wasn't good enough. Their fire control software simply wasn't up to the challenge, couldn't react quickly enough, to missiles capable of that sort of acceleration. Not at such short range, not without more time to adjust.

Vipers broke past the last, desperate shield of laser fire, and warheads began to detonate.

* * *

"Oh my God," Sandra Inchman whispered, her face white as her surveillance platforms showed




disappearing from her plot. They went not by ones or twos, but by tens.

Captain Abercrombie's was one of the first to die, but he'd kept his tactical uplink on-line to the very end.

Inchman could scarcely believe the acceleration numbers, yet she had no choice but to believe as the brutally efficient massacre wiped away the Gaston System's total LAC force in less than three minutes.

Everette Beach sat frozen in his command chair. His swarthy face was the color of cold gravy, and his hands were pincers clamped on the armrests of his chair.

"I can't—" Commander Randall paused and cleared his throat. "I can't believe that," he said.

"Believe it," Beach rasped. He closed his eyes for a moment, then thrust himself up out of the chair.

"I knew we were going to lose them," he said flatly. "But I never would have sent them in if I'd even guessed they wouldn't kill a single Manty."

Some of Abercrombie's Cimeterres had gotten off their own offensive launches, but they'd achieved nothing. At their slower acceleration rate, it had taken them nine seconds longer to reach their targets, and most of the ships which had launched them were already dead by the time they did. Even the handful of Cimeterres which hadn't already been destroyed had had little or no attention to spare for the attack profile updates Republican missiles needed so much more badly than Manty missiles did, anyway. The tactical crews which would normally have provided those updates had been too distracted by the threat they'd faced . . . and too busy dying.

Superior Manty EW, sidewalls, point defense, and maneuverability had done the rest.

"You couldn't have known, Sir," Inchman said quietly.

"No. No, I couldn't have. And just at the moment, that's remarkably cold comfort, Sandra."

He gave her a tight smile, trying to take the sting from his response to her effort to comfort him, and she managed to smile back, briefly.

"What now, Sir?" Randall asked in a low voice.

"First, we make sure all of the tactical details on what they just did to Abercrombie get recorded in the secure database dirt-side. The next poor son-of-a-bitch some stupid fucking admiral sends in against Manty LACs needs to at least know what he's getting into. And after that—"

He turned to look at his chief of staff.

"After that, it's our turn."

Chapter Twenty-One

"Good evening, Senator."

Arnold Giancola pressed the hold key on the document viewer in his lap as one of his bodyguards opened the limousine door.

"Good evening, Giuseppe," Senator Jason Giancola said, nodding courteously to the security man as he slid in through the opened door to join his older brother in the luxurious passenger compartment.

Giuseppe Lauder closed the door behind him, gave the immediate vicinity a quick scan, then waved to the chase car and climbed into the front passenger seat beside the driver.

"Central, State One is departing for the Octagon," he said into his boom mike.

"Central copies, Giuseppe. State One departing the Residence for the Octagon at . . . eighteen-thirty-one hours."

The response wasn't exactly by The Book, but Camille Begin had the Central Dispatch watch this evening, and she and Lauder had worked together for over three years.

"Confirm, Central," Lauder said. He nodded to the driver, and the limo and its chase car lifted quietly into the evening.

* * *

"Just what's this 'emergency meeting' all about, Arnold?"

Jason Giancola asked.

"You're asking me?" Arnold replied. "You're the one on the Naval Oversight Committee, Jason! And—" he smiled without much humor "—our good friend Thomas Theisman seems to've lost my personal com combination these days."

"Because he hates your guts," the younger Giancola said seriously. Arnold cocked an eyebrow at him, and Jason frowned. "I know you're the brains, Arnold. I've never pretended you weren't. But I'm telling you, that man is dangerous."

"I never thought he wasn't," Arnold said mildly. "On the other hand, he believes passionately in due process. Until—

and unless—I do something illegal, he's not going to take the law into his own hands, however much he and I may . .

. disagree."

"Maybe not," Jason conceded. "But getting back to my original question, I don't know any more about this meeting than you do. Except for the fact that I got my invitation as the ranking minority member of the Naval Committee. So whatever it is, it sounds like it's got a military dimension."

"What doesn't, these days?" Arnold said philosophically.

"Not much."

Jason glanced up to be certain the partition between the passenger compartment and the driver's compartment was closed, and that the privacy light on the intercom was illuminated. Then he looked very intently at his older brother.

"I don't know everything you've been doing, Arnold. But I do have my own sources, and according to one of them, someone inside the FIA is showing an awful lot of interest in Yves Grosclaude. I'm not going to ask you to tell me anything you don't want me to know, but the source who handed me that seems to think the interest in question has something to do with you, as well. Which, to be honest, is one reason I mentioned the fact that Theisman doesn't like you very much."

"Interest in Yves?"

Arnold blinked mildly at the Senator, his expression only moderately curious. After all, it wasn't as if Jason's warning was the first he'd heard about it. Jean-Claude Nesbitt had informed him four days ago that someone else had finally quietly—and quite illegally—accessed Grosclaude's documentary file. The information had produced a slight adrenaline jag, but mostly, what he'd felt was something very like relief.

"I don't have the least idea why anyone should be officially interested in Yves, Jason," he said after a moment, his gaze candid. "And if someone is, I don't see how it could possibly concern me."

* * *

His name was Axel Lacroix, and he was twenty-six T-

years old. His family had been Dolists for three generations, until the First Manticoran War. He'd been only a child when that war began, but he'd grown to young adulthood against its backdrop. He'd seen his family move off the BLS at last, seen his parents regain their self-respect, despite the oppressive grip of the Committee of Public Safety and State Security. He'd seen the changes beginning in the educational system, seen the even greater changes his younger siblings had faced when they entered school. And he'd seen the restoration of the Constitution and the concepts of personal responsibility . . . and liberty.

He'd been too young to serve in the First War, and he knew his parents really would have preferred for him to remain a civilian. But he owed a debt for all of those changes, and so when the fighting resumed, he'd enlisted in the Republican Marines.

Because of his occupation—he was a trained shipyard worker—his induction had been delayed, but orders to report for duty had finally been delivered to his modest apartment the day before.

He couldn't say the prospect didn't worry him. It did. He wasn't an idiot, after all. But he also had no regrets. He'd spent most of yesterday with his family, and today it had been time for the "going away party" his buddies and fellow workers at the yard had put together for him. The alcohol had flowed freely, there'd been laughter, and some tears, but no one had really been surprised. And since he was under orders to report the next day, he'd decided it was time for him to turn in early and sleep off as much of the conviviality as he could.

"You're sure you're okay to drive, Axel?" Angelo Goldbach asked as they walked across the parking garage.

"Of course I am," Axel replied. "It's not very far, anyway."

"I could run you home," Angelo offered.

"Don't be silly. I'm fine, I tell you. Besides, if you did, we'd probably sit up late drinking, and I need the sleep.

And Georgina would hunt me down and hurt me if I kept you out all night again."

"If you're sure," Angelo said.

They reached Angelo's parking stall, and he stood looking at his friend for a moment, then swept him into a quick, rough embrace.

"You watch your ass, Axel," he said, standing back and shaking Lacroix gently by the shoulders.

"Damn straight," Lacroix said jauntily, a little embarrassed by Goldbach's intensity. He smacked his friend on the upper arm, watched Goldbach climb into his car and pull out of the parking stall, then continued to his own vehicle.

The runabout wasn't very new, but personal vehicles of any sort were still relatively rare, especially here in the capital city, where most people relied on mass transit. For Lacroix, though, the slightly battered, jaunty little sports air car had always symbolized his and his family's success in proving they were more than simply one more clan of Dolist drones. Besides—he grinned as he unlocked the door and settled into the front seat—it might be old, but it was still fast, nimble, and downright fun to fly.

* * *

"Five minutes, Mr. Secretary."

"Thank you," Arnold Giancola acknowledged Giuseppe Lauder's warning and began sliding his document viewer and sheafs of record chips into his briefcase.

"Well, Jason," he said with a smile, "I imagine we'll be finding out shortly what all the mystery is about. And just between the two of us—"

"Ten o'clock!"

Giancola's head snapped up at Lauder's sudden shout.

The limousine swerved wildly, yanking hard to the right, and the Secretary of State's head whipped around to the left.

He just had time to see the runabout coming.

* * *

"With your permission, Madam President, I'll have Admiral Lewis go ahead and begin the briefing," Secretary of War Thomas Theisman said.

Eloise Pritchart looked at him, then glanced at the two empty chairs at the conference table.

"I realize the situation is serious," she said, after a moment. "But I think we might give the Secretary of State a few more minutes."

There might have been just the tiniest hint of a reprimand in her voice, although only someone who knew her well would have recognized it as such. Theisman did, and he bobbed his head very slightly in acknowledgment.

One or two of the other people seated around the table seemed to have some difficulty suppressing smiles as they observed the byplay. But Secretary of Technology Henrietta Barloi, one of Giancola's staunchest allies in the Cabinet, was not among them.

"I certainly agree, Madam President," she said frostily.

"In fact—"

"Excuse me, Ma'am."

Pritchart turned her head, eyebrows rising in mild surprise at the interruption. Sheila Thiessen, the senior member of her security detachment, was a past mistress at being totally unobtrusive at high level, sensitive meetings.

She also possessed a formidable degree of self-control—

what Kevin Usher called a "poker face"—which made her present stunned expression almost frightening.

"Yes, Sheila?" Pritchart's voice was sharper than usual, sharper than she'd intended it to be. "What is it?"

"There's been an accident, Madam President. Secretary Giancola's limousine's been involved in a mid-air."

" What? " Pritchart stared at Thiessen. Shock seemed to paralyze her vocal cords for a moment, then she shook herself. "How bad is it? Was the Secretary injured?"

"I . . . don't have the details yet," Thiessen said, brushing her unobtrusive earbug with a fingertip as if to indicate the source of what she did know. "But it doesn't sound good." She cleared her throat. "The preliminary message said there appear to have been no survivors, Ma'am."

* * *

"Jesus. I did not need this on top of everything else."

Thomas Theisman leaned back in his chair, rubbing both eyes with the heels of his hands. The emergency meeting had been hastily adjourned while the President dealt with the stunning news that her Secretary of State and his brother were both dead. Theisman couldn't fault her priorities, especially not in light of the inevitable time delays in the transmission of any messages or orders over interstellar distances. It wasn't as if responding to what had prompted the meeting in the first place was as time-critical as dealing with the immediate consequences of what promised to be a fundamental shift in the Republic's domestic politics.

But now that everyone who needed to be informed had been told and Pritchart had released her official statement (which dutifully expressed her profound regrets over the unexpected demise of her valued colleague and longtime friend), the President and her closest advisers and allies—

Theisman himself, Denis LePic, Rachel Hanriot, Kevin Usher, and Wilhelm Trajan—had assembled in the Secretary of War's Octagon office.

"Oh, we didn't need it in more ways than you know, Tom," Pritchart said wearily. The last three hours had been a hectic whirl, and even she looked a little frazzled around the edges.

"Especially not combined with the news of the Manties'

raids," Hanriot said sourly. "What's that old saying about when it rains it pours?"

"I expect public opinion isn't going to take kindly to the news the Manties just bloodied our nose," Theisman agreed. "On the other hand, it's possible what happened to Giancola will actually distract the newsies. And let's be honest here—I don't think anyone in this room is especially going to miss him."

"You might be surprised." Pritchart's tone was bleak, and Theisman frowned at her.

"What do you mean, Eloise? You've been sounding semi-cryptic all evening."

"I know. I know!"

The President shook her head. But instead of explaining immediately, she looked at Usher.

"Have you heard from Abrioux, Kevin?"

"Yes, I have." Usher's voice was deeper than usual. "All the preliminary indications are that it was a genuine accident."

Theisman looked back and forth between the President and the FIA Director.

"And just why shouldn't it have been a 'genuine accident'?" he asked. "I admit I detested the man, but I promise I didn't have him killed!"

Nobody smiled, and his frown deepened.

"How did it happen?" Pritchart asked Usher. "I mean, a traffic accident less than five minutes from the Octagon!"

"According to the forensics team's preliminary, the other driver—an Axel Lacroix," Usher said, consulting his memo pad's display "—was well over the legal limit for blood-alcohol. Basically, he was simply flying on manual, rather than under traffic control, and he failed to yield and broadsided Giancola's limo at a high rate of speed."

"Flying on manual?" LePic repeated. "If his blood-alcohol was so high, why was he on manual?"

"We'll have to wait for the tech teams to complete their examination of the wreckage, but Lacroix was driving an older model runabout. Right off the top of my head, I'd guess the internal sensors weren't working properly. Hell, I suppose it's even possible he deliberately disconnected the safety overrides. It's against the law, of course, but a lot of people used to do it simply because traffic control was so spotty they didn't trust it in an emergency. At any rate, for some reason the overrides which should have locked someone in his condition out of manual control didn't do it."

"Oh, how perfectly fucking wonderful," Pritchart said bitterly, and Theisman leaned forward, both palms flat on his desk.

"All right," he said, his voice the flat, no-nonsense one of a flag officer accustomed to command, "suppose you just explain to me what the hell is going on here?"

If anyone in that room—with the possible exception of Hanriot—found his tone an inappropriate one in which to address the President of the Republic, they didn't say so.

"Tom," Pritchart said instead, her voice very serious,

"this is going to open an incredible can of worms."

Theisman looked like a man in serious danger of spontaneously exploding, and she went on in the same flat, hard tone.

"Kevin's been conducting a black investigation of Giancola for almost a month now. Denis has known about it from the beginning, but I didn't tell you about it because, frankly, you're an even worse actor than Denis. You already hated Giancola, and I was afraid you'd have a hard time not making him suspicious that something was going on. I'd intended to bring you fully on board as soon as Kevin's team had anything concrete to report."

"Investigating him over what?" Theisman's eyes were intent, as were Trajan's. Hanriot's expression still showed more puzzlement than anything else, but alarm was beginning to show, as well.

"Investigating the possibility that he falsified our diplomatic correspondence, not the Manties," Pritchart sighed.

"That he what? " Theisman erupted to his feet. Trajan didn't even move, as if astonishment had frozen him, and Hanriot jerked back as if Pritchart had slapped her.

"Kevin," Pritchart said harshly. "Tell them."

All eyes swivelled to the FIA chief, and he sighed.

"It all started when I began asking myself a few questions I couldn't answer," he said. "And when I started trying to find the answers, it turned out that—"

* * *

"—so we finally hacked into Grosclaude's attorney's files six days ago," Usher concluded, several minutes later. "And when we did, we found Grosclaude had apparently tucked away evidence which incontrovertibly proved Giancola was responsible for altering both our own outgoing diplomatic correspondence and the incoming notes from the Manties."

"Let me get this straight," Theisman said in a dangerously calm voice. "You found this file four days ago, and this is the very first I'm hearing about it?"

"First," Pritchart said crisply, "you're the Secretary of War, Tom Theisman. You are not the Attorney General, you aren't a judge or magistrate, and you had no pressing

'need to know' until we'd been able to confirm things one way or the other."

Steely topaz eyes met angry eyes of brown, and it was the brown ones which looked away.

"Second," the President said slightly more mildly, "as I've already mentioned, your thespian abilities leave something to be desired in a politician operating at your level.

"Third, despite the fact that I very unofficially authorized Kevin's investigation, it's been totally black and, to be perfectly honest, operating outside the law. You wouldn't have been very happy to hear about that. And even if you'd been prepared to sing joyous hosannas, there was the minor problem that the only evidence we had was illegally obtained.

"And, fourth—" She gestured at Usher.

"And, fourth," Usher took over, "the evidence in the files was clearly fabricated."


Any number of people would have been prepared to testify that Thomas Theisman was a tough-minded individual, but he was beginning to sound undeniably shellshocked.

"There are at least three significant internal inconsistencies," Usher said. "They aren't at all obvious on a first read-through, but they become quite apparent when you analyze the entire file carefully."

"So Giancola didn't do it?"

"On the basis of the documentary evidence we currently possess, no," Usher said. "In fact, on the basis of the evidence, it looks very much as if Grosclaude did it and intended to frame Giancola if and when his actions were discovered."

"Why do I seem to hear a 'but' hovering in the background?"

"Because I'm pretty sure that somehow or other it was actually Giancola who fabricated the files we found and then planted them on Grosclaude. After having him murdered."

"In an 'air car accident,'" Theisman said.

"There seem to be a lot of those going around," Usher agreed with mordant humor.

"So you see our problem, Tom? And you, Rachel?"

Pritchart said. "The only 'evidence' we've actually been able to turn up—illegally—is demonstrably falsified.

Apparently, it was intended to implicate Giancola, which would undoubtedly be construed by a lot of people, especially his allies and supporters, as proof he was actually innocent. However, we have the fact that the person who supposedly falsified it was killed in what Kevin and I both consider to be a highly suspicious 'accident.' And now, unfortunately, our only other suspect has just been killed in yet another air car accident. Bearing in mind just how fond of similar 'accidents' both the Legislaturalists and StateSec were, how do you suppose public opinion—or Congress—is going to react if we lay this whole—What did you call it, Kevin? Oh, yes. If we lay this whole 'shit sandwich' out on the public information boards?"

"But if he did do it, then our entire justification for going back to war disappears." Theisman shook his head, his expression haunted.

"Yes, it does," Pritchart said unflinchingly. "I could argue

—convincingly, I think—that what the High Ridge Government actually did do would have justified our threatening to use force, or actually using it, to compel the Manties to negotiate in good faith. Unfortunately, that isn't what we did. We used force because we appeared to have evidence they were negotiating in bad faith, and we published the diplomatic correspondence they'd falsified to prove our point.

"And that, however much we may regret it, and however we got there, is the point we have to begin from now.

We're in a war. A popular war, with powerful political support. And all we have is a theory, evidence we can't use (and which was probably manufactured), and two dead governmental officials, who we'll never be able to convince the public died in genuine accidents. And on top of that, we've got the news of these raids by Harrington."

She shook her head.

"How bad were the raids?" Hanriot asked. Theisman looked at her, and the Treasury Secretary grimaced. "Look, part of this is probably a case of my looking for anything to distract me from this little vest pocket nuke Eloise and Kevin have just dropped on us. On the other hand, I really do need to know—both as the head of the Treasury Department and if I'm going to be able to offer any opinion on how news of them would combine with all the rest of this."

"Um." Theisman frowned, then shrugged. "All right, I see your point, Rachel."

He tipped his chair back again, clearly marshaling his thoughts.

"To put it bluntly," he said, after a moment, "Harrington just gave us an object lesson in how rear area raids ought to be conducted. She hit Gaston, Tambourin, Squalus, Hera, and Hallman, and there's not a damned bit of orbital industry left in any of them."

"You're joking." Hanriot sounded shocked.

"No," Theisman said in a tone of massive self-restraint,

"I'm not. They took out everything. And, in the process, they also destroyed our defensive forces in all five systems."

"How much did you lose?" Pritchart asked.

"Two battleships, seven battlecruisers, four old cruisers, three destroyers, and over a thousand LACs," Theisman said flatly. "And before anyone says anything else," he continued, "as depressing as those numbers are, remember the pickets were spread across five separate star systems.

None of the system commanders had anything like the forces he would've required to stand off an attack planned this carefully and executed in such force. And all of that is a direct consequence of the deployment patterns I authorized."

"But if they took out everything," Hanriot said, "then the economic consequences are—"

"The economic damage is going to be bad," Theisman said. "But in the final analysis, all five of the systems were effectively noncontributors to the war effort. And, for that matter, to the economy as a whole."

Hanriot started to bristle, but Theisman shook his head.

"Rachel, that's based on your own department's analysis.

Remember the one you and Tony Nesbitt put together before Thunderbolt?"

Hanriot settled back in her chair and nodded slowly.

After two T-years of hard, unremitting labor, her analysts, in conjunction with Nesbitt's Commerce Department, had completed the first really honest, comprehensive survey of the Republic's economic status in better than a century barely six months before the shooting had started back up.

"All these systems were listed in the 'break even'

category," the Secretary of War continued. "At best, they were second-tier systems, and Gaston and Hallman, in particular, had been money-losing propositions under the Legislaturalists. That was turning around, but they were still barely contributing to our positive cash flow. The destruction in the star systems is going to have a net negative effect, I'm sure—your analysts will be able to evaluate that better than I'm in any position to do—

because the damage to the local civilian infrastructure means we'll be forced to commit federal relief funds and resources on an emergency basis. But none of them were particularly critical. Which is, frankly, the reason they weren't more heavily defended. We can't be strong everywhere, and the systems we've left most weakly covered are the ones we can most readily survive losing."

"Granted," Pritchart said after a moment. "But what we can afford in cold-blooded economic and industrial terms and what we can afford in terms of public opinion may not be exactly the same thing."

"They almost certainly aren't the same thing, and the Manties clearly understand that," Theisman replied.

"Whoever selected their targets did a damned good job.

Harrington was able to use relatively limited forces and still attain crushing local superiority. She took virtually no losses of her own, cost us sixteen hyper-capable units in addition to all those LACs, and scored the Manties first clear-cut offensive victory of the war. And, to be perfectly honest, the fact that they did it under Honor Harrington's command is also going to have an impact. She's something of our own personal bogeyman, after all.

"So, completely exclusive of any physical damage she's done to us," he continued, "this is inevitably going to have an impact in Congress. I've already got the General Staff considering how we're going to respond when the senators and representatives from every system which hasn't been raided yet start demanding we strengthen their covering forces."

"I'm afraid you're absolutely right about what they're going to demand," Pritchart said. "And it's going to be hard to explain why they can't have it."

"No," Theisman disagreed. "It's going to be very easy to explain we can't possibly be strong everywhere, and especially not without frittering away our offensive capability, exactly as the Manties want us to do. What's going to be hard is convincing frightened men and women to listen to the explanation."

"Not just members of Congress, either," LePic said heavily. "It's going to be just as hard to explain to the general public."

"Actually," Pritchart said, "I'm less concerned about explaining that to them, or even explaining how we 'let this happen,' than I am about the impact on public support for the war. It isn't going to undermine it—not at this point, at least. What it's going to do is further inflame public opinion."

"I admit it could have that effect," Trajan said, "but—"

"No, Wilhelm. She's right," Hanriot interrupted. "Public opinion has been riding a sustained emotional high since Thunderbolt. As far as the woman in the street's concerned, we cleaned the Manties' clock everywhere except at Sidemore, and there's a tremendous feeling of satisfaction, of having rehabilitated ourselves as a major military power. I think it would be impossible to overestimate the degree to which our sense of national pride has rebounded with the restoration of the Constitution, the turnaround in the economy, and now the successful reconquest of the occupied systems, coupled with the enormous losses we've inflicted on the Manties'

navy. So far, this has got to have been the most popular war in our history.

"And what's happened now?" She shrugged. "The Manties have punched us back. They've hurt us, and they've demonstrated that they may be able to do it again. But our actual naval losses, however painful they may be, are literally nothing compared to the losses we inflicted on them in Thunderbolt. So what's going to happen, at least in the short term, is that public opinion's going to demand we go out and whack the Manties back, harder, to demonstrate to them that they don't want to piss us off.

There's going to be some panic, some shouting about reinforcing to protect our more vulnerable star systems, but mostly, people are going to figure the best way to do that is to finish Manticore off, once and for all."

"I'm afraid Rachel's right, Wilhelm," Pritchart said. "And that's one reason I wish to hell Arnold hadn't gotten his goddamned traitorous ass killed this evening. If I'm ever going to go public with all this, this would be the best time to do it—now, immediately. The longer we wait, the more suspect the theory's going to look for anyone who's not already inclined to believe it. But there's absolutely nothing concrete we can give the newsies, Congress, or anybody else, only theories and suspicions we can't prove.

If I did what I really ought to do—ordered a standstill of our own forces, told the Manties what we think happened, and asked for an immediate cease-fire—I'd probably be impeached, even assuming anyone in Congress, or any of Arnold's allies in the Cabinet, were prepared to believe us for a moment. And, frankly, I don't know if the Constitution could survive the kind of dogfight this would turn into."

Silence hung heavily in the office for at least two minutes. Then Theisman shook himself.

"Bottom line time, Madam President," he said. "As I see it, we have two options. One is to do what you 'really ought to do' on the basis of what we think happened. The other is to vigorously pursue military victory, or at least our efforts to attain a sufficiently powerful position of military advantage to force the Manties to accept our original, fairly limited objectives. What I don't think we can do is try to accomplish both of those at once."

"Not without some sort of proof of what happened,"

Hanriot agreed.

"At the moment, I think it's entirely possible we'll never have that sort of proof," Usher cautioned. "These are awfully muddy waters, and the only two people who really knew what happened—Grosclaude and Giancola—are both dead."

"Sooner or later we're going to have to get to the bottom of it, and it's going to have to be done publicly," Pritchart said. "There's no other way for an open society which believes in the rule of law to handle it. And if we don't do it now, then when we finally get around to it, all of us—

and especially me, as President—are going to be castigated for delaying open disclosure. Our personal reputations, and quite possibly everything we've accomplished, are going to come under attack, and a lot of it's going to be vicious and ugly. And, to be perfectly honest, we'll deserve it."

She looked around the office, her shoulders squared.

"Unfortunately," she said into the silence, "at this moment, I don't see any choice. Kevin, keep looking. Find us something. But until he does," she swept the office once again with her eyes, "I see no option but to keep our suspicions to ourselves and get on with winning my goddamned war."

Chapter Twenty-Two

"All right," Admiral Marquette said. "What do we actually know?"

"We're still getting the details, Sir," Rear Admiral Lewis told the Chief of the Naval Staff and Thomas Theisman's immediate uniformed subordinate. "We know there's still a lot to come, but so far, it looks like most of what we don't already have is only going to be variations on the same theme."

"And those variations are?" Marquette prompted when Lewis paused.

"I'm sorry, Arnaud," Vice Admiral Trenis said, "but I thought Admiral Theisman was going to join us today."

"And you're wondering why I'm not waiting for him."

Marquette smiled thinly. "I'm afraid that's one point about which not even you and Victor have a 'need to know,'

Linda. Let's just say something else has come up which requires the attention of the Secretary and certain other members of the Cabinet. And when they get done with that meeting," he added a bit more pointedly, "they're going to want analysis and, if possible, recommendations from us. So, let's get to it, shall we?"

"Of course, Sir," Trenis said, and nodded to Lewis.


"Yes, Ma'am."

Lewis tapped his memo pad to life, glanced at it—more out of habit than need, Marquette suspected—and then looked back up at his two superiors.

"I think probably our initial evaluation of why they hit the targets they hit was on the money," he said. "All five systems have enough population to give them several representatives in the lower house, plus, of course, their senators. If the object is to create political pressure to disperse our forces, that would obviously have been a factor in their thinking, and my people are confident it was.

"Economically, as I'm sure we're all already aware, the elimination of their industrial bases will have only a minor direct impact on our ability to sustain our war effort. The indirect economic implications are something else, of course, and I expect Secretary Hanriot and Secretary Nesbitt are going to be less than happy dealing with the civilian fallout."

"How complete was the destruction, Victor?" Marquette asked. "Was it is bad as the initial reports indicated?"

"Worse, Sir," Lewis said glumly. Marquette arched an eyebrow, and the rear admiral gave an unhappy shrug.

"Our own raids have been primarily probes for information, Sir—reconnaissances in force, for all intents and purposes. We've used light units, primarily LACs, and we've settled for picking off individual industrial lobes that we could get to without taking on really heavy forces. And, of course, the Manties don't have anywhere near as many systems to protect as we do. That means the ones they do have to cover are generally picketed much more heavily than anything except our truly critical ones.

"Harrington's target selection was different. She wasn't after information; she was here to deliver a message. She picked star systems which weren't heavily defended, and she attacked them with much heavier forces. She not only brought along the firepower she needed to destroy all of our defensive units, she also brought along enough she was able to spread out, take her time, and destroy effectively every single orbital platform in each of the systems she hit. Asteroid extraction centers, foundries, power satellites, communications satellites, navigation satellites, construction platforms, freight platforms, warehouses— all of it, Sir. Gone."

"And that was part of her 'message,' as you put it?"

"Yes, Sir. It was a statement of the level of 'scorched earth' policy the Manties are prepared to embrace. It was also a statement that they intend to operate as aggressively as possible within the limitations of their force availability. Please note, for example, that they committed both Invictus-class superdreadnoughts and what appears to be their complete current inventory of Agamemnon-class pod battlecruisers. And they weren't particularly shy about showing us just what the Katanas and those frigging awful missiles of theirs could do, either."

"In other words, they're prepared to pull out all the stops."

"Yes, Sir. And they're also prepared to let some of their technical cats out of the bag. They're not trying to maintain operational security, which is an indication of how important they believe their raids to be. This is the first team they're sending in, Admiral. The fact that Harrington is in command of it would be a strong enough indication of that, but the force mix they're employing confirms it, in my opinion."

"And mine," Marquette agreed. Trenis nodded as well, but then she tapped a forefinger on the conference table.

"There's another message in what they've done, this far, at least, Arnaud," she said.

"I'm certain there are quite a few," the chief of staff said dryly. "Which one did you intend to point out?"

"The casualty figures," she said flatly. "I know we took virtually one hundred percent casualties in our LAC groups in Gaston, Tambourin, Squalus, and Hallman. And our shipboard casualties were almost as bad—not surprisingly, I suppose, when they destroyed every single ship they managed to bring into range. But in Hera, Harrington herself gave Milligan the option of saving his people's lives.

And they didn't kill or even injure a single civilian when they took out the infrastructure in that system, or anywhere else."

"That was partly because they had the time, Ma'am,"

Lewis pointed out. "They had complete control of the star systems, and they could afford to give our civilians time to evacuate."

"Agreed. But Harrington didn't have to let Milligan stand down his forces. And they would have been justified, under accepted interstellar law, in simply giving us 'a reasonable time' to evacuate, which would have been a lot shorter than the time they actually gave us." She shook her head. "No, I think part of it was the Manties' way—or, at least, Harrington's way—of telling us that if we show restraint—whenever we can, at least—they'll do the same."

"You may have a point," Marquette said. "Certainly Harrington's record, despite that ridiculous 'murder conviction' the Legislaturalists cooked up after Basilisk, would lead us to expect that out of her. But I think she may also be being a bit subtler than some of our analysts would have expected out of her."


"Yes. Think about the other side of her 'message' to Milligan. 'Our technical superiority is so great we could kill you anytime we want to, but because we're nice guys, we're not going to today. All you have to do is blow up your own ships and get out of our way.'"

Marquette's irony was withering, and Trenis frowned.

"You're seeing it as an attack on our people's confidence and morale."

"At least in part. Mind you, from what we know of Harrington, I'm sure she was delighted to not to kill anyone she didn't have to. But she apparently also believes in killing as many birds with each stone as she can."

Trenis nodded silently for a moment, then looked almost diffidently at the chief of staff.

"May I ask if a Board's going to be convened on Milligan's actions?"

"I think you can confidently assume one is," Marquette said a bit grimly. "And I'm not at all sure how it's going to come out, but if I had to place a bet, it wouldn't be on a happy outcome. The fact is that Milligan showed good sense in not getting his people killed for nothing.

Unfortunately, that psychological warfare element I just mentioned has to be considered as well. I suspect any Board's going to find he acted appropriately . . . and that he's going to be beached anyway, as a sort of object lesson. It's not fair, but we have to consider the morale of the Service as a whole."

"I agree that we do, Sir," Trenis said after a moment. "On the other hand, we've gone to some lengths to convince our people they won't get shot as an example to others if they get caught in the gears through no fault of their own.

And, frankly, that's exactly what happened to Tom Milligan. He couldn't run, he couldn't bring the enemy into his weapons' range, and the force mix we'd assigned him was hopelessly inadequate even to stand off modern Manty LACs, much less SD(P)s. If we hammer him for his actions, then we tell people we expect them to do the same thing Admiral Beach did, and that we'll hammer them if they don't."

"Um." Marquette pursed his lips, then shrugged. "I said I wasn't sure how it's going to come out, and what you've just said is the main reason I'm not. As for Beach, he wasn't given the same option Harrington gave Milligan, so it's not exactly as if he rejected the opportunity to save his people's lives. And from what we've been able to piece together about his tactics, they were about as good as someone in a position that hopeless could have come up with."

"I wasn't criticizing him, Sir. As a matter of fact, Everette and I knew one another for almost fifteen T-years. I'm just not sure most of our people would appreciate the difference between the options he and Milligan had, and I don't want to create a situation in which our flag officers and captains start to think we expect them to go down, every beam firing, no matter how hopeless the situation." Trenis' expression was grim. "I lost too many friends, saw too many good ships blown out of space, because their COs knew that was exactly what the Committee expected out of them."

Marquette considered her thoughtfully. Linda Trenis wasn't simply one of the new Republican Navy's senior admirals. As the head of the Bureau of Planning, she was responsible for the formulation and implementation of doctrine and training standards. As such, the concerns she was expressing fell squarely and correctly within her purview.

"Very well, Linda. Your concern is noted, and I'll make certain it's taken into consideration whenever the Board on Hera is impaneled. For what it's worth, I agree that the points you've raised are entirely valid. The problem's going to be exactly where we balance them against the need to maintain the most aggressive mental and psychological stance we can."

Trenis nodded, and Marquette turned back to Victor Lewis.

"As you just pointed out, Victor, they did show us their best where their combat hardware is concerned. What did we learn in the process?"

"Not as much as I'd have liked, Sir," Lewis said frankly.

"Especially not given the price we paid for the info we did get. There are a few things we know now that we didn't know then, though.

"The one drawback to Milligan's acceptance of Harrington's terms, from our perspective over at Operational Research, is that her SD(P)s were never forced to fire. As such, we weren't able to get any sort of feel for how the Invictuses' armaments may vary from their Medusa/Harrington ships. The one thing that does stand out from the visual scans some of our recon platforms got and transmitted down to the planet before Harrington wiped them out is that the reports that the Invictus mounts no broadside missile tubes appears to be accurate.

We're not certain why. We've had to make the same decision primarily because our missiles are so damned big, compared to theirs, that we really can't afford the mass penalty for launchers big enough to handle them in ships already designed to deploy pods. All the indications from captured hardware and what we've gotten from Erewhon are that the Manties don't suffer from that particular problem, or not, at least, to anything like the same degree, so there's obviously a different basis for the design philosophy.

"In the case of Gaston, we got a lot of sensor information on the Grayson Katanas. I'm having all of it sent directly to Admiral Foraker at Bolthole for her teams'

consideration, although my initial take on it is that most of it indicates the Katana is built around more of that damned Manticoran miniaturization tech we can't match yet. Certainly, they're very small units, with extremely high acceleration rates. They appear to have all the Shrike's defensive capabilities, and whatever the hell they call that new missile of theirs. On the other hand, they never fired a shot in energy range, so we're not sure what they carry there. Even bearing in mind that we're talking about a Manty-derived design, there can't be a lot of room for the kind of energy armament the Shrike hauls around with it.

"The real bad news seems to be those missiles. They obviously can't have the sort of range our Cimeterres'

missiles do, but they're incredibly fast. At the very minimum, we're going to have to completely overhaul our missile defense software to deal with their speed and maneuverability, and their sensor and tracking ability appear to have significantly improved, as well. The fact that the Manties obviously know about the Triple Ripple, and have adapted their tactics to defeat it, further complicates the situation. Frankly, at least until the next-generation LACs start coming out of Bolthole, I don't think our LACs are going to be able to encounter Manty units—or, at least, Katanas—with any realistic hope of victory."

"My initial feeling was that Victor was being unduly pessimistic, Sir," Trenis put in. "Having had a better look at the raw data, though, I no longer think that. My own feeling, at this time, is that we need to restrict the Cimeterres essentially to the anti-missile role. If they have to mix it up with a Manty or Grayson LACs, they're really going to need to do it from within our own starships'

engagement envelope. They're going to need the support that badly."

"Wonderful," Marquette muttered sourly. Then he shrugged. "On the other hand, we never did see the Cimeterre as anything except a way to blunt Manty LAC

attacks. Certainly they've been useful in other roles, but no one on our side is likely to confuse them with a main combatant. Actually, I'm more interested in what we know about their Agamemnons."

"First of all, Sir, they're big," Lewis said. "Our best estimate from Admiral Beach's tactical take is that they're somewhere around one-point-seven to one-point-eight megatons. That makes them about twice the size of their previous battlecruiser classes.

"Secondly, they don't appear to deploy the same number of pods per salvo as we've seen out of their SD(P)s. Manty pods are damnably hard sensor targets, but it looks like they were only rolling four pods at a time. However—" he looked up and met Marquette's eyes "—the pods they were rolling apparently carried fourteen missiles each."


"That's correct, Sir. So their four-pod salvos were effectively rolling almost as many missiles as their SD(P)s'

six-pod salvos."

"How in God's name did they cram that many missiles into a single pod?" Marquette demanded.

"I know I'm in charge of NavInt, Sir, but that's a question I just can't answer. Not yet. We do know they've gone to a fusion plant, instead of capacitors, in their current-generation MDMs. All indications, however, were that they were sticking with about the same number of birds per pod and simply reducing the size of each pod, to get more combat endurance rather than greater salvo density. That doesn't seem to be what they've done here, though, and so far, we don't have a clue how you could possibly stuff that many missiles—even if they are fusion-powered—into battlecruiser-sized pods. Some of my people are suggesting that we must be looking at an entirely new missile, but if we are, they managed to keep its development completely black. Which, unfortunately, wouldn't exactly be a first.

Say what you will about the Manties, they're clearly aware of the importance of their tech advantage, and they're very good at maintaining security on their R and D


"Fourteen birds," Marquette muttered, shaking his head.

"Jesus. If they do start packing their SD(P)s' pods that full, proportionately, we're going to be in even more trouble in a long-range duel."

"Agreed," Trenis said. "On the other hand, they appear to have concluded that sixty-missile salvos are about the max for their fire control. For the moment, at least."

"Sure," Marquette snorted. "Until they get around to upgrading it!"

He frowned down at the tabletop, considering what he'd been told so far, then inhaled deeply.

"All right. Whatever else we may think about Admiral Beach's tactics, or the casualties he suffered, we're damned lucky we got all the tactical info that we did. And we wouldn't have, if he'd declined to fight. Another point,"

he looked up at Trenis, "to be considered when the Board sits on Milligan's actions.

"I can tell from what you've already said," he returned his attention to Lewis, "that Admiral Theisman and I are going to want to sit down and spend some time with your detailed, written report. And, as you've already observed, it's imperative we get all of this information to Admiral Foraker as soon as possible.

"However, I want you personally, Victor, to concentrate on something else."


"There's going to be hell to pay in Congress when news of this is confirmed. People are going to be screaming for additional protection for their constituents, and it's going to be damned hard to tell them no. By the same token, if we're looking at an increased technological inferiority, it's going to be more imperative than ever that we keep our combat power concentrated. I can't begin to predict how that's all going to play out—politics, thank God, aren't part of my turf! But I do know, from the brief conversations I've had so far with the Secretary, that he's going to want some sort of prediction of where they're likely to do this to us next."

"Sir," Lewis said, his expression troubled, "I don't see any way to do that. There are literally dozens of places they could hit us the way they did here. We've got maybe twenty-five or thirty first-tier systems, and that many again secondary or tertiary systems. Without completely dispersing our fleet strength, we can't begin to cover that broad an area against attacks in the strength these demonstrated. And I'm afraid tea leaf-readers have at least as good a chance as my analysts do of predicting which of them we need to cover. For that matter, if they scout aggressively enough, they'll be able to tell where we've beefed up the defenses and simply go someplace else.

What they did with their stealthed destroyers and FTL

arrays this time around is proof enough of that."

"I assure you, I'm already painfully aware of the points you just raised," Marquette said grimly. "I'm also aware that I'm asking you to do something which is quite possibly impossible. I don't have any choice but to ask you, however, and you don't have any choice but to figure out how to do it anyway. There has to be some sort of underlying pattern to their target selection. I can't believe someone like Harrington is just reaching into a hat and pulling out names at random. For that matter, the spacing on this cluster of raids demonstrates she isn't. So try to get inside her head. Run it through the computers, kick it around, try to get some sort of feel for what kind of tendencies or inclinations may be pushing her choices."

"We can do that, Sir—run it through the computers and kick it around, I mean. Whether or not we can get 'inside her head' is something else entirely. And, Sir, I'm afraid that even if that's possible, we're going to need a bigger sample of her target selections before any pattern begins to suggest itself. In other words, I don't think I'll be able to give you any sort of prediction until after she's hit us again, possibly more than once."

"Understood," Marquette said in a heavy voice. "Do your best. No one's going to expect miracles out of you, but we need your very best on it. If we can guess right, even once, and smack her with heavier forces than she anticipates—

maybe even mousetrap one of her raiding forces—we may be able to make them reconsider this entire strategy."

Chapter Twenty-Three

"That's the last of them, Your Grace."


"Yes, Ma'am." Mercedes Brigham smiled hugely at Honor.

"According to the preliminary reports, we didn't lose anyone on combat ops."

"That's . . . hard to believe," Honor said. She reached up to gently caress Nimitz's ears and shook her head. "Mind you, I'm delighted to hear it. I just didn't expect it."

"Good planning, good target selection, detailed preattack reconnaissance, FTL sensor capability, overwhelming force advantage at the point of contact, and Katanas to smack hell out of their piece-of-crap LACs."

Brigham shrugged. "Ma'am, we were playing with our deck, and they didn't even get to cut the cards, much less shuffle."

"Not this time," Honor agreed. "I suspect they're going to make it a priority to see to it we don't do that to them again, though."

"Which was the entire point of the exercise, wasn't it, Your Grace?"

Brigham grinned at her. Nimitz bleeked in amusement, echoing the chief of staff's cheerfulness, and Honor was forced to smile back at her.

"Yes, Mercedes. Yes, it was," she agreed. "And I rather suspect the Admiralty's going to be pleased with us."

"I'm sure they are," Brigham said a bit less jubilantly.

"And they're also going to want us to go out and do it again, as soon as we can."

"Of course they are, although I'm sure we'll have at least a couple of weeks to plan."

"I'd like to have more time, Your Grace," Brigham's tone was downright sober this time. Honor looked at her a little quizzically, and the chief of staff shrugged. "Part of the reason it went so well this time was that you, Andrea, Admiral Truman and Admiral McKeon, and I had so much time to kick it around. There was time to look at the best current intelligence data, to model the attacks, to think about where their rear area coverage was going to be weakest. With less time, we're more likely to miss something and stub our toes."

"It's always that way, isn't it?" Honor's smile was a bit more crooked than the artificial nerves in the left side of her face could normally account for. "Remember what Clausewitz said."

"Which quote this time?"

"'Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.'"

"Well, he got that one right, Your Grace."

"He got quite a few of them right, actually. Especially for a theorist who never exercised high command himself.

Of course, he got some of them wrong, too. In this case, though, I think we'll probably be okay for at least Cutworm II. Especially if any of our additional units have reported in while we were away."

"That would be nice, wouldn't it? Care to place any small wagers on whether or not they have?"

"Not particularly." Honor shook her head, her smile tarter than ever. "We should know in the next few hours, one way or the other. In the meantime, Tim," she looked over her shoulder at her flag lieutenant, "please have Harper make a general signal. I'd like all flag officers to repair aboard the flagship, with their senior staffers, by fourteen-thirty hours. I want them prepared to discuss each system, including analysis of damage inflicted, and any observations on the Havenites' system defense doctrine. I also want discussion of how well our current doctrine and hardware worked and any suggestions for how we might make further improvements. And tell them to plan on staying for dinner."

"Yes, Ma'am." Lieutenant Meares grinned. "But this time, they all know what that means!"

"Lieutenant, I have no idea what you're talking about,"

Honor said sternly, almond eyes twinkling, then made a shooing motion with one hand. "Now run along and see to it before something nasty happens to you."

"On my way, Ma'am, and—" Meares paused in the day cabin hatch just long enough to give her another grin "—

shaking in abject terror."

He disappeared, and Honor looked at Brigham.

"Is it my imagination, or does the staff seem to be getting just a bit uppity these days?"

"Oh, definitely your imagination, Your Grace."

"I thought it was."

* * *

"Okay," Solomon Hayes said, "what's so important?"

He sat in an expensive Landing restaurant, looking out through its two hundredth-floor's crystoplast wall across the waters of Jason Bay. The sun was just dipping below the horizon, turning the wrinkled blue sheet of water bloody and painting the clouds in crimson, purple, and vermilion.

The food was almost good enough to justify its priciness, and the view, he admitted, was spectacular. And not just where the scenery was concerned. The exquisitely attired woman seated across the table from him looked as if she'd probably profited from more than a bit of biosculpt, and the flowing mass of beautiful red hair spilling down her back spoke directly to Hayes's smattering of ancient Irish genes.

She was also immoderately wealthy, with powerful political connections. Most of which, he conceded, could probably be construed as liabilities, just at the moment.

Still, she'd been an important inside source during the High Ridge years, and she continued to offer an insight into the inner workings of the currently gelded Conservative Association.

"So direct and to the point," she said now, pouting slightly. "You might at least pretend I'm more than just a newsy's source, Derek."

"My dear Countess," Hayes replied, leering at her only half-professionally, "I believe I've amply demonstrated in other environs that you're much more than just a source.

In fact, I do hope you haven't made other plans for the evening?"

"Bertram has, but since he didn't discuss them with me—

and since I believe they include a pair of barely legal-age girls—I felt free to reserve my own evening for other . . .

activities. Did you have something in mind?"

She smiled, and Hayes smiled back.

"As a matter of fact, I do. Something involving a friend's yacht, moonlight, champagne, silk sheets, and a few other things like that."

"My goodness, you do know how to compensate an informant for her news, don't you?" There was an ever so faint steeliness in the glorious blue eyes across the table from him.

"I try," he said, not attempting to deny the implication.

There wasn't much point, after all. Besides, Countess Fairburn had used him at least as much as he'd ever used her. That little matter of the supposed Harrington-White Haven love affair came to mind, among others.

"And you succeed nicely," she told him, sipping wine.

Then she smiled. "And since you've taken such pains to arrange a pleasant evening, why don't we go ahead and get the sordid details out of the way now?"

"I think that would be an excellent idea," he agreed.

"The best reason to put business before pleasure is to dispose of the former early so you can concentrate on the latter properly."

"I see why you've done so well working with words," she said, setting the wine glass down. "Very well. It's actually a fairly small tidbit, in some ways, but I'll confess that I take a certain amount of pleasure in being able to pass it along to you. After all, there's not much point pretending I'm not a rather vengeful sort at heart."

She smiled again, and this time there was no humor at all in the expression.

"That sounds a bit ominous," he said lightly, watching her warily.

"Oh, I suppose it will be . . . for some. And after that unfortunate little fiasco last year, I'm sure you'll want to check it out independently before you do anything with it."

Hayes's eyes had narrowed at the "fiasco" reference, and she chuckled. "It just happens to have come to my attention," she said, "that the heroic Duchess Harrington, before her departure for Trevor's Star, stopped by the Briarwood Reproduction Center."

Hayes blinked.

"Briarwood?" he repeated after a moment.

"Precisely. Now, I suppose it's possible she was there to consult with the doctors because of some fertility problem.

That seems a bit unlikely, given her profession and current duties, however. And even if it didn't, according to a little bird who sang into my ear, she was there for a routine outpatient procedure. The tubing of a fetus, I believe."

Hayes looked at her, his eyes narrower than ever, and she smiled back sweetly.

"How good a source is your 'little bird'?" he asked.

"Quite good, actually."

"And he—or she—says this is Harrington's child?"

"I can't imagine any other reason for her to have outpatient surgery, can you?"

"Not at Briarwood," Hayes conceded. "Not unless, for some bizarre reason, she was trying to get pregnant at this moment." He thought some more. "Do you happen to know who the father is?"


For just a moment, something ugly flashed in the countess' eyes. Disappointment, Hayes realized. He knew who she wanted the father to be, but she knew equally well that after the way Emily Alexander had rabbit-punched the attempt to link her husband and "the Salamander," he wasn't about to leap to any conclusions that couldn't be firmly substantiated. Not in this case, at least, no matter how sharp a personal ax he had to grind.

Or perhaps because of how very personal this particular ax was.

"Pity," he said, picking up his own wine and sipping thoughtfully.

"I do have three other bits of information," Fairburn said.

"Straws in the wind, one might say."

"Which are?"

"First, Harrington's declined to declare paternity. She didn't simply ask Briarwood to maintain confidentiality; she didn't tell them. Secondly, and not surprisingly, I suppose, she's designated her mother, Dr. Harrington, to act in loco parentis for her child while she's away or if anything . . .

unfortunate should happen to her. And third— third, dear Derek, Dr. Harrington is also the physician of record for one Emily Alexander, who has mysteriously decided, after sixty or seventy years in a life-support chair, that the time has come for her and her husband to become parents, as well."

Hayes blinked again. He was sure he could have come up with half a dozen explanations for the coincidences Fairburn had just listed without even trying. But that didn't matter. His instincts told him that, motivated by vengefulness or not, the countess had zeroed in on what was actually going on. Especially in light of Harrington's refusal to declare paternity even to Briarwood's medical staff.

"Those are interesting straws, Elfrieda," he conceded after several seconds. "And I do have my own ways of confirming your information—not that I believe for a moment that it isn't accurate." This time, he didn't add, although he was certain she heard it anyway. "I imagine you'd like me to maintain confidentiality about your own part in bringing this to my attention?"

"I'm afraid so," she sighed with what he realized was genuine regret. "A part of me would dearly love to let that lowborn upstart bitch know precisely who blew the whistle on her. Given the current . . . unfortunate political climate and the disgusting way the proles are fawning all over her, however, it probably wouldn't be very wise to make myself a target for retaliation. Bertram wouldn't thank me for it, either."

"I thought as much," Hayes said, projecting as much sympathy as he could. "So I'll be very careful to document any hard facts I use without mentioning your name."

"Such a dear, cautious man!" Countess Fairburn cooed.

"I try, Elfrieda. I try."

* * *


Sir Thomas Caparelli came to his feet, stepping out from behind his desk and smiling broadly as he reached out to grip Honor's hand firmly.

"It's good to see you," he said, and Honor smiled as she tasted the personal warmth behind his greeting. "And you, of course, Nimitz," Caparelli continued, nodding to the treecat on Honor's shoulder. "And you, Commodore," he added with a smile as he released Honor's hand to shake Mercedes Brigham's.

"I see you have your priorities in proper order, Sir Thomas," Brigham murmured, responding to the twinkle in the First Space Lord's eye.

"Well, Her Grace and Nimitz do rather come as a unit, Commodore."

"That they do, Sir."

"Sit down. Sit down, both of you—well, all three of you!"

he invited, waving at the comfortable chairs in the conversational nook around his splendid office's coffee-table. Two carafes—one of coffee, and one of hot chocolate—steamed on the coffee-table in question, which also offered cups and saucers, a plate of fresh croissants, and a fresh head of celery.

Honor and Brigham obeyed, and Nimitz slithered down into Honor's lap, eyeing the celery with cheerful greediness. Honor chuckled and gave him a gentle smack, and he rolled over onto his back, grabbing her wrist with true-hands and hand-feet and wrestling with it cheerfully.

"And this," Caparelli observed with a chuckle,

"represents Sphinx's native sentient species?"

"Some 'cats tend to revert to kittenhood more readily than others, Sir Thomas," Honor told him, swatting at Nimitz with her free hand while he purred happily.

"I'm glad he likes you," Caparelli said. "I've seen pictures of what those claws of his can do." He shook his head.

"Personally, I've always wondered how something that short can do so much damage."

"That's probably because, like most people, you think of treecat claws the way you do of terrestrial cats' claws. In fact, they aren't at all the same. Stinker?"

Nimitz released her wrist and forearm and sat up in her lap. He extended one true-hand—long, wiry fingers slightly crooked—and unsheathed his needle-pointed claws.

Caparelli leaned closer, his expression fascinated, and Nimitz held them up where he could see them clearly.

"If you'll notice," Honor said, "his claws are much broader at the base than those of a terrestrial cat. When people call them 'scimitar-shaped,' it's literally descriptive, except that the wrong side is edged. And they retract into some fairly specialized, cartilage-lined receptacles, because they're actually more like a terrestrial shark's tooth than anything someone from Old Earth would call a 'claw.' The actual composition of the claw itself is more like stone than it is like horn, cartilage, or bone, and this curved inner section is at least as sharp as most flaked obsidian knives. It's true they aren't very long, but for all intents and purposes, he's got scalpel blades on each finger that are the next best thing to a centimeter and a half in length. That's why a 'cat in a true killing rage looks so much like a berserk buzz saw. Each individual cut isn't that deep, but with all six limbs going at once in repeated slashes, well—"

She shrugged, and Caparelli shuddered slightly at the image her words had evoked.

"I never realized just how formidable those weapons were," he confessed.

"Well, Sir Thomas," Honor said cheerfully, "if you want something to give you real nightmares, you might consider that hexapumas—which, you know, are just a little bigger

—have exactly the same sort of claws. Of course, their claws tend to be eight or nine centimeters long. Which is why we Sphinxians never go into the bush unarmed."

"Your Grace," Caparelli said, "if I were a Sphinxian and knew about hexapuma claws, I wouldn't go into the bush at all!"

"We do lose the occasional tourist," she said, straight-faced.

"No doubt," he said dryly, leaning forward and personally pouring coffee for Brigham and chocolate for Honor. He waved at the croissants and celery, and settled back in his own chair with a cup and saucer while they helped themselves.

"I've got a formal meeting set up for tomorrow afternoon," he told them more seriously. "I'll have several people there—including Hamish, Honor—and I hope you and Commodore Brigham will be prepared to give us a comprehensive brief and answer any questions about Cutworm."

He raised one eyebrow interrogatively, and Honor nodded.

"Good. In the meantime, I just wanted to say the preliminary read on Cutworm indicates that it did exactly what we had in mind. Good work. Especially pulling it off without any losses of your own. Whether or not it has the long term effect we hoped for remains to be seen, but no one else could have done the job better. Or, for that matter, as well, probably."

"Thank you, Sir Thomas," Honor murmured, tasting the sincerity behind his words.

"We've managed to scare up a few more units for you, as well," Caparelli continued. "Not as many as I'd like, or anywhere near as many as we'd originally scheduled, although some of them will be a bit newer than projected, to compensate. What we have been able to dig up will be waiting for you when you get back to Eighth Fleet. The main problem, as I'm sure you've guessed, is the need to cover Zanzibar and Alizon. Especially Zanzibar, since the Peeps got such a good look at our defensive deployments there. To be honest, your success in Cutworm is actually going to make that particular problem worse. The logic, I'm sure, is going to run something like 'If Harrington can do that to them, then they could do it to us.' And the hell of it, of course, is that they're right. Even if they weren't, the political realities of the Alliance would require us to respond to their concerns."

Honor frowned very slightly, and he shook his head.

"One of the reasons those realities are real, Honor, is that they ought to be. High Ridge's total incompetence makes the situation even worse, I agree. But it doesn't change the fact that those two systems are our allies; that they're currently the most exposed—and most attractive—

secondary targets available to the Peeps; and that they have a moral right to demand, and receive, adequate protection. I don't like what it does to my deployable fleet strength, but I can't pretend they don't have that right."

"Maybe so, Sir," Brigham said diffidently, "but Admiral al-Bakr's decisions when the Peeps probed Zanzibar didn't help any."

"No, they didn't," Caparelli agreed in a tone whose very neutrality was a gentle rebuke. "That, however, is now atmosphere out the airlock, Commodore. We have to deal with the situation as it exists. And while I know it wasn't your intent, we can't afford to lend any credence to the attitude which unfortunately exists among some of our own personnel. Things are thorny enough already without suggesting to the Zanzibarans that we believe they're incompetents or cowards who jump at shadows."

"No, Sir. Of course not," Brigham agreed.

"Leaving that aside, however," Caparelli continued, turning back to Honor, "the newsies are already playing this one up as our first offensive victory of the war, which means you now hold title to both our defensive and offensive accomplishments. I'm afraid your reputation's been even further enhanced."

"That's ridiculous," Honor half-muttered. She shook her head irritably. "'Offensive victory,' indeed! Those poor Havenite picket forces were so outclassed it was like . . .

like feeding baby chicks to near-sharks!"

"Of course it was." Caparelli shook his own head—in his case, more in amusement than anything else. "That's the way it's supposed to be, whenever we can arrange it. On the other hand, your accomplishments—and especially the way you allowed Milligan to scuttle his own ships—is the kind of copy the newsfaxes dream of. They can't quite seem to decide whether to play you as the elegant, chivalrous corsair or the tough-as-nails, blood-and-guts warhorse. Hamish mentioned a couple of wet-navy types from Old Earth. Someone named Raphael Semmes and someone else named Bill Halsey. Although he did comment that you had marginally better tactical sense than Semmes and better strategic sense than Halsey."

"Oh, he did, did he?" Honor's eyes gleamed ominously, and Caparelli chuckled.

"Somehow I suspect he was looking forward to having me tell you that. Still, however . . . irksome you may find it, don't expect anybody in the Government or the Navy to try to put the brakes on it. Frankly, we need all the good press

—and all the morale-boosting stories—we can get. Anything that simultaneously helps our morale and hurts the Peeps'

morale is much too valuable for us to even consider not using."

"In that respect, Sir Thomas," Brigham said, "I think what the Katanas and Agamemnons did to them ought to have a definite morale-hurting effect. For that matter, I suspect it's going to make them reconsider their estimates of relative combat effectiveness across the board."

"I hope you're right, Commodore. And I also have to admit that what I've seen in the preliminary reports makes me feel better about the relative effectiveness of the new ships and hardware. But the fact of the matter is that we don't have very many of them. In fact, that's one reason we gave such a high percentage of the ones we do have to Eighth Fleet. We want the Peeps to see them being used—

to throw them right into Theisman's face in hopes he'll be so impressed by their effectiveness he won't realize how few of them we actually have."

"And just how likely does ONI think that is, Sir?" Honor asked neutrally. In her own mind, she already knew, and Caparelli smiled wryly at her.

"About as likely as you think it is," he said. "On the other hand, when the . . . water is this deep, Your Grace, you reach for anything that might help you keep your head above the surface."

Chapter Twenty-Four

"Welcome home, Honor." Emily Alexander smiled broadly from her life-support chair as Honor stepped through the White Haven door. "I seem to be saying that a lot. I'm only sorry I don't get to say it more often."

"I'm afraid White Haven isn't as convenient to Admiralty House as Jason Bay, Emily. Besides, I have to keep reminding myself a certain degree of discretion is indicated. Otherwise," Honor bent to kiss Emily's cheek, "I'd be out here every minute I was on the planet."

"Hmmm. I suppose that could be called indiscreet."

"Tell me about it. Miranda and Mac have certainly done their best—in, of course, their own exquisitely tactful fashions—to make the point."

"Do they disapprove?"

Emily frowned slightly, and Honor tasted the older woman's ambiguous emotions. For all her natural graciousness and kindness, and for all the deep and mutual devotion between her and her servants, she was a product of the Manticoran aristocracy. For her, servants could become friends, literally members of her family, but they were always servants. It might be important to her that her servants think well of her, but whether they did or not would never be allowed to affect her decisions, and that little, naturally aristocratic corner of her couldn't help feeling it would be presumptuous for any servant to actually judge her actions.

"No, they don't."

Honor straightened with a smile. Emily might be a natural born aristocratic, but Honor Harrington certainly wasn't. She wasn't about to let other people's opinions dictate her decisions, either, but for quite different reasons. And for her, people like Miranda LaFollet and James MacGuiness would never be "servants," even if they were her employees. Retainers, perhaps, but never servants. Even leaving aside the fact that both of them were millionaires in their own rights, she thought with a mental chuckle.

"They don't disapprove at all of my doing what my heart requires, to borrow a phrase from the bad novelists. They just worry about what could happen if the newsies get hold of this . . . relationship." She grimaced. "They had an entirely too up close and personal look at what the 'faxes put us through last time, and they worry about me. Can't imagine why."

"Of course you can't." Emily's incipient frown turned into a smile once more.

"Actually, what I mind the most about this whole clandestine thing, in a lot of ways," Honor said with a grimace, "is that I see so little of Miranda these days. She's still officially my 'maid' as far as Grayson is concerned, but she's effectively my chief of staff, especially here on Manticore. So I end up leaving her home to tend to business, and it would look a bit odd if I started dragging her out here to visit 'friends.' Of course, on Grayson, under similar circumstances—although I admit that the mind boggles at the concept of 'similar circumstances' there—I'd be leaving Mac home to tend to business and dragging Miranda around with me." She shook her head. "It's a lot less complicated being a commoner, you know."

"Cling to your illusions if you must," Emily replied. "Given your rank, little things like your military reputation, and the fact that you're probably one of the dozen wealthiest people in the entire Star Kingdom, I doubt very much that your life could ever be uncomplicated again."

"Oh, thank you for that douche of reality!"

"You're welcome."

* * *

"This is your wakeup call, Admiral Harrington."

Honor twitched as the deep, soft voice spoke into her ear, and her sleeping mind snuggled closer to the bright, caressing mind-glow behind the words. Perhaps that was why she didn't awaken the way she normally did—quickly, completely, senses coming immediately alert.

"This is your wake up call," the voice repeated with a chuckle, and Honor's eyes snapped open—very quickly indeed, this time—as she tasted Hamish's intent. Quick as she was, she wasn't quite quick enough, and ruthless fingers danced up her ribs to her armpits, despicably exploiting the secret she had guarded for so many decades.

" Hamish! " she half-shrieked as he tickled her mercilessly.

Her upper arms clamped tight to her rib cage, trapping his hands, but his fingers went right on moving, and she writhed. Both of them were perfectly well aware she could have broken both his arms anytime she chose to, but he continued his attack with the fearlessness of someone prepared to take unscrupulous advantage of the knowledge that she loved him.

She flung herself out of bed, whipping around to face him, and he propped himself on one elbow, stretched sensually, and grinned wickedly at her. Nor was his the only amusement in the bedroom; Nimitz and Samantha sat side-by-side on the headboard, bleeking with laughter.

"I see you're awake," Hamish said cheerfully.

"And you, Earl White Haven, are a dead man," she told him with a glower.

"I'm not afraid of you." He elevated his nose with a sniff.

"Emily will protect me."

"Not when I tell her why you have to die. When I explain, she'll help me hide the body."

"You know, she might, at that."

"Darn right she might."

"Well, it was probably worth it anyway to wake up to a sight like this," he said, blue eyes gleaming, and Honor actually felt herself blushing as she glanced down at her nude state. The taste of the treecats' amusement at her reaction only made her blush more rosily, and she shook her fist.

"I think," she said ominously, "that all of you need to be seen to. Especially you, My Lord Earl. To think, I trusted you enough to actually admit I'm ticklish. The sheer treachery of your actions takes my breath away."

"Of course it does." He sat up and swung his own legs over the side of the bed. "Which is undoubtedly the reason you shared your deep, dark secret in the first place. You must have known any decent tactician would take advantage of it when the critical nature of his mission required it."

"Definitely seen to." She smiled sweetly. "You know, I was talking it over with Andrew just the other day, and he mentioned to me that it's never too late to take up a new form of exercise. Take you, for example, Hamish. I realize that at your advanced and decrepit age you may think you're too old to learn new tricks, but you are a prolong recipient, and I saw you on the handball court just a couple of months ago. I think you'd be a fine prospect."

"Prospect for what?" he asked warily.

"Why, for taking up coup de vitesse, of course." She widened her eyes innocently. "Think how much it would increase your self-confidence, not to mention how good it is as a systemic exercise."

"You, young lady, are out of your mind if you think I'm going to let you get me onto the mat as your punching bag." He snorted. "I might— might, I say—be prepared to take up Grayson-style fencing. I was always pretty good with foil and epee. At least I was, many, many years ago, when I was at the Island. But that brutal, sweaty hand-to-hand business of yours isn't my style at all." He shook his head. "Oh, no—self-defense is your forte, not mine. If we should ever happen to encounter a mugger who somehow penetrates the protection of those three Rottweilers of yours, I'll be perfectly happy to hold your coat while you mop up the pavement with him. Heck, I'll even buy you a bonbon and a cup of hot chocolate afterward."

Honor chuckled, trying to picture a Grayson male, however enlightened, suggesting anything of the sort to any woman, be she ever so well-trained in self-defense.

"Well," she said, after a moment, checking the date/time display in her artificial eye, "we're both going to need to brush up on our self-defense skills if we don't get ourselves down to breakfast pretty quickly."

"Hey, don't blame me! I've been trying to get you up!

And, I warn you, I fully intend to tell Emily that when we're late to breakfast."

"God, there're no limits to your treachery," Honor said, snatching up her kimono and sliding into it. "If only I'd known ahead of time!"

"Sure, sure." He stood and stretched luxuriously. "And speaking of treachery . . ."

Honor frowned. He was up to something, she could taste it. But—

Hamish smiled sweetly at her, and then, with absolutely no warning, dashed for the bathroom.

"Hamish, don't you dare—!"

She was too late. The master bath's palatial shower's door clicked shut, and she slid to a halt as he smiled at her through it.

"Looks like I get the first shower," he said complacently.

"Unless, of course, you'd care to . . . ?"

He flipped the shower door open, just a crack, and Honor laughed and let the kimono slip back off her shoulders to the floor.

They were, indeed, late to breakfast.

* * *

Given the fact that Andrew LaFollet and her other armsmen knew exactly why Honor had been to Briarwood, the colonel had clearly decided there was no longer any point in pretending he didn't also know exactly what was going on. Hamish's reaction the first time he'd opened the door of


suite and found LaFollet standing guard outside it had not been one of unalloyed amusement. He'd had the good sense not to make an issue of it, however, and it was certainly much more convenient for Honor to no longer have to go scurrying through the back hallways every morning.

There were, however, some things not even an armsman could protect a steadholder from, and she and Hamish peeked through the dining room door cautiously when they finally got there.

Emily sat in her life-support chair, parked in her normal place, with a steaming cup of coffee in front of her. But she looked up quickly at their arrival, and Honor's smile disappeared instantly.

Nimitz jerked upright on her shoulder, and Samantha did the same on Hamish's, as both treecats tasted what Honor already had. Hamish couldn't, but the quickness and unanimity of the other three's reaction wasn't lost upon him.

"Emily?" Honor stepped quickly through the door, her voice concerned, all humor in abeyance. "What is it?"

"It's—" Emily started to speak quickly, then stopped herself. "It's not good," she said after a moment, the words coming less rapidly, sounding much more like her. "I'm afraid," she showed her teeth in a humorless smile, "we're not quite as finished with the newsies as we'd hoped."

Honor moved across to Emily's chair, her appetite disappearing, despite her enhanced metabolism. She pulled back one of the dining room chairs, turning it to face Emily, and sank into it. Nimitz slid down into her lap, gazing at Emily as intensely—and anxiously—as Honor herself, and she felt Hamish stepping up close behind her even before his hand came down on her shoulder.

"It leaked," she said flatly.

"I think you could say that," Emily agreed with poison-dry humor. Her right hand flipped a 'fax viewer onto the table.

"You remember our good friend Solomon Hayes, I'm sure."

The sinking sensation in Honor's midsection intensified abruptly. She glanced up over her shoulder at Hamish, then drew the viewer in front of her and keyed it.

She wasn't at all surprised when it lit with the current day's Landing Tattler. Nor was she surprised that the display was centered on Solomon Hayes' gossip column. It wasn't the first time she'd found herself the object of Hayes' interest, and white-hot anger glowed as she remembered the smear campaign High Ridge and his cronies had used Hayes to open.

Her eyes ran down the text, and her lips tightened.

Normally, Hayes touched on several victims in each of his maliciously barbed columns. And he was also normally careful to couch his accusations and veiled insinuations sufficiently obliquely to avoid anything which might be actionable under the Star Kingdom's stringent libel laws.

This time, the entire column was devoted to only a single topic, and there was nothing oblique about it at all.

Especially not about its three concluding paragraphs.

" . . . to sources at Briarwood," she read, "Duchess Harrington was attended by Dr. Illescue, Briarwood's senior physician, who personally oversaw the tubing of her son seven weeks ago. Despite all inquiries, it was impossible to determine who the father might be. Indeed, sources indicate the Duchess has specifically declined to declare paternity.

"That, of course, is her unquestioned legal and moral right. Nonetheless, those of us in the press must inevitably find ourselves speculating on her reasons for availing herself of that right. Certainly it's only natural for a military woman, facing all the risks of naval combat, to be concerned about the future. To assure herself and her loved ones of a child. Still, one must wonder just why she felt it necessary to proceed in that perfectly reasonable project with such secrecy. One might almost say clandestinely.

"And yet another, clearly coincidental yet interesting, tidbit has come to our attention. We feel confident that all of Lady Emily Alexander's myriad fans and well-wishers will be delighted to learn that Countess White Haven has also availed herself of Briarwood's services. According to the same sources, her child will be born within less than two months of Duchess Harrington's."

"That son-of-a- bitch," Hamish hissed behind her as he read it over her shoulder. "That goddamned, worthless, cowardly, mealy-mouthed piece of—"

He chopped himself off with a physical effort Honor could literally feel, and walked across to sit on Emily's other side.

"I wonder who his 'sources' might be?" Honor mused in a tone whose lightness fooled no one.

"Actually," Emily said, "you might not want to leap to any conclusions in that regard." Honor look at her, and Emily snorted. "It doesn't take an empath to guess which road you're headed down, Honor, given what your parents had to say about their history with Illescue. And you might even be right. But I've had a little longer to think about this than you two have, and there are several rather odd things about this particular column."

"Beside the fact that this time he laid his sights on just one target—well, two targets?" Hamish put in.

"As a matter of fact, yes. The biggest difference between this one and his usual style is that he's very specific. He gives the exact day you were actually at the Center, Honor. And he also gives the correct date for our second child's birth. He wouldn't do that unless he was entirely confident of his facts, knowing what the three of us would do to him in court if he didn't have them right.

But he specifically mentions Dr. Illescue by name, and if Illescue were his source, he wouldn't have provided that particular snippet of information. There's no reason he has to, and the one thing he's never done is give up his sources."

"That's because half the time he doesn't have any sources," Honor half-snarled.

"That's not really fair," Emily observed. "Solomon Hayes is a loathsome, disgusting, toadlike gigolo who homes in on vicious gossip and rumors like a near-buzzard homing in on carrion. Three-quarters of his 'news' comes from bored, wealthy women with the moral fiber of Old Earth alley cats in heat, at least half of whom have scores of their own to settle. But he usually does have a source. The thing that lets him survive is that most of the time there's at least a core of truth to the rumors he spreads. Distorted, exaggerated, or deliberately twisted, perhaps, but still there. That's what made him so damnably effective when High Ridge and North Hollow used him against you before.

Salaciousness has always sold 'faxes, and a lot of people take Hayes lightly because of that. But the truth is, he's actually a very dangerous enemy, with much more power than many people assume, precisely because he does have that reputation for knowing what secrets he's spilling so gleefully."

Her tone was almost dispassionate, but it wouldn't have fooled anyone who could see the fire in her green eyes.

"You may be right," Hamish said after a moment. "No, scratch that. You're almost certainly right—you usually are about things like this, love. Unfortunately, that doesn't give me any ideas about what to do about this. Aside from hiring an assassin, at least."

"If we want to go that route, we don't need any assassins," Honor said grimly.

"Somehow, I suspect challenging him to a duel and then shooting him smartly between the eyes, however satisfying, might not be precisely the best way to handle the situation," Emily said dryly. "Not that we couldn't make a tidy fortune selling tickets to the event."

"Ha! The instant you challenge him, he'll emigrate to Beowulf!" Hamish growled. "They don't allow duels there."

"I think perhaps we can leave that pleasant fantasy out of our considerations?" Emily suggested just a bit tartly, and her husband muttered something she chose to take as agreement.

"The thing that bothers me the most," Honor said, her eyes troubled, "is how explicitly he's linked you and me, Emily. Well," she smiled almost naturally, "that and the fact that I didn't really want to know whether it was a boy or girl just yet."

"The question in my mind," Emily said thoughtfully, "is whether he genuinely believes Hamish is also the father of your child, Honor, or if he included the linkage only as a way to remind his readership about his earlier allegations about the two of you. Does he know something, or is he simply using innuendo to take a swipe at the three of us because of what we did to him last time around?"

"I think he either knows, or strongly suspects," Honor said. Then she shook her head. "No, I think it has to be

'strongly suspects.' The only way he could know would be if he'd somehow managed to obtain a genetic comparison of the child and Hamish, and if Illescue isn't his source, then I don't see any way he could have done that."

"That's a good point," Hamish agreed. "And I'm inclined to agree with you. Which leads to another point." He grimaced unhappily. "You've been spending an awful lot of time at White Haven whenever you're on-planet, Honor. It's not going to take a hyper-physicist to figure that out. And the fact that we were accused of being lovers when we weren't isn't going to help us very much now that we are.

So whether he openly suggests I'm the father or not, the suggestion's going to be out there very soon, if it isn't already."

"I suppose I could try staying away," Honor said slowly, her expression much unhappier than his had been.

"No, you certainly can't," Emily said tartly, and shook her head. "You two should never be allowed out in a social situation without a keeper!" Both of them looked at her, and she snorted derisively. "If you suddenly stop visiting your friend Emily after Hayes' little bombshell, the only conclusion anyone is going to be able to draw is the correct one—which is the last thing you want at this particular moment, don't you agree, Honor?"

"Well, yes, but—"

"But me no buts," Emily interrupted. "Besides, in the final analysis, since we've always intended to eventually admit Hamish's paternity, we can't stand up and call Hayes a liar. He's a cretin, a sneak, and a treacherous little worm, but this time, at least, the one thing he isn't is a liar. If we call him one now, it's going to create all sorts of problems when we finally come forward. And unless we're prepared to do that, suddenly changing your habits would be the same thing as admitting he's hit the nail on the head . . . and that you're trying to pretend he hasn't."

"So what do we do?" Honor demanded.

"Nothing," Emily said flatly. The other two looked at her incredulously, and she flipped her working hand in her shrug equivalent. "I didn't say I liked the idea. It's just that the best of the several bad options available to us is simply to ignore it. Honor's going to be going back off-world tomorrow, and the sort of newsy who'd be interested in following up on a story like this is going to find it pretty hard to get to her when she's back with Eighth Fleet. And much as I hate playing on the 'poor invalid' stereotype, it does offer me a certain amount of protection from the same sort of intrusiveness. Which means the only one who's likely to be stalked over this is you, Hamish."

"Gee, thanks for the warning," he said glumly.

"You're a politician now, not a mere admiral," his wife told him. "That makes you fair game, and by now you ought to have at least some notion of how the rules work."

"No comment?"

"That will probably work for anything from your official press secretaries. After all, even if Hayes is right, it's a personal matter, not something government spokespeople should waste time and effort on. It won't work for you, though. If someone manages to corner you in a personal interview, you're going to have to come up with something better, or you might just as well go ahead and tell them you're the father."

"And your suggestion is?"

"I think your response ought to be that if, in fact, Duchess Harrington is having a child tubed, and if she's declined—at this time—to disclose that child's paternity, that's certainly her right, and you have no intention of speculating about it."

"And if they ask me point-blank if I'm the father?" Hamish waved one hand in a gesture of intense frustration. "Damn it, I am the father, and accident or not, I'm proud to be!"

"I know you are, sweetheart," Emily said softly, eyes luminous as she laid her working hand on his forearm. "And if they do ask you point-blank, the one thing you can't do is lie. So my suggestion would be that you laugh."


"As naturally as you possibly can," she agreed. "I know your thespian skills leave a bit to be desired, dear, but I'll help you practice in front of a mirror."

There was actually a twinkle in her eye, and he made a face at her.

"But," she continued more seriously, "that really is your best response. Laugh. And if they continue to press, simply repeat that you have no intention of speculating, and that you believe Honor's obvious wishes in this matter ought to be respected by everyone. You, at any rate, intend to respect them just as thoroughly as you would if you were the father."

"And you really think this is going to work?" he asked skeptically.

"I never said that," Emily replied. "I just said it was our best option."

Chapter Twenty-Five

"Do you want me to do anything about this . . . person while you're away, My Lady?"

Miranda LaFollet sat at her desk in her Jason Bay office, and when Honor poked her head in the open doorway, her

"maid" held up a 'fax viewer between thumb and forefinger with the expression of someone who'd just found a dead mouse in her soup.

"And just what did you have it in mind to do about Mr.

Hayes?" Honor inquired mildly. "This isn't Grayson, you know, Miranda."

"Oh, I certainly do, My Lady." Miranda's mouth twisted in distaste, and Farragut, her treecat, made a soft hissing sound from the perch beside her chair. "Freedom of the press is a wonderful thing, My Lady. We have it on Grayson, too, you know. But this Hayes person wouldn't care at all for what his brand of 'journalism' would get him back home."

"Sounds like a very free press to me," Honor observed.

"Not that I don't think Mr. Hayes would look ever so much better with a couple of broken legs. Unfortunately, if that were a practical solution to the problem, I'd already have taken care of it myself."

"There's always Micah," Miranda pointed out. Micah LaFollet, her youngest brother, had just turned twenty-six.

Young enough for third-generation prolong and blessed with adequate diet and medical care since childhood, he towered more than fourteen centimeters taller than his eldest brother, Andrew. Despite his formidable height (he was actually five centimeters taller than Honor herself), he looked much younger than his age to Grayson eyes, but he was already in the final stages of armsman training, and he had a pronounced case of hero worship where Honor was concerned.

"No, there isn't always Micah," Honor scolded. "He's not an armsman yet, and he's overly enthusiastic. Besides, assault with violence is a felony here in the Star Kingdom, and unlike your older brother, he doesn't have any sort of diplomatic immunity."

"Well, then surely there's something Richard could do about him." Miranda kept her tone light, trying to pretend she was no more than half-serious, but Honor tasted the white-hot rage just below the younger woman's surface.

"Miranda," she said, stepping fully into the office, "I truly, truly appreciate how angry you. How much you—and Andrew, and Simon, and Micah, and Spencer, and Mac—all want to protect me from this. But you can't do it. And while Richard's a very good attorney, Solomon Hayes has spent decades figuring out exactly how close he can sail to outright libel without quite crossing the line into something actionable."

"But, My Lady," Miranda protested, abandoning her pretense of humor, "word of this is going to get home to Grayson. It's not going to matter much to our steaders, but that midden-toad Mueller and his loathsome bunch are going to try as hard as they can to hurt you with it where the conservatives are concerned."

"I know," Honor sighed. "But there's not anything I can do about it at this point. I'm getting out of town and away from the newsies myself by going back to the Fleet, but I've sent letters to Benjamin and Austen, warning them about what's coming. That's about all I can do at this point."

Miranda looked rebellious, and Honor smiled at her.

"It's not like I've never had anyone taking shots at me in the 'faxes before," she pointed out. "And so far, I've managed to survive, however little I've enjoyed the experience, sometimes. And . . ."

She paused for a moment, then shrugged.

"And," she confessed, "I'm not being quite as blasé about this entire thing as you seem to be assuming. Trust me, Mr.

Hayes is going to come to regret this particular . . .


"My Lady?" Miranda perked up noticeably, and there was a slight edge to her voice. An edge accompanied by the sort of look a Grayson nanny might employ when not one of her charges seemed to know anything about how that dead sandfrog had miraculously materialized in the nursery air purifier.

"Well," Honor said, "I just happened to run into Stacey Hauptman at lunch yesterday, and somehow or other the conversation turned to journalism. And it seems Stacey has been considering venturing into that area for some time.

She told me she thinks she might begin by buying the Landing Tattler— just to get her toes wet, you know. Sort of explore the possibilities. And I think she might also have said something about making it her business to—how did she put it? Oh, yes. Making it her business to 'clean up the professionalism of Manticoran journalism generally.'"

"My Lady, " Miranda said in quite a different tone, her gray eyes twinkling suddenly. "Oh, that's evil!" she continued with deep satisfaction.

" I never suggested that she take any action whatsoever,"

Honor said virtuously, "and no one could possibly accuse me or any of my retainers of taking any sort of action, either. I will confess, however, that I find the prospect of Stacey Hauptman taking personal aim at Mr. Hayes . . .

profoundly satisfying. It won't do much to undo what he's already done, but I feel fairly confident we won't be hearing from him a third time."

"And you were just suggesting the Grayson press might incorporate a few journalistic constraints."

"Even in the Star Kingdom, Miranda, private citizens—as opposed to governmental agencies or public bodies—are permitted to make their displeasure known, so long as they violate no laws or civil rights. Which, I assure you, Stacey has no intention of doing. Or, now that I think about it, any need to do."

"Oh, of course not, My Lady!"

* * *

"I want to know who leaked this, and I want to know yesterday."

Dr. Franz Illescue's voice was flat, almost calm, with a lack of emphasis and exclamation points which rang alarm bells in every member of the Briarwood Reproduction Center's senior staff.

"But, Doctor," Julia Isher, Briarwood's business manager, said cautiously, "so far, we don't really have any evidence it was one of our people who was responsible."

"Don't be stupid, Julia. And let's not pretend I am, either," Illescue said in that same almost-calm tone, and Isher winced.

Franz Illescue could be an unmitigated pain in the ass, and despite the very nearly half century he'd spent getting the worst of his natural aristocratic arrogance knocked out of him, there would always be that core of implicit superiority. That unassailable knowledge that he was, by the inevitable process of birth and the natural working of the universe, inherently better than anyone around him.

Despite that, however—or possibly even because of it—he was normally very careful to observe the rules of courtesy with the "little people" with whom he came into contact.

On the rare occasions when he wasn't, it was a very, very bad sign, indeed.

"One of 'our people,' as you put it, most definitely was responsible," he continued after a heartbeat or two.

"Whether someone deliberately sold the information to this

. . . this . . . individual Hayes or not, that information had to come from someone inside the Center. Someone with access to our confidential records. Someone who, if he or she didn't deliberately sell the information was still criminally—and I use the adverb advisedly, in light of our confidentiality agreements with our patients—negligent.

Someone who either gossiped about it where he or she shouldn't have or allowed someone else unauthorized access. In either case, I want his—or her—ass. I want it broiled, on a silver platter, with a nice side of fried potatoes, and I intend to see to it that whoever it was never works in this field—or any other branch of the medical profession—in the Star Kingdom again."

More than one of the staffers seated around the huge table blanched visibly. Illescue had still to raise his voice, but the temperature in the conference room seemed to hover within a degree or two of absolute zero Kelvin. Some of those staffers, like Isher herself, had been with Illescue for twenty T-years or more, and they had never seen him this incandescently angry.

"Doctor," Isher said, after a moment, "I've already initiated a review of everyone who had access to Duchess Harrington's records. I assure you we're doing everything we possibly can to determine how that information got out of our files and into Mr. Hayes' hands. But so far our security people, some of whom are very well versed in forensic cybernetics, are coming up completely blank. I asked Tajman Meyers—" Meyers was the Center's head of security, who was absent from this meeting only because he was out personally heading the investigation "—if we need to bring in someone else, like the Landing PD. He says our people are probably as good as most of the LCPD's investigators, but he also agrees that if you want to bring in a completely outside team, he'll cooperate fully."

She met Illescue's hooded, basilisk gaze levelly.

"The truth of the matter is, though, Sir, that we may never be able to identify the individual responsible. As you say, it could have been a case of idle gossip. Or, of course, although I don't like to think any of our people would violate our trust that way, someone could have deliberately handed the information over. In either case, however, my personal feeling is that it was almost certainly done verbally, with no written or electronic record. Which doesn't leave us very much in the way of clues."

Illescue looked at her, eyes cold, his normal, reassuring physician's personality noticeably in abeyance. The fact that he knew she was right only made him still angrier.

"I want a list of every name of every member of our staff who had access to both Duchess Harrington and Countess White Haven's files," he said, after a moment. " Everyone

physicians, nurses, technicians, clerical staff. As a general rule, I don't much care for witch hunts, but I'm going to make an exception in this case." He looked around the conference room and showed his teeth in an expression no one would ever mistake for a smile. "To be perfectly honest, I'm looking forward to it."

* * *

"Jesus, Julia," Martijn Knippschd muttered softly as he walked down the hall beside her, "I've never seen him that mad!" He shook his head. "I mean, this is terrible, sure. I agree, and not just because of the way it violates Duchess Harrington's confidentiality. It leaves us covered with crap here at the Center, too. But, let's face it—this really isn't the first time we've had an information leak. And that talk of his about 'witch hunts'—!"

"It isn't just talk, Marty," Isher said, equally quietly. "He means it. And if he does find out who's responsible . . ."

She shrugged, her expression bleak, and Knippschd shook his head.

"I believe you. I just don't understand why."

Isher looked at him for a moment, clearly considering whether or not to say something more. Dr. Martijn Knippschd was, in many ways, her equivalent on the medical support side of Briarwood's operations. He wasn't one of the Center's partners, but he was directly responsible for overseeing the labs' physical operation and directing the technicians who worked in them. And unless something very unexpected happened, he would be Briarwood's newest junior partner within the next three T-years.

"It's . . . personal this time," she said finally. "Dr. Illescue has something of a history with the Harringtons."

"I had the impression he'd never met the Duchess before she became a patient," Knippschd objected.

"I didn't say he had a history with her, Marty. He has one with her parents, and it's personal, not professional. I'm not going to go into any details, but suffice it to say that if there are any two physicians in the entire Star Kingdom who he'd crawl across ground glass to avoid giving a reason to fault his professional conduct, it's Alfred and Allison Harrington. Worse, I think he's afraid they may believe he let the information out himself."

"That's preposterous!" Knippschd was genuinely angry.

"He can be a royal pain, but I've never met a physician who takes his professional, ethical responsibilities more seriously than he does!"

"I agree," Isher said mildly. "And I didn't say I think the Harringtons are going to believe anything of the sort. What I said was that he's afraid they may. And that, Marty, is why I am delighted that I, for one, am not the person who actually did spill the beans to Solomon Hayes."

The two of them walked along in silence for another few moments, and then Isher chuckled humorlessly.

"What?" Knippschd asked.

"I was just thinking. He says he wants whoever it is broiled, right?" Knippschd nodded, and she shrugged.

"Well, I wonder if he'd let me at least light the fire for him when the time comes?"

* * *

"We're coming up on her now, Your Grace," the pinnace pilot announced over the intercom. "She's at your ten o'clock, low."

Honor leaned close enough to the pinnace viewport that the tip of her nose almost touched the armorplast. She was on the starboard side of the small craft, seated just forward of the variable geometry wings, and she peered still further forward as the sleek, white spindle of a starship came into view.

A missile barge hung close beside it in orbit, which gave her a sense of perspective, something to relate the new ship's size to, and that perspective made her look just a bit odd to experienced eyes. She was obviously a battlecruiser, yet she was larger than any battlecruiser Honor had ever seen. The Agamemnons, like Michelle Henke's Achilles, massed almost 1.75 million tons, but this ship was more than a quarter-million tons heavier still. And where the Agamemnons were a pod-laying design, this one most definitely was not.

She stepped up the magnification of her artificial eye, zooming in on the hull number just aft of the forward impeller ring. BC-562, it said, and under that, the name: Nike.

She tasted the name in the depths of her mind, and her feelings were mixed as she gazed at the splendid new ship.

This Nike's predecessor had been listed for disposal by the Janacek Admiralty in order to free the name for this new class's lead ship. The sudden eruption of renewed hostilities had saved BC-413 from the breakers, but the name had already been reassigned, so 413 had been renamed Hancock Station. If they'd had to rename her, Honor couldn't really fault the choice, but as that Nike's first captain, she would always think of the older ship as the rightful holder of that name.

And yet, despite her manifold disagreements with the late Edward Janacek and her bitter opposition to so many of his disastrous policies at Admiralty House, she had to admit that this time he might have gotten it right. Nike was the proudest ship name in the Royal Manticoran Navy.

There was always a Nike, and she was always a battlecruiser. And when she was commissioned, she was always the newest, most powerful battlecruiser in the fleet.

Yet the old NikeHancock Station—was at best obsolescent, despite the fact that she was barely sixteen T-years old. She'd been worked hard during those sixteen years, but it was the changes in weapons and tactics, especially in missile warfare, not senility, which had relegated her to the second rank of effectiveness. In an age of multi-drive missiles, the traditional battlecruiser's niche had altered dramatically, and BC-413 was simply out of date.

Battlecruisers were designed to run down and destroy enemy cruisers, or to raid and run. The ideal commerce protectors, and, conversely, the ideal commerce destroyers. Traditionally, especially in Manticoran service, they weren't intended to stand in the wall of battle, because their relatively light armor and "cruiser style"

construction could never stand the pounding superdreadnoughts were expected to endure. They were intended to run away from wallers—to be able to destroy anything lighter than them, and to outrun anything heavier.

Yet the sheer range of the MDM made staying out of effective range far more difficult than it had ever been before, and the emphasis on long-range missile combat required denser salvos and greater magazine space. For a time, it had seemed the battlecruiser had simply become obsolete, as the battleship had before it, and that it would vanish just as completely from the order of battle of first-class navies. But the type—or, at least, the role it filled—

was just too valuable to be allowed to disappear, and improvements in compensator efficiency and other aspects of military technology had allowed a transformation.

The Graysons had led the way toward one possible iteration of the type, with their Courvoisier II-class of pod-layers. The RMN's Agamemnons were the Manticoran version of the same design concept, as the Blücher-class was for the Andermani, and that approach clearly offered significant advantages over the older designs.

But the BC(P) wasn't really completely satisfactory.

Although it could produce a very heavy volume of fire, its endurance at maximum-rate fire was limited, and the type's hollow core design came at a greater cost in structural integrity than the same concept did in a bigger, far more strongly built superdreadnought. So Vice Admiral Toscarelli's BuShips had sought another approach at the same time it was designing the new Edward Saganami-C-

class heavy cruisers.

Nike was the result: a 2.5 million-ton "battlecruiser,"

almost three times the size of Honor's old ship, but with an acceleration rate thirty percent greater. The old Nike had mounted eighteen lasers, sixteen grasers, fifty-two missile tubes, and thirty-two counter-missile tubes and point defense clusters. The new Nike mounted no lasers, thirty-two grasers—eight of them as chase weapons, fifty missile tubes (none of them chasers), and thirty counter-missile tubes and laser clusters. The old Nike had carried a ship's company of over two thousand; the new Nike's complement was only seven hundred and fifty. And the new Nike was armed with the Mark 16 dual-drive missile.

With the "off-bore" launch capability the RMN had developed, she could bring both broadsides' missile tubes to bear on the same target, giving her fifty birds per salvo, as opposed to the older ship's twenty-two. And whereas the old Nike's maximum powered missile range from rest had been just over six million kilometers, the new Nike's had a maximum powered endurance of over twenty-nine million.

She couldn't fire the all-up, three-stage MDMs the Courvoisiers and Agamemnons could handle, so her tactical flexibility was marginally less, and her warheads were slightly lighter, but an Agamemnon rolling pods at her maximum rate would shoot herself dry in just over fourteen minutes, whereas Nike carried sufficient ammunition for almost forty minutes, and she carried fifty percent more counter-missiles, as well. For that matter, although the Courvosiers did, in fact, carry the three-stage weapons, the RMN had chosen to load the Agamemnons'

pods with Mark 16s. BuWeaps had gone ahead and produced the standard pods, as well, but Admiralty House had decided the salvo density the Mark 16 permitted was more important than the bigger missiles' greater powered envelope.

Personally, Honor was convinced that this Nike represented the pattern for true battlecruisers of the future, and she deeply regretted the fact that although the Janacek Admiralty had authorized her construction, they had seen her as a single-ship testbed. The Navy desperately needed as many Nikes as it could get, and what it had was exactly one. Which was all it would have for at least another full T-year.

But at least Honor had the only one of her there was, and—she smiled at her reflection in the armorplast—she'd convinced Admiral Cortez to give her to a captain who was almost as competent as he was . . . irritating.

"Do you want another pass on her, Your Grace?" the pilot inquired, and Honor pressed the intercom key on the arm of her chair.

"No, thank you, Chief. I've seen enough. Head straight on to the flagship; Captain Cardones is expecting me in time for lunch."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am."

The pinnace turned away, and Honor leaned back in her seat as her mind reached out to the future.

* * *

"Dr. Illescue! Dr. Illescue, would you care to comment on the press accounts of Duchess Harrington's pregnancy?"

Franz Illescue walked stolidly across the Briarwood lobby, ignoring the shouted questions.

"Dr. Illescue, are you prepared to confirm that Earl White Haven is the father of Duchess Harrington's child?"

"Dr. Illescue! Isn't it true Prince Michael is the child's father?"

"Are you prepared to categorically deny that the father is Baron Grantville or Benjamin Mayhew?"

"Dr. Illescue—!"

The lift doors cut off the hullabaloo, and Illescue keyed his personal com with an almost savage thumb jab.

"Security, Meyers," a voice responded instantly.

"Tajman, this is Dr. Illescue." The fury seething in Illescue's normally controlled baritone was almost palpable. "Will you please explain to me what the hell that

. . . that three-ring circus in our lobby is about?"

"I'm sorry, Sir," Meyers said. "I wasn't aware you were coming in through the public entrance, or I would have at least warned your driver. They descended on us right after lunch, and so far, they haven't committed any privacy violations. According to SOP, I can't bar them from the public area of the facility until they do."

"Well, as it happens, I wrote the damned SOP," Illescue half-snarled, "and as of now, you can bar those jackals from any part of this facility until Hell's a hockey rink! Is that perfectly clear?!"

"Uh, yes, Sir. I'll get on it right away, Sir."

"Thank you." Illescue's voice was marginally closer to normal as he broke the circuit and inhaled deeply.

He leaned back against the wall of the lift car and rubbed his face wearily.

He and Meyers were no closer to finding the leak than they'd been when they began, and the story was ballooning totally out of control. Not that he'd ever had much hope of controlling it in the first place. The press was working itself up to a feeding frenzy, and the most preposterous speculation imaginable—as the shouted question in the lobby indicated—had become rampant. At least he'd spoken to both Doctors Harrington, unpleasant though it had been, and he felt reasonably confident neither of them thought it had been his doing, but that didn't make him feel much better. Even though he was prepared to dislike Duchess Harrington because of her parentage, she was a patient. She had a legal and moral right to privacy, to trust that doctor-patient confidentiality would not be violated, and it had been. It was almost like a form of rape, even if the assault was nonphysical, and he would have been coldly, bitterly furious in any patient's case. In this instance, given the prominence of the patient in question and the way that prominence was goading the newsies' speculations, his emotions went far beyond fury.

Franz Illescue was not a man with much use for the custom of dueling, even if it was legal. But in this case, if he could find out who was responsible, he was prepared to make an exception.

* * *

"Welcome back," Michelle Henke said with a smile as Andrew LaFollet peeled off at her day cabin's hatch and Honor and Nimitz stepped through it.

"Thanks." Honor crossed the cabin and flopped onto Henke's couch far more inelegantly than she would ever have considered if anyone else had been present.

"I trust Diego did the honors properly?" Henke asked lightly. Captain Diego Mikhailov was Ajax's captain. "I told him you wanted it kept low key."

"He kept is as low key as my faithful minion outside the hatch there would permit," Honor replied. "I like him," she added.

"He's a likeable sort. And good at his job. Not to mention smart enough to realize how harried and hunted you must feel right now. He understands exactly why he's not invited to dinner tonight. In fact, he commented to me that you must be delighted to be back aboard ship."

"As a matter of fact, I've seldom been happier to find myself confined aboard ship in my entire life," Honor admitted as she rested her head on one couch arm, closed her eyes, and stretched out with Nimitz on her chest.

"That's because the worst that can happen here is that you get blown up," Henke said dryly. She crossed to the wet bar, opened a small refrigerator, and produced a pair of chilled bottles of Old Tilman.Honor chuckled appreciatively, although her amusement was clearly less than complete, and Henke grinned as she opened the beer bottles.

"I told Clarissa I'd buzz for her if we decided we needed her," she continued, holding out one of the bottles to Honor. "Here." Honor cracked one eye and looked up, and Henke waggled the bottle at her. "You look like you need this."

"What I need is about fifteen minutes—no, ten minutes would do nicely, actually—alone with Mr. Hayes," Honor said balefully. She accepted the bottle and swallowed a mouthful of cold beer. "I'd feel ever so much better afterward."

"At least until they came to put you in jail."

"True. The courts are tacky about things like that, aren't they?"

"Unfortunately." Henke swallowed some of her own beer, leaning back in an armchair facing Honor's couch, and rested one heel on the expensive coffee table on the thick, even more expensive carpet between the two of them.

Honor smiled at her and looked around curously. It was the first time she'd visited Henke aboard Ajax, and although Henke's day cabin was substantially smaller than her own lordly flag quarters aboard Imperator, it was still large and comfortable indeed by the standards of most battlecruisers. Ajax's total complement was under six hundred, including Marines, and her designers, faced with all that space, had obviously felt someone as lordly as a flag officer deserved the very best. The deep pile carpet was a dark crimson, which Honor knew Henke would never have chosen for herself and undoubtedly intended to change at the earliest possible moment, but the paneled bulkheads, indirect lighting, and holoscupltures gave it an air of almost sinfully welcoming comfort.

Best of all, it was totally empty except for Henke, Honor, and Nimitz.

"Feeling better?" Henke asked after a moment.

"Some." Honor closed her eyes again and rolled the chilled beer bottle across her forehead. "Quite a bit, actually," she went on, after a moment. "The mind-glows out here are a lot easier on Nimitz and me."

"There must be times when being an empath is a complete and total pain," Henke said.

"You have no idea," Honor agreed, opening her eyes once more and sitting up a bit. "To be perfectly honest, Mike, that's one reason I was so happy you invited me to dinner tonight. All my staffers are firmly in my corner, but if I'd stayed home aboard the flagship, I'd almost have had to host a formal dinner on my first night back. Eating alone with my oldest friend is an awfully much more attractive proposition. Thanks."

"Hey, it's what friends are for!" Henke said, more lightly than she felt and trying not to show how touched she was.

"Well, the company's good," Honor said with a crooked smile. "But I suppose if I'm going to be completely honest, the real attraction is Chief Arbuckle's paprikash."

"I'll see to it that Clarissa gives Mac the recipe," Henke said dryly.

* * *

"Attention on deck!"

The Eighth Fleet's flag officers, their senior staffers, and their flag captains rose as Honor, Rafael Cardones, Mercedes Brigham, and Andrea Jaruwalski entered the compartment. Simon Mattingly and Spencer Hawke parked themselves against the bulkhead just outside the compartment, flanking the hatch, and Andrew LaFollet followed the naval officers in. He took his customary, inconspicuous place against the bulkhead behind Honor's chair, and level gray eyes swept the entire briefing room with instinct-level, microscopic attention to detail.

"Be seated, Ladies and Gentlemen," Honor said, striding to her own place.

MacGuiness had contrived a proper perch for Nimitz, bracketed to the back of her chair, and the treecat gave a buzzing purr as he arranged himself upon it. Honor smiled as she tasted his approval of the new arrangements, then seated herself and looked out at her command team.

The senior divisional commanders were present this time, as well, and they were no longer such unknown quantities. There were a few about whom she nursed some minor concerns, but by and large she was supremely confident in the temper of her weapon. Whether it would be enough for the tasks demanded of it was more than she could say, but if it failed, it would not be because of any fault in the quality of the men and women of whom it was composed.

"As you all know," she said after a moment, "we've actually received a few reinforcements. Not as many as we were slated to—other commitments, unfortunately, are drawing off units which otherwise would have been earmarked for us. Nonetheless, we have more striking power than we had last time. And," this time, the wolf at her core showed in her smile, "we're still getting the opportunity to show the Havenites our newest and best."

Several other people smiled, as well, and Honor looked at Michelle Henke.

"I'm sure you were less than pleased when Captain Shelburne reported Hector's engineering casualty, Admiral Henke. I trust, however, that the replacement I've managed to arrange for you until Hector can get that beta node replaced is satisfactory?"

"Well, Your Grace," Henke replied judiciously, "I suppose, under the circumstances, I'll just have to make do."

This time, the people who'd smiled laughed out loud, and Honor shook her head.

"I'm sure you'll manage somehow, Admiral," she told Henke. Then she looked at the other officers again.

"In most ways, this meeting is something of a formality,"

she told them. "You've all done well in training and preparing your commands for Cutworm II. You've all had time to study our objectives. And I'm confident all of us are well aware of the importance of this operation."

She paused to let that sink in.

"Cutworm II is both more ambitious and less ambitious than our first attacks were," she continued after a moment. "It's more ambitious primarily in terms of timing and how deep we're penetrating to hit Chantilly and Des Moines. Since all of our task forces will have different transit times, and since I've decided to once more orchestrate our strikes to hit our targets simultaneously, Admiral Truman and Admiral Miklós will depart immediately after this meeting. Admiral McKeon will depart for Fordyce the day after tomorrow, and Admiral Matsuzawa and I will depart for Augusta four days after that.

"Remember, hitting our assigned objectives—hard—is critically important, but bringing your ships and your people home is equally so. It seems unlikely the Republic will have been able to adjust its defensive stance significantly in the last three weeks. Nonetheless, it isn't impossible, so be alert. We're more likely to see changes in doctrine and tactical approaches than we are to see significant redeployment of covering forces. Eventually, obviously, we hope that's going to change, but simple message transit times are going to preclude their having done it yet. Hopefully," she smiled again, "our modest efforts over the next two weeks will provide additional encouragement for their efforts.

"In just a moment, Commodore Jaruwalski will run through the entire ops schedule one last time. Afterward, I want to go over the plan individually with each task force commander. If any questions or suggestions have occurred to any of you since our last meeting, that will be the time to bring them forward."

She paused a second time, then nodded to Jaruwalski.

"Andrea," she invited, and sat back in her own chair to listen as the ops officer activated the holo display above the conference table.

* * *

"Your guests are here, Reverend."

Reverend Jeremiah Sullivan, First Elder of the Church of Humanity Unchained, nodded in response to his secretary's announcement and turned away from the picture window of his large, comfortable office in Mayhew Cathedral.

"Thank you, Matthew. If you'd be good enough to show them in, please."

"Of course, Your Grace."

Brother Matthew bowed slightly, and withdrew. He was back a moment later, accompanied by half a dozen men.

Most were of at least middle years. The sole exception was a very young man, indeed, for the office he held.

Obviously a prolong recipient, but less than thirty-five T-years old.

He was also the evident leader of the delegation.

"Reverend," he murmured, bending to kiss the ring Sullivan held out to him. "Thank you for seeing us."

"I could hardly say no to a request from such distinguished visitors, Steadholder Mueller," Sullivan said easily. Mueller smiled and stepped aside, and Sullivan extended his ring hand to the next steadholder in line.

Mueller's smile became just a trifle fixed as he watched.

It was certainly correct etiquette for visitors, however exalted their rank, to kiss the Reverend's ring of office. But it was customary in cases like this morning's meeting for the Reverend to settle for receiving the courtesy from the senior member of the delegation.

All five of Mueller's fellows kissed the ring in turn, and Sullivan waved a graceful hand at the half-circle of chairs arranged before his desk to await them.

"Please, My Lords. Be seated," he invited, and waited courteously until all of them had settled before seating himself behind the desk once more with an attentive expression on his strong, fierce-nosed face.

"And now, Lord Mueller, how may Father Church serve the people of Grayson?"

"Actually, Your Grace, we're not quite sure," Mueller replied with an air of candor. "In fact, we're here more to consult than for anything else."

"Consult, My Lord?" Sullivan arched one eyebrow, his bald scalp gleaming in the morning sunlight pouring in through the hermetically sealed window behind him.

"About what?"

"About—" Mueller started impatiently, then made himself stop.

"About the Manticoran news reports concerning Steadholder Harrington, Your Grace," he said after a moment, his tone and expression once more controlled.

"Ah!" Sullivan nodded. "You're referring to that person Hayes' column about Lady Harrington?"

"Well, to that, and to all the other commentary and speculation he seems to have generated in the Manticoran press," Mueller agreed, and produced a grimace of distaste.

"Obviously, I find the original story and its thinly veiled innuendos an unconscionable invasion of the Steadholder's private life. The sort of thing, I'm afraid, one might expect from such a thoroughly . . . secular society. Nonetheless, the story's been printed, and widely commented upon, in the Star Kingdom, and it's already starting to make its way through our own news media here in Yeltsin."

"So I'd observed," Sullivan agreed almost placidly.

"I'm sure," Mueller said, his tone more pointed, "you must find that fact as deplorable as I do, Your Grace."

"I find it inevitable, My Lord," Sullivan said in a tone of mild correction, and shrugged. "Steadholder Harrington is one of our most popular public figures, as all of us are perfectly well aware. This sort of speculation about her is bound to create a great deal of public comment."

Despite his formidable self-control, Mueller's eyes flickered as Sullivan referred to Harrington's popularity. He really did look a great deal like a much younger edition of his deceased father, Sullivan mused. It was unfortunate the resemblance went so much deeper than the surface.

"Comment is one thing, Your Grace," Mueller said now, a bit sharply. "The sort of comment we're observing, however, is something else entirely."

The other members of the Conclave of Steadholders'

delegation looked uncomfortable, but none disagreed with their spokesman. In fact, Sullivan saw, most seemed firmly in agreement. Not surprisingly, given that they'd more or less nominated themselves for their present mission.

"In what specific way, My Lord?" the Reverend inquired, still mildly, after a moment.

"Your Grace, you're obviously aware Steadholder Harrington's declined to reveal the paternity of her child,"

Mueller said. "Moreover, as I'm sure you're also aware, the Steadholder isn't married. So, I'm very much afraid, that her son—the son, I remind you, who ought to replace Lady Harrington's sister in the succession of her Steading—is illegitimate. Not to put too fine a point upon it, Your Grace, this boy will be not simply a bastard, but a bastard whose father is a total unknown."

"I might point out," Sullivan replied tranquilly, "that Manticoran practices are somewhat different from our own. Specifically, Manticoran law doesn't recognize the concept of 'bastardy' at all. I believe one of their more respected jurists once said there are no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents. Personally, I find myself in agreement with him."

"We're not talking about Manticoran law, Your Grace,"

Mueller said flatly. "We're talking about Grayson law.

About Lady Harrington's responsibility, as a Steadholder, to keep the Conclave of Steadholders informed about the birth of an heir to her Steading. About the fact that she hasn't bothered to marry this boy's father, or even to inform us as to who that father is!" He shook his head. "I believe, however great her services to Grayson, we have legitimate cause to be concerned when she so clearly chooses to flaunt the law of our planet and of Father Church."

"Excuse me, My Lord, but precisely how has she done that?"

Mueller stared at the Reverend in consternation for at least three seconds. Then he shook himself.

"My Lord, as I'm sure you're perfectly well aware, I, as a steadholder, am required by law to inform my fellow steadholders of the prospective birth of any heir to my steading. I'm also required to provide proof that the heir in question is my child and the legitimate inheritor of my title and my responsibilities. Surely you aren't suggesting that simply because Lady Harrington wasn't born on Grayson she's somehow exempt from the obligations binding upon every other steadholder?"

It was obvious from his manner that Mueller very much hoped Sullivan would make such an argument. As his father before him—although, so far, at least, without crossing the line into active treason ( so far as anyone knows , at any rate, Sullivan told himself tartly)—Travis Mueller had found his natural home in the ranks of the Opposition. And in the Opposition's eyes, Honor Harrington represented everything they detested about the 'Mayhew Restoration's'

'secularization' of their society. The unassailable position Steadholder Harrington held in the hearts of the majority of Graysons was gall-bitter on their tongues, and Sullivan could almost physically taste the eagerness with which they anticipated this opportunity to discredit her.

Not that the unfortunately large number of people who'd attempted the same task before them had enjoyed much luck, he reflected.

"First of all, My Lord," he said after a moment, "I'd recommend you consult a good constitutional scholar, since you appear to be laboring under a misapprehension.

Your responsibility as a steadholder is to inform myself, as the steward of Father Church, and the Protector, as Father Church's champion and the guardian of secular matters here on Grayson. It is not to inform the Conclave as a body."

Mueller's eyes first widened, then narrowed, and he flushed slightly.

"I'll grant you, My Lord," Sullivan continued imperturbably, "that, traditionally, that's included a notification of the Conclave as a whole. However, the Conclave's responsibility to examine and prove the chain of succession actually begins only after the birth of the heir in question. And, although I realize you weren't aware of it, Lady Harrington informed Protector Benjamin and myself almost two full months ago that she was pregnant.

So I assure you all of her constitutional obligations have been faithfully discharged."

"It hasn't simply been traditional to notify the Conclave, Your Grace," Mueller said sharply. "For generations, it's had the force of law. And that notification is supposed to be given well before the actual birth of the child in question!"

"Quite a few erroneous practices had the 'force of law'

prior to the reestablishment of the correct provisions of our written Constitution, My Lord." For the first time, there was a very definite iciness in Reverend Sullivan's voice. "Those errors are still in the process of correction.

They are, however, being corrected."

Mueller started to reply angrily, then clamped his jaw and visibly made himself reassert control of his temper.

"Your Grace, I suppose you're technically correct about the letter of the written law," he said, after several moments, speaking very carefully. "Personally, I disagree with your interpretation. You are, however, as you pointed out a short time ago, Father Church's steward. I will, therefore, not contest your interpretation at this time, although I reserve the right to do so without prejudice at another time and in another forum.

"Nonetheless, the fact remains that Steadholder Harrington isn't married; that our law, unlike that of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, clearly does recognize the concept of bastardy and regards it as a bar to inheritance; and that we don't even know who the father of this child is."

"No, Lady Harrington isn't married," Sullivan agreed.

"And, you're quite correct that Grayson law, as presently written, does recognize bastardy and the disabilities and limitations which normally attach to it. However, it's incorrect to say that we—in the legal sense of Father Church and the Sword—don't know who the father of Lady Harrington's son is."

"You know who the father is?" Mueller demanded.

"Of course I do, as does the Protector," Sullivan said. For that matter, he thought, everyone on the entire planet knows, whether they're prepared to admit it or not.

"Even so," Mueller said after a brief pause, "the child is clearly still a bastard. As such, he must be unacceptable as the heir to a steading."

His voice was flat, hard, and Sullivan nodded mentally.

Mueller had finally and unambiguously thrown down his gauntlet. Whether or not a majority of the Conclave of Steadholders would agree with him and sustain his position was another matter. It was possible a majority would, but even if—as Sullivan thought was far more likely—the majority didn't agree with him, he would gleefully take advantage of the opportunity to do all he could to blacken Honor Harrington's reputation in the eyes of Grayson's more conservative citizens.

"It occurred to me, when Lady Harrington first informed me she was pregnant," the Reverend said mildly after a long, thoughtful moment, "that a view such as that might present itself. Accordingly, I asked my staff to conduct a brief historical review."

"Historical?" Mueller repeated, against his will, when Sullivan deliberately paused and waited.

"Yes, historical."

The Reverend opened a desk drawer and withdrew a fat, old-fashioned hard-copy folder. He laid it on the blotter, opened it, glanced at the top sheet of paper, and then looked back at Mueller.

"It would appear that in 3112, nine hundred and ten T-years ago, Steadholder Berilynko had no legitimate male children, only daughters. The Conclave of Steadholders of that time therefore accepted the eldest of his several illegitimate sons as his heir. In 3120, Steadholder Elway had no legitimate male children, only daughters. The Conclave of Steadholders of that time therefore accepted the eldest of his several illegitimate sons as his heir. In 3140, Steadholder Ames had no legitimate male children, only daughters. The Conclave of Steadholders of that time therefore accepted the eldest of his several illegitimate sons as his heir. In 3142, Steadholder Sutherland had no legitimate male children, only daughters. The Conclave of Steadholders of that time therefore accepted the eldest of his several illegitimate sons as his heir. In 3146, Steadholder Kimbrell had no legitimate male children, only daughters. The Conclave of Steadholders of that time therefore accepted the eldest of his reportedly thirty-six illegitimate sons as his heir. In 3160, Steadholder Denevski had no legitimate male children, only daughters. The Conclave of Steadholders of that time therefore accepted the eldest of his illegitimate sons as his heir. In 3163—"

The Reverend paused, looked up with a hard little smile, and closed the folder once more.

"I trust you'll observe, My Lords, that in a period of less than seventy years from the founding of Grayson, when there were less than twenty-five steadings on the entire planet, no less than six steadholderships had passed through illegitimate— bastard—children. Passed, mind you, in instances in which there were clearly recognized, legitimate female children. We have nine hundred and forty-two years of history on this planet. Would you care to estimate how many more times over that millennium steadholderships have passed under similar circumstances?"

He tapped the thick folder on his desk. "I can almost guarantee you that whatever total you guess will be too low."

Silence hovered in his office, and his old-fashioned chair creaked as he sat back in it and folded his hands atop the folder.

"So what we seem to have here, My Lords, is that although the stigma of bastardy legally bars one from the line of succession of a steadholdership, we've ignored that bar scores of times in the past. The most recent instance of which, I might point out, came in Howell Steading less than twenty T-years ago. Of course, in all the prior instances of our having ignored the law, the bastards in question were the children of male steadholders. In fact, in the vast majority of the cases, there was no way for anyone to prove those steadholders were actually even the fathers of the children in question. However, in the case of a female steadholder, when the fact that she's the mother of the child in question can be scientifically demonstrated beyond question or doubt, suddenly bastardy becomes an insurmountable bar which can't possibly be set aside or ignored. I'm curious, My Lords. Why is that?"

Four of the Reverend's visitors looked away, unable—or unwilling—to meet his fiery, challenging eye. Mueller only flushed darker, jaw muscles ridging, as he glared back.

And Jasper Taylor, Steadholder Canseco, looked just as stubbornly angry as Mueller.

"Very well, My Lords," Sullivan said finally, his voice hard-edged with something far more like contempt than these men were accustomed to hearing, "your . . .

concerns are noted. I will, however, inform you, that neither Father Church nor the Sword questions the propriety of this child's inheriting Steadholder Harrington's titles and dignities."

"That, of course, is your privilege and right, Your Grace,"

Mueller grated. "Nonetheless, as is also well established in both our Faith and our secular law, a man has both the right and the responsibility to contend for what he believes God's Test requires of him, whatever the Sacristy and Sword may say."

"Indeed he does," Sullivan agreed, "and I would never for a moment consider denying you that right, My Lord. But before you take your stand before God and man, it might, perhaps, be prudent of you to be certain of your ground.

Specifically, this child will not be illegitimate."

"I beg your pardon?" Mueller jerked upright in his chair, and the other steadholders with him looked equally confused.

"I said, this child won't be illegitimate," Sullivan repeated coldly. "Surely that should satisfy even you, My Lord."

"You're God's steward on Grayson, Your Grace," Mueller shot back, "but not God Himself. It's been well established, in both Church and civil law, that no Reverend—not even the entire Sacristy in assembly—can make falsehood true simply by saying something is so."

"Indeed I cannot," Sullivan said icily. "Nonetheless, this child will not be illegitimate. You will not be given the opportunity you so obviously desire to use Lady Harrington's child as a weapon against her. Father Church won't permit it. I won't permit it."

He smiled once again, his eyes frozen agate-hard.

"I trust that is sufficiently clear, My Lord?"

Chapter Twenty-Six

"Ma'am, I hate to disturb you, but I think you'd better see this."

Rear Admiral Jennifer Bellefeuille, the Republican Navy's senior officer in the Chantilly System, turned towards the dining cabin hatch with a scowl that was angry, despite her best effort to control her temper.

"What is it, Leonardo?" She tried to keep herself from chopping the words off in small, icy chips, but it was more than she could manage.

"Admiral, Mr. Bellefeuille, I apologize for breaking in on your dinner, but I think this is urgent."

Commander Ericsson, Bellefeuille's operations officer, held out a message board to his admiral. She managed to not—quite—snatch it out of his hand, and glared at the display. Then, abruptly, her angry expression smoothed into something very different.

"This is confirmed?" she asked crisply, looking back up at Ericsson.

"Yes, Ma'am. I had Perimeter Tracking doublecheck before I broke in on you." He smiled apologetically. "I know how much you and your family have been looking forward to this visit, Admiral. I really wish I hadn't had to disturb you on your very first evening."

"I wish you hadn't had to, too," Bellefeuille said, her own smile thin. "For a lot of reasons." She glanced at the message board again, then set it down on the table. "Ivan's seen a copy of this, as well?"

"Yes, Ma'am. And I also routed a copy to Governor Sebastian's office."

"Thank you." This time Bellefeuille's smile was warmer, though it still seemed strained, a bit taut. "I don't think there's much we can do about it right now. If they get clumsy and we get a solid read on them, I'd love to nail them. I'm not going to try holding my breath until we do, though, and I don't want to give away anything we don't have to. So tell Ivan to activate Smoke and Mirrors. I want everything we've got brought to immediate readiness, but no one moves, and we shut down the Mirror Box platforms right now. And I want all of our stealth-capable units except the destroyers into stealth now. They stay there until I tell them differently."

"Yes, Ma'am. Anything else?"

"Not right now, Leonardo. Thank you."

Commander Ericsson smiled, nodded once again to his admiral and her family, and withdrew.


The Chantilly System commander looked up. She realized she'd been settling into what her mother used to call "a brown study," but the sound of her name pulled her back out of it abruptly. Her husband looked back at her, waiting patiently despite the concern in the back of his deep, brown eyes.

"I'm sorry, Russ," she said quietly. "I know you and the girls just got here, and I've really been looking forward to this visit. But it appears the Manties didn't get the memo about your trip."

Russell Bellefeuille's lips quirked very slightly at her feeble attempt at humor, but their children, Diana and Matthew, didn't even try to conceal their worry.

"Can you tell us about it?" Russell asked. His tone said he'd understand if she couldn't, and she smiled at him, far more warmly, while she wondered how many other spouses could have honestly said the same in his position.

Russell Bellefeuille had spent thirty T-years fighting a hopeless struggle against the "democratized" Legislaturalist educational system. Fortunately, he and his wife had been born and raised in the Suarez System, and Suarez had been added to the People's Republic only thirty-six years before the outbreak of the first war with Manticore, so at least he hadn't had to deal with the entrenched, massively intrusive bureaucracy of places like Nouveau Paris. He'd had enough slack to get away with actually teaching his students something, and although—like his wife—he'd hated and despised the People's Republic of Rob Pierre and State Security, he'd finally seen the idea that schools were supposed to teach students take root once more.

Along the way, he'd found the time and patience to marry a serving naval officer, despite all of the dislocation a military career imposed on anyone's personal life . . .

and the very real risk involved in marrying an officer while Oscar Saint-Just's State Security was shooting entire families under his infamous policy of "collective responsibility." And in the middle of all that, he'd somehow managed to raise two teenaged children, with only occasional visits from their mother, and done a damned good job.

"There's not much to tell . . . yet," she said. "Perimeter Tracking's detected what's probably a pair of hyper footprints well out from the system primary. It may be nothing."

"Or it may be Manty scout ships, like I saw on the boards about Gaston and Hera," Diana said tautly. At seventeen, she was the older of Bellefeuille's children, with her mother's dark hair coloring and gray-green eyes. She also had her mother's sharp-edged, adrenal personality, and at the moment Bellefeuille wished she'd inherited more of her father's equanimity.

"Yes, it may," Bellefeuille said as calmly as she could. "In fact, I think it probably is."

" Here? " Technically, Matthew wasn't quite a teenager yet. One reason for this trip to Chantilly had been to celebrate his thirteenth birthday, and at the moment, he looked and sounded very young—and frightened—indeed.

"The Manties are coming here, Mom?"

"Probably," Bellefeuille repeated.


"That's enough, Matt," Russell said quietly. The boy looked at him, as if he couldn't believe he could be so blasé about it. But then he saw his father's eyes, and his mouth shut with an almost audible click.

"Better," Russell said, reaching out to ruffle his hair gently, the way he had when Matthew had been much younger. Then he turned back to his wife.

"All I really know is what I've read in the 'faxes and on the boards," he told her. "Is this as bad as I think it is?"

"It's not good," she told him honestly. "Just how not-good, I don't know yet. We probably won't, for at least a couple of days."

"But you expect them to attack?"

"Yes." She sighed. "I wish now you hadn't come."

"I don't," he said softly, and her eyes prickled as he looked steadily at her across the table. Then he reached for his fork and glanced at their children. "I think we should go ahead and finish eating before we pester your mother with any more questions," he told them.

* * *

"There's another one, Sir," Chief Sullivan said flatly.

"Did we get a locus on it?" Lieutenant Commander Krenckel asked.

"I wish, Sir," Sullivan replied in disgusted tones. He looked up from his display, and his expression was a mixture of frustration and apology. "Whatever it is—and between you and me, Sir, it's got to be a stealthed Manty recon platform—it's moving like a bat out of hell. I wish to hell I knew how they got these kinds of acceleration levels and endurance numbers on their platforms!"

"NavInt says they've probably put micro fusion plants on them."

Sullivan blinked.

"Fusion plants? On something this small?"

"That's what they say." Krenckel shrugged. "I haven't seen any raw data on captured hardware or anything to support it, but it comes out of Bolthole. And if anyone knows what they're up to, it's got to be Admiral Foraker and her teams."

"Well, isn't that just peachy," Sullivan muttered, then grimaced. "Sorry, Sir."

"You're not saying anything I haven't thought, Chief,"

Krenckel said dryly. "Still, it'd make sense out of how small they've managed to make their MDMs. Not to mention the hellacious power levels their remote EW platforms pump."

"Yeah, it would," Sullivan agreed. Then he seemed to give himself a mental shake. "But what I was saying, Sir—

all we're getting is the back scatter, and their directional transmission capability's better than ours. The best read we've gotten was an accident—one of our own platforms just happened to wander into their transmission path—and we haven't gotten what we need for a good crosscut bearing for any of them. Even if we did, by the time we could vector anything out there, the platform would be long gone. It'd have to see us coming, and it can pull a hell of a lot more accel than any LAC we might send after it."

"Then we're just going to have to hope we do get a cross bearing, I guess," Krenckel said.

"Yes, Sir."

Sullivan turned back to his display, bending once more to the wearisome task of listening for the tiny spies flitting about the Augusta System. Personally, he figured the effort was as pointless as it was exhausting. They knew the bastards were out there; they knew they weren't going to be able to run down any of the platforms, even if they spotted them; and they knew those platforms wouldn't be there if Hell itself wasn't coming to dinner.

Still, he supposed he might as well waste his time doing this as anything else.

* * *

"Commander Estwicke's data is coming in now, Your Grace."

"Thank you, Andrea."

Honor nodded to her ops officer, then turned back to the com.

"You heard, Rafe?"

"Yes, Ma'am. Yolanda's already looking at the preliminaries. So far, it seems to be about what we expected."

"Then it probably is. But remember, surprise—"

"Is usually what happens when someone misinterprets something he's seen all along," Cardones finished for her.

She closed her mouth, then chuckled.

"I think I may have spent too many years at the Island."

"No, Ma'am. You've always been a teacher."

Honor was a little surprised by the flicker of embarrassment she felt at the sincerity in Cardones' tone.

"Well, I had some pretty good teachers of my own," she said, after a moment. "Admiral Courvoisier, Captain Bachfisch, Mark Sarnow. I guess once you get stuck in the pattern, it's hard to break."

"If it's all the same to you, Ma'am, I think we'd all just as soon you didn't try."

"I'll . . . bear that in mind, Captain Cardones."

"Good. And now, if you don't mind, Your Grace, we've both got some tactical information to look over. So," he grinned broadly at her, "let's be about it."

* * *

"Tell the Admiral we've got a major hyper translation."

Commander Ivan deCastro, Rear Admiral Bellefeuille's chief of staff, hoped he looked calmer than he felt as he gazed into the display at Commander Ericsson.

"How big is it, Leonardo?" he asked.

"At least thirteen footprints," Ericsson said grimly. "It may be fourteen. We're working to refine the numbers."

"Not good," deCastro said, and Ericsson snorted.

"I see you subscribe to the theory understatement can be its own form of emphasis."

"When it's all you've got, you might as well be witty, I suppose." DeCastro produced a wan smile. Then he squared his shoulders. "All right, I'll tell her. At least she's got her family dirt-side now, not on the flagship."

"I know." For just a moment, Ericsson's expression was haunted. "Christ, that's got to be hard. Knowing your kids are down there. That they know exactly what's happening."

"It's a bastard, all right," deCastro agreed. "Get me those refined numbers as soon as you can."

* * *



big a force did you say?"

Governor Joona Poykkonen's face was gray on Rear Admiral Baptiste Bressand's com. Not that Bressand blamed him a bit. The rear admiral intended to do his best to defend Augusta, but after he had—and after the wreckage had dissipated—Poykkonen was going to have to deal with what the frigging Manties were about to do to his star system.

"Perimeter Tracking makes it four superdreadnoughts, four battlecruisers, and seven heavy and light cruisers,"

Bressand repeated. "It's possible one or more of the superdreadnoughts could be a carrier, but so far the emissions signatures are consistent with Invictus and Medusa-class SD(P)s. If I had to guess, I guess we're up against the same force that hit Hera."

" Harrington is here?" Poykkonen's face got a little grayer, if that was possible.

"Honor Harrington is not the devil herself," Bressand said testily. "So far as I'm aware, she hasn't even made any deals with the devil—assuming the devil exists. Which I don't."

"I'm sorry, Baptiste." Poykkonen shook his head like a man trying to shake water out of his ears and managed an apologetic smile. "It's just, well . . . Oh, hell! You know what it is."

"Yes." Bressand sighed. "Yes, Joona, I know what it is."

"Do you intend to fight her?" Poykkonen asked quietly after a moment.

"I've got some orders around here somewhere that say something about my being the Augusta System's naval commander. If memory serves, they also say something about defending my station against attack."

"I know they do." Poykkonen's tone told Bressand his feeble attempt at humor had failed. "But that doesn't change the fact that you've got one old-style superdreadnought, six battlecruisers, and a couple of hundred LACs. That's not enough to stop her, and you know it."

"So what do I do, Joona?" Bressand sat back and raised one hand, palm uppermost. "Do I lie down and play dead?

Do I just let her—or whoever's in command over there—

waltz right in and blow this system's economy and industrial base to hell? We've got pods on tow, we've got the system defense pods already deployed, and if they don't have any CLACs of their own, then at least they don't have any of those damned Katanas to throw at us. I sent off a dispatch boat to Haven as soon as we realized they were scouting the system. A relief force is probably already on its way. If I can just delay these people until it gets here, we may be able to save at least some of your star system for you, after all."

"We're thirty light-years from the capital, Baptiste.

That's four days' transit for a task force and your message can't reach the Octagon until sometime later today. Do you really think you can stand off a force this size for four frigging days?"

"Probably not," Bressand said bleakly. "But that doesn't mean I don't have to try." The two friends looked at one another for a moment, and then Bressand cleared his throat. "In case we don't get another chance to talk, Joona, take care of yourself."

"I will," the Governor promised softly. "And if you don't mind, I'm going to ask that God you don't believe in to look after you."

* * *

"They're here, Ma'am," Commander Alan McGwire said.

"Perimeter Tracking makes it at least six of the wall—some of them might be carriers, of course—ten cruisers, and at least three destroyers."

Commodore Desiree Carmouche, CO of the 117th Heavy Cruiser Squadron and the Republic of Haven Navy's senior officer in the Fordyce System, looked at her chief of staff and shook her head.

"Bit of overkill there, wouldn't you say?" she observed with ironic bitterness.

"I'm guessing their intelligence appreciation was off,"

McGwire replied. "Up until Thunderbolt, we had a much heavier system defense force stationed here." He shrugged. "Without an actual recon before they dropped their damned destroyers and stealthed arrays in on us, they had no way of knowing the system picket had been so reduced."

"For what I'm sure seemed like a perfectly good goddamned reason at the time," Carmouche grated. She glared at the plot for several seconds, eyes fiery as she studied the blood-red rash of incoming enemy warships and the seven threadbare green icons of her own understrength squadron, and then her shoulders sagged visibly.

"There's nothing we can do to stop them, Alan," she said heavily.

"No, Ma'am, there isn't," he agreed softly. "Petra's already passed the word to Governor Dahlberg."

Commander Petra Nielsen was Carmouche's operations officer, and the commodore nodded in understanding and approval.

"I've been on the horn with Captain Watson, myself,"

McGwire continued. Captain Diego Watson commanded the Fordyce LAC groups. "He says his people are prepared to engage."

"In which case I might as well simply shoot them myself."

Carmouche turned away from the plot at last. "For Christ's sake, Diego has less than a hundred and fifty Cimeterres! If I commit him against these people, they'll blow him out of space before he even gets into his missile range of them.

And just what the hell does he imagine he'd accomplish against superdreadnoughts even if he got into range in the first place?"

"Of course he wouldn't accomplish anything, Ma'am. But what did you expect him to say?"

"That he was ready to go in." Carmouche sighed, then shook her head wearily. "And I suppose the rest of our magnificent 'task force' is equally ready to get itself killed for absolutely nothing?"

"They are if you ask them to, Ma'am," McGwire said softly, and she looked at him sharply. He met her eyes steadily, and after a moment, she nodded.

"It does come down to that, doesn't it?" She inhaled deeply. "Well, Alan, as it happens, I'm not prepared to get all those people killed pointlessly. Have Communications pass the evacuation order for all of the civilian platforms, as well as the Fleet yard and repair station. If these are the same people who hit us last month, they're probably going to be careful about inflicting civilian casualties. But they might not be the same ones, so let's not take any chances."

"Aye, Ma'am," McGwire said formally.

"Then turn the Squadron around. We've got time to get out of the system before the Manties can range on us, but only if we start now. Any civilian starships who can evade are to do the same thing, but if the Manties bring them into range and order them to halt, they are to obey immediately. Make certain that's clearly understood."

"And the LACs, Ma'am?" McGwire's voice was completely nonjudgmental as Carmouche announced her intention of abandoning the star system to the enemy.

"They're to return to base immediately, and those bases'

personnel are to be evacuated dirt-side as rapidly as possible. After which they'll blow their fusion plants," she replied flatly. "I wish we had the personnel lift to pick up Diego's crews in passing, but we don't. And I very much doubt the Manties brought along transports to haul prisoners home with them, anyway."

"That would require a bit of gall, Ma'am," McGwire agreed. "On the other hand, look how close to Haven they're operating. I'm afraid gall is one thing they obviously aren't short on."

* * *



is an anticlimax," Alistair McKeon observed to his chief of staff.

"ONI can't get it right all the time, Sir," Commander Orndorff said. "The last time we looked, there was a substantial picket here. Obviously, times have changed."

She shrugged philosophically. She was a substantial woman, who produced a substantial shrug, and the treecat on her shoulder flirted his tail in agreement with his person's observation.

"As if you know anything about intelligence appreciations!" McKeon told the 'cat.

"Banshee made it all the way through the Crusher with me, Sir," Orndorff pointed out. "You might be surprised what he picked up along the way."

"I might at that," McKeon agreed, chuckling as he remembered the first treecat he'd ever met. Then he shook himself.

"All right, CIC is confident about its tracking data?" he asked.

"Yes, Sir," another voice said. It belonged to Commander Alekan Slowacki, McKeon's ops officer and a relative newcomer to his command team. Now Slowacki gestured at the master plot's display of the Fordyce System, indicating a small cluster of red dots accelerating rapidly towards the hyper limit.

"That's all seven of the heavy cruisers Venturer's arrays picked up, Sir," he continued. "And this," he pointed to another swarm of ruby light chips, "is over a hundred LACs returning to base." He shook his head. "Their system commander, whoever he is, hasn't commed us to announce he's standing down, but he's obviously intelligent enough to know what would happen if he didn't."

"And their missile pods?"

"No word on those, Sir. Probably the reason the system CO hasn't contacted you directly," Slowacki said. "He's not prepared to stand them down, as well, and he's afraid you might insist he do so."

"Damned straight I would," McKeon half growled. Then he shook his head. "Not that I'd be inclined to commit any atrocities if he declined. Mind you, it'd be tempting, but Duchess Harrington would feed me to Nimitz, one bite at a time if I did anything like that!"

"That's probably an understatement, Sir," Orndorff said with a ghost of a smile.

"Whatever." McKeon brooded over the plot for several more seconds, then nodded decisively.

"Okay. They're abandoning the system—or, at least, they aren't going to defend it with anything except the pods—

and according to Venturer and Mandrake, they don't have more than a hundred or so of those. I'm going to assume they have at least twice as many as we've actually found, however. And if they don't want to get their LACs killed, I don't see any reason we should get ours killed, either.

Contact Admiral Corsini. I want only the Katanas deployed, strictly in the missile defense role. We'll take Intransigent and Elizabeth in, covered by Gottmeyer's cruisers and the Katanas. Corsini is to retain Atchison's cruiser division and the destroyers as a screen for the carriers and stay outside the hyper limit. If any unpleasant strangers appear, she's to immediately withdraw and return directly to Trevor's Star."

"We could probably sweep up the pieces faster with a couple of LAC groups, Sir," Orndorff pointed out in a diplomatic tone, and McKeon nodded.

"Yes, we could. On the other hand, a couple of SD(P)s can wipe out every significant platform out there in less than fifteen minutes if we have to. I'm not going to send in the LACs while holding the wallers out of missile range, and if I'm going to take the division in anyway, there's no point exposing Shrikes and Ferrets to potential lucky hits from the pods. If it takes us a little longer to do the job this way, so be it."

"Aye, aye, Sir," Orndorff said, and waved Slowacki towards the flag bridge's com section.

* * *

Captain Arakel Hovanian, acting commodore of the 93rd Destroyer Squadron, Republican Navy, glared at the master plot showing the icons of four CLACs, four battlecruisers, and seven destroyers and light cruisers sweeping inward from the hyper limit of the Des Moines System.

"Sir, Governor Bruckheimer is on the com," Commander Ellen Stokley, the skipper of the destroyer RHNS Racer and Hovanian's flag captain said quietly.

"Switch it to my display," Hovanian directed, and the small com flatscreen filled with the image of Governor Arnold Bruckheimer as the commodore slid into his command chair.

"Commodore Hovanian," the Governor said without preamble. "What the hell are you still doing here?"

"I beg your pardon?" Hovanian's eyes narrowed in surprise.

"I asked you what the hell you're still doing here,"

Bruckheimer repeated flatly. "Aside from the very high probability of getting yourself and all of your personnel killed, that is?"

"Governor, I'm responsible for the defense of this system, and—"

"And if you try to defend it, you're going to fail,"

Bruckheimer interrupted brusquely. "I can still read a tactical plot, you know."

Hovanian had opened his mouth to reply hotly, but he closed it again with a click at the reminder that Bruckheimer was a retired admiral.

"Better," Bruckheimer said a bit more conversationally.

Then he cocked his head to one side, his eyes compassionate. "Commodore—Arakel—you just got dropped straight into the crapper through absolutely no fault of your own. If they'd waited another three weeks, we'd have had some significant reinforcements waiting for them. But they didn't, and you don't have a single capital ship under your command. There are exactly twenty-six Cimeterres in this entire star system; I know even better than you just how thin our missile pods are stretched; and you've got less than half your own squadron present for duty. There's no way you're going to stop this with three destroyers, and,"

Bruckheimer's voice hardened around the edges once more, "if you try—and survive the experience—I will personally see you court-martialed. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, Sir," Hovanian said after a long, still moment. "Yes, Sir. You do."

"Good." Bruckheimer ran the fingers of his right hand through his hair and grimaced. "We're going to have to come up with some sort of response to this strategy of theirs, but I'm damned if I know what the Octagon's going to do about it. In the meantime, get your people out of here before they all get killed."

"Aye, Sir," Hovanian said. He nodded to Stokely, who began issuing the necessary orders, then looked back at Bruckheimer. "And . . . thank you, Sir," he said to the man who had just saved his life.

* * *

"I wonder what other systems they're hitting today?"

Admiral Bressand said.

"Maybe they aren't hitting any other systems, Sir,"

Commander Claudette Guyard, his chief of staff said.

"Oh, please, Claudette!" Bressand shook his head.

"I didn't say I thought they weren't, Sir. I just pointed out a possibility."

"Theoretically, anything is possible," Bressand said.

"Some things, however, are more likely—or, conversely, less likely—than others."

"True, but—"

Guyard paused as Lieutenant Commander Krenckel appeared quietly at her elbow.

"Yes, Ludwig?" she said.

"We've confirmed it," Bressand's ops officer said.

"Assuming they haven't decided to try to spoof our identification for some reason, two of those ships are definitely a pair of the Invictuses that hit Hera. I'm guessing one of them is the Manties' Eighth Fleet's flagship."

"Which means we probably are about to play host to 'the Salamander' herself," Guyard observed. " There's an honor—

you should pardon the pun—I could have done without."

"You and me both," Bressand said, remembering his conversation with Poykkonen. "Not that it's going to take any tactical genius to kick the crap out of us with this kind of force imbalance."

"Maybe not, Sir," Krenckel said. "On the other hand, there's a sort of backhanded compliment in getting pounded by the other side's best."

"Did I ever mention that you're a very strange man, Ludwig?" Guyard asked.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

"It looks like we caught them with their pants down, doesn't it?" Vice Admiral Dame Alice Truman observed as her Task Force Eighty-One accelerated steadily in-system towards Vespasien, the inhabited planet of the Chantilly System.

"Yes, it does," Michelle Henke agreed from the vice admiral's com. "Of course, I have this sneaky suspicion that it's supposed to look that way."

"Why, Admiral Henke! I hadn't realized you had such a broad streak of paranoia."

"It comes from associating with people like you and Her Grace," Henke said dryly. Then she continued more seriously. "As Honor keeps pointing out, the Peeps aren't stupid. And this time around, they don't have political masters insisting they act as if they were. They haven't had time to reinforce heavily, but Chantilly is a jucier target than Gaston was. It should have been more heavily defended to begin with, and they sure as hell had more hyper-capable units in-system than the three destroyers our arrays have picked up. Which suggests to my naturally suspicious mind that as soon as they realized we'd inserted those arrays, they went to full-court stealth on their main combatants."

"It's what I'd do," Truman agreed. She drummed lightly on the arm of her command chair for a few moments, then shrugged. "Our arrays are good, but their stealth systems have gotten a lot better, and any star system represents a huge volume. If you were going to hide your defensive task force, where would you put it?"

"It's got to be close enough to protect the near-planet platforms," Henke replied. "Ninety percent of the system's industry's concentrated there, so there's no point deploying to defend any other area. Greyhound and Whippet swept the entire volume on this side of Vespasien very carefully, though. Even assuming they were stealthed, our arrays probably would have spotted them. But they have to base their deployment plans on the probability that we'll go for a least-time approach and figure they'll adjust if we do something else, instead. So, if I were looking for a good hiding place, I'd probably put my units on this side of the primary, but inside Vespasien's orbit. Far enough in-system the other side's remotes would have to do a fly-by on the planet, and all of the bunches and bunches of recon platforms of my own I'd have concentrated covering the inner system, before they could see me. But close enough so I could build an intercept vector headed out to meet an attack short of the planet."

"More or less what I was thinking," Truman murmured.

"To be perfectly honest, I'm less concerned about their warships than I am about their predeployed pods," Henke said. "They didn't have a huge number of them in Gaston, but that's the most cost-effective area-denial system they've got. And we found out in Gaston that they're a lot harder to spot than we thought they'd be. It's pretty obvious—assuming we're right about where their starships are—that whoever's in command here's a pretty cool customer. Sneaky, too. I don't like to think about what someone like that could do with a big enough stack of system defense pods if she put her mind to it."

* * *

"Do you think their scouts spotted us, Ivan?"

"It's too soon to say, Ma'am," Commander deCastro replied. "If they got close enough, if they looked in the right direction—if they got lucky—then, yes. They probably know exactly where we are. But nothing Leonardo's sensor crews have picked up suggests they did."

And we both know it's not going to make a lot of difference, either way, he thought, looking affectionately at his admiral.

"I guess it's just the principle of the thing," Admiral Bellefeuille said whimsically, as if she'd heard what he carefully hadn't said. "Whether it does any good or not, knowing we managed to at least surprise them would do wonders for my own morale."

"Well, in that case, let's assume they're surprised until and unless we know differently, Ma'am."

* * *

"So I want you to take point, Captain," Michelle Henke said.

"I'm honored," the tall, gangly man at the other end of the com link drawled in a maddening aristocratic accent.

"Be interestin' t' see how well she does in her first action, too."

"She's got a lot to live up to," Henke said.

"I know," Captain (senior grade) Michael Oversteegen agreed. "In fact, I believe someone may have mentioned t'

me in passin' that the last Nike's first captain and XO had a little somethin' t' do with that."

"We tried, Captain. We tried."

Despite Oversteegen's sometimes infuriating mannerisms and sublime—one might reasonably say arrogant—self-confidence, Henke had always rather liked him. The differences between their families' political backgrounds only made that liking even more ironic, as had the fact that their fathers had loathed one another cordially. But not even the Earl of Gold Peak had ever questioned Michael Oversteegen's competence or nerve, and she was glad he was senior to Captain Franklin Hanover, Hector's CO. She liked Hanover, and he was a good, solid man. But he wasn't Michael Oversteegen, and Oversteegen's seniority gave him command of Henke's third division. If ever there'd been a case of the right man in the right place, this was it, and she watched Nike and Hector crack on a few more gravities of acceleration.

Winston Bradshaw and his two Saganami-class cruisers—

HMS Edward Saganami and HMS Quentin Saint-James—

closed up on Truman's carriers, while Henke herself, with Ajax, Agamemnon, and the light cruisers Amun, Anhur, and Bastet followed in Oversteegen's wake. She didn't want the interval between her own ships and Oversteegen's division to get too great, but she wanted at least a few more seconds to react to any traps or ambushes Oversteegen might trip. And she wanted to be sure she kept her ships and the four squadrons of Katanas providing her close cover between Oversteegen and the two hundred-plus Peep LACs shadowing the Manticoran ships.

She looked at the tiny icons of the LACs on her plot, and once again, she was tempted to roll pods. The small vessels were well within her powered missile envelope, but far enough out accuracy would be even lower than usual against LACs, and Agamemnons weren't wallers. They had to watch their ammunition consumption carefully.

* * *

"I don't think they do know where we are, Ma'am,"

deCastro said. "It looks like they may suspect, though. And I'd say it's pretty definite that someone's figured out we're pretending we're a hole in space somewhere."

"Pity," Bellefeuille a replied. "I'd hoped they'd keep coming all fat and happy. Anyone care to speculate on whether or not they've deployed additional recon drones?"

* * *

"Anythin' on the drones yet, Joel?"

"Not yet, Sir. Betty is still steering them into position."

Commander Joel Blumenthal had moved up from tactical officer to exec when Captain Oversteegen had to give up HMS Gauntlet in order to assume command of Nike. Linda Watson, Oversteegen's XO in Gauntlet had no longer been available, since she'd received a long overdue promotion of her own to captain and taken over his old ship. And, despite some people's possible qualms, Oversteegen had brought along the newly promoted Lieutenant Commander Betty Gohr to replace Blumenthal as Nike's brand spanking new tactical officer. Competition for any slot on Nike's command deck had been fierce, but Michael Oversteegen had a knack for getting the bridge crew he wanted.

Which probably, Blumenthal reflected, had something to do with the results he consistently produced.

"I believe Admiral Henke's correctly deduced the other side's most probable position," Oversteegen said now, tipping back in his command chair with a thoughtful expression. "The question in my mind is precisely what they hope t' accomplish."

"I imagine not getting shot at for as long as possible is pretty high on their list, Sir," Blumenthal said dryly, and Oversteegen gave one of the explosive snorts he used instead of a chuckle.

"No doubt it is," he said after a moment. "At th' same time, if that was all they wanted, th' simplest thing for them t' have done would be t' have simply decamped. No."

He shook his head. "They've got somethin' more than that in mind."

He pondered for a few more moments, then looked at Lieutenant Commander Gohr.

"Have we confirmed Greyhound and Whippet's numbers on the pods they did detect, Betty?"

"No, Sir." Gohr looked up from her own console and half-turned to face her CO. "But as Commander Sturgis pointed out, his platforms had a very difficult time picking them up in the first place on passives," she reminded him. "It's probably not too surprising there's a discrepancy."

"Perhaps not. But are our numbers high compared t' his, or low?"

"Low, Sir. We seem to be coming in at least twenty-five percent lower than his original numbers overall."

"That's what I thought," Oversteegen said softly, and Blumenthal gave him a sharp look. One that turned suddenly speculative.

"Precisely," Oversteegen said, then looked at his communications section. "Lieutenant Pattison, I believe I need t' speak t' Admiral Henke again. Would you be so kind as t' see if she's prepared t' take my call?"

* * *

"I think Oversteegen's onto something, Ma'am," Michelle Henke told Dame Alice Truman.

"But how could they have moved them without Sturgis'

arrays seeing them?" Truman's question was thoughtful, not dismissive.

"Very carefully," Henke replied dryly. Truman made a face, and Henke chuckled humorlessly.

"Seriously, Ma'am," she went on, after a moment, "think about it. Whoever this is, she's cool enough, and she's thought far enough ahead, to get her mobile units—aside from her LACs—into stealth before our arrays found her.

Personally, I'm betting she did it as soon as her sensors picked up Greyhound and Whippet's hyper footprints. And I'm also betting she'd already decided what she was going to do with her pods if it came to it. So what she's probably been doing is quietly using some of that near-planet

'merchant traffic' Sturgis reported to pick up and drop off previously deployed pods. If she did, I think we need to rethink our recon doctrine."

"Go ahead and park one or two in close and just let them sit?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

Henke didn't mention that she'd already suggested that modification only to have the Powers That Were at Admiralty House shoot it down. They were concerned that a stationary platform would be more readily tracked down, especially since it would be inside most of the system's defenders' surveillance platforms, which would give them a far better chance of detecting the array's directional transmissions and triangulating on their source. Having the arrays localized and destroyed would have been bad enough, but the present generation of recon drones had all the Ghost Rider bells and whistles, including the very latest grav-pulse coms and several other goodies Erewhon had never had to turn over to Haven in the first place. The possibility that one of them might be disabled without being destroyed, while slight, did exist, and Admiralty House strongly objected to the notion of handing the Star Kingdom's latest and best hardware to the other side for examination.

"I think you were probably right all along, Mike," Truman said after a moment. "Certainly, if they did what Oversteegen thinks they did, having a couple of platforms—

or even just one—keeping a close, permanent eye on near-planet space would probably've caught them at it."

"Maybe. The question, though, Ma'am, is what we do about it," Henke pointed out.

"Well, I see two possibilities. First, we send in the LACs.

That means radically slowing your ships' approach while Scotty and his LAC jockeys get themselves organized and catch up with you. Second, we go right on doing what we're doing. Which do you vote for?"

"A variant of Option Two," Henke said without any appreciable hesitation. "I don't want to waste any more time than we have to, since we don't know where any response force they've sent for is coming from, or exactly how long it's going to take to get here. What I propose is that I send the Katanas ahead to catch up with Oversteegen. Hopefully, the bad guys won't have guessed we've taken a page from their own missile-defense doctrine, but whether they have or not, forty-eight Katanas should help out quite a bit."

"I don't know, Mike," Truman said dubiously. "Scotty would only need a couple of hours more than Oversteegen to get there, and Shrikes and Ferrets are a lot harder targets for their fire control than battlecruisers."

"And a lot easier to kill if they get hit," Henke pointed out. "Besides, we're already inside their powered missile envelope, if they're where we think they are. At the moment, they're not firing because we're still closing, and they're willing to wait until we give them better firing solutions. But if we suddenly break off, they're going to fire anyway, well before we could get a LAC strike in close enough to start killing platforms. Since we've already stepped into their parlor, I think our best chance is to just keep going, offer Oversteegen as the most attractive target, and back him up with the best missile-defense capability we can."

Truman thought some more. Then she nodded, once, sharply.

"All right, Mike. Do it."

* * *

"They've definitely figured out roughly what we're doing with our main combatants, Ma'am," Leonardo Erickson said.

He tapped the projected vectors CIC was throwing into the master plot. "Look at this."

The four squadrons of LACs which had been glued tightly to the second Manty battlecruiser division were accelerating away from it, closing rapidly on the lead division. At the same time, some of the near-planet sensor platforms were beginning to pick up the shadowy ghosts of Manticoran recon drones. They weren't finding many of them, but that didn't mean they weren't there; the drones were hellishly difficult sensor targets at the best of times.

The limited number they were actually seeing suggested there was probably a solid shell of them, spreading out in front of the oncoming Manty starships, and CIC was doing its best to project where that shell was in three-dimensional space. The tracking crews' hard data was limited, but Bellefeuille felt confident they'd gotten it effectively correct, and the shell they were projecting was aligned all too closely upon her own ships' positions.

"So," she said flatly, "the question is whether we fire now, when it's pretty clear they haven't quite locked in our positions, or wait a little longer in hopes of improving our firing solutions. Opinions, anyone?" She looked up from the plot. "Ivan?"

"Wait," Commander deCastro said, quickly and positively. She cocked an eyebrow, and he shrugged.

"We're so outgunned that one good shot is all we're likely to get, Ma'am," he pointed out. "That being the case, I'd like it to be as effective as we can make it. That's what Smoke and Mirrors was all about to start with."

"I see. Leonardo?" she looked at her ops officer.

"Normally, I'd tend to agree with Ivan," Erickson said after a moment. "But I don't like this." He indicated the steadily accelerating icons of the enemy LACs once more.

"They've been careful to keep them between our known LAC concentrations and the rest of their ships. To me, that suggests they're probably Katanas in the escort role. But now they're sending them in along with their probe, and I'm wondering if they've evolved something like our LAC

fleet missile-defense doctrine. If they have, then the people we're going to have the improved firing solutions on are also going to've significantly improved their defenses by the time we finally fire."

"On the other hand, Ma'am," deCastro pointed out, "the closer they get to us, the further they are from their main body. And if they are a sizable chunk of the Manties'

Katana force, mousetrapping them now might be the best thing we could do. Especially since they also seem to've completely missed Mirror Box."

Jennifer Bellefeuille nodded slowly, and her senior staffers waited. She always invited opinions, careful to avail herself of the best advice available, and she always made the final decision herself.

"We wait," she said. "Not as long as you'd probably like, Ivan, but long enough for our solutions to tighten up. I think we'll wait until their Katanas— and I think you're right about what they are, Leonardo—are about ten minutes from matching vectors with their battlecruisers. I'd actually have liked to catch them close enough to engage our missiles with their counter-missiles but still too far out to use their laser clusters, but that's not going to work, given the geometry. I think we'll go with a staggered launch, though."

"Staggered, Ma'am?" Erickson repeated.

"The first one to concentrate on their battlecruisers,"

she said, with a thin smile. "I'll want it heavy enough to get their attention pretty emphatically, too. Particularly, I'd like their Katanas to commit as many as possible of their counter-missiles to stopping the first wave."

Her thin smile grew vicious, and her staffers found themselves returning it slowly.

* * *

"Dagger One, Ramrod."

"Ramrod, Dagger One," Commander Dillinger replied.


Dillinger and his Katanas were over five million kilometers in front of Scotty Tremaine’s command LAC and the rest of the carrier division's strike, but there was no perceptible delay in their grav-pulse FTL conversation.

"I'm getting that uncomfortable feeling between my shoulder blades, Crispus," Tremaine continued more informally. "I don't know why, but I've got the feeling there's something nasty waiting out here."

"Ah, Ramrod," Dillinger said with a smile, "I'm afraid I didn't quite copy that threat analysis. Could you repeat all after 'something.'"

"Dagger One, you're a smart ass," Tremaine told him.

Then his tone sobered. "Seriously, Crispus. Watch your six.

I don't like how conspicuous these people's inactivity has been. I don't know exactly what they're up to, but they're up to something. That much I am confident of."

"Ramrod, I hear you," Dillinger responded, his smile fading. "So far, though, I haven't seen a thing you haven't."

"I know." Tremaine frowned as he gazed at his own plot aboard Dacoit. "That's what worries me. Ramrod, clear."

* * *

"Another ten minutes, I think," Jennifer Bellefeuille said quietly.

She stood beside Commander Ericsson, gazing into the master plot of RHNS Cyrus, her battlecruiser flagship, at the icons of the oncoming warships. Even a few years before, she knew, the Manties would already have localized her own ships, opened fire, and almost certainly destroyed them by now. But one of the Manty drones had passed within less than ten light-seconds of her flagship and simply continued on its way, which made it obvious the improvements in the Republic's stealth systems were giving the enemy's sensors a hard time. The fact that none of her starships had their wedges up and that all of them had gone to total emissions control undoubtedly helped, but even so, she felt the tension prickling sharper in her palms. Cyrus and her consorts were barely one light-minute from Vespasien, and the Manties were clearly looking for them hard.

But they haven't found us yet, she reminded herself. So it's time to give them something else to think about before they do.

"Initiate Decoy," she said.

"Aye, Ma'am," Ericsson said , and nodded to the com officer. "Send 'Initiate Decoy.'"

* * *

"I have something, Sir!" Lieutenant Commander Gohr said sharply. "The Gamma-Three array is picking up what looks like stealthed impeller wedges. Bearing three-four-niner, zero-zero-niner from the ship, range approximately five-six-point-eight million klicks!"

Michael Oversteegen punched a command into the small-scale plot deployed from the arm of his command chair, and his eyes narrowed as the display zoomed in on the indicated datum.

Nike and Hector were still 20,589,000 kilometers from Vespasien, but their velocity was down to a mere 5,265

KPS as they continued to decelerate at a steady 5.31 KPS2.

Their present flight profile would bring them to a halt, relative to the system primary, one light-minute short of the planet. That was close enough to bring all the near-planet orbital infrastructure into sufficiently short range to avoid any embarrassing accidents . . . like unintentional missile strikes on an inhabited world. But it was also far enough out to keep him at least two light-minutes from his own estimate of the enemy's closest probable position.

Commander Dillinger's Katanas were continuing to close from astern. Their higher acceleration rate meant they'd been able to attain a higher base velocity before they began decelerating towards a rendezvous, and their current velocity was 6,197 KPS. Their vectors would merge with Nike's in another ten minutes, at which point they would both be down to a velocity of 2,079 KPS and less than four hundred thousand kilometers from their planned zero-zero point—or about 18,400,000 kilometers from Vespasien.

The new emission signatures Gohr had picked up were just over two light-minutes inside Vespasien's orbit.

Assuming the ships responsible for the signatures had pods of multi-drive missiles, that would put his ships inside their effective range, but far enough out for Havenite accuracy to be very, very poor.

"Move the platforms closer, Betty," he said, after a moment. "And don't forget t' watch the other approaches, as well."

"Yes, Sir."

* * *

Jennifer Bellefeuille watched her own plot, gray-green eyes slitted in concentration. It was impossible to tell whether or not the Manties had bitten, but the decoy emissions looked very convincing to her own recon platforms. She didn't have much faith in their ability to fool the Manties for long, but if CIC's projection of their recon shell's probable deployment was correct, it would take them precious minutes to get even one of their drones close enough to realize the units they were picking up were actually the recon variant of the Cimeterre. There were eight of them out there, each with a standard tethered decoy tractored to it, and their only job was to

"leak" enough of an impeller signature to keep the Manties looking in their direction just a little longer.

* * *

"Dagger Flight will match vectors with us in about six minutes, Sir," Lieutenant Commander Gohr announced.

"Very good. Anythin' more on those impeller signatures?"

"Not a lot, Sir. But the arrays are closing in, and so far it looks like a half-dozen or so point sources. Maybe a few more."

"I see." Michael Oversteegen grimaced. Over the years, he'd learned to trust his instincts, and those instincts told him something wasn't quite right. He looked up and waved Blumenthal closer to his command chair.

"Yes, Sir?"

"Why d'you suppose these fellows are just sittin' there?"

Blumenthal frowned. He gazed down into Oversteegen's plot for a second or two, then looked back up.

"If they're planning to let us continue to close, which seems to be what they've been doing so far, then they're probably waiting until they're sure they've been detected,"

he said, in the tone of a man who wondered if he'd just been asked a trick question.

"Unless they're complete and total idiots, like my beloved cousin, Countess Fraser," Oversteegen replied,

"they've got t' have a pretty shrewd notion we've already picked them up." He pointed an index finger at the blue-white icon of Vespasien. "One thing Commander Sturgis was able t' positively confirm, Joel, is that the space around Vespasien is crawlin' with Havenite reconnaissance assets. D'you seriously think we managed t' get that many of our own drones right past the planet without any of those assets noticin' as they went by?"

"Well, no, Sir. Of course, they are very stealthy."

"Yes, they are," Oversteegen agreed dryly. "But good as our stealth technology is, it's not yet perfect. And, much as it pains me t' admit it, between what they got from the Erewhonese and what they've probably managed t' pick up on their own from examinin' captured hardware, our cloak of invisibility's probably just a tad thinner than any of us would like t' think. I'm not sayin' they can get solid lockups on our platforms. But when we operate this many of them, in such close proximity and so deep into the other side's sensor envelope, they're bound t' pick up at least some of them. And if they've managed t' do that, any tac officer worth his salt should be able t' project our basic deployment pattern. In which case, they damned well ought t' know that if they're sittin' there with active impeller wedges, we're goin' t' have picked them up by now."

"Put that way, Sir, you may have a point," Blumenthal conceded. "At the same time, they may be waiting until our platforms go active and they know we've got them."

"Maybe so, but why put themselves that far from the planet?" Oversteegen asked. "It puts Vespasien outside their best MDM envelope by a considerable margin, which means they're riskin' an accidental hit on the planet if they engage us. They didn't have t' let us this close t' the planet in the first place. They ought t' be at least a light-minute closer, and if they aren't, then they ought t' still be lyin'

doggo." He shook his head. "No, they've got somethin' else in mind."

He brooded down at the plot for a few more seconds, then looked up at Gohr.

"Launch another shell," he said. "I want t' sweep this area again."

He tapped a command into his armrest alphanumeric pad, highlighting the indicated volume of space on Gohr's larger plot.

"Sir, I can recall the Beta platforms to cover that volume," she pointed out.

"I'm certain you could," he agreed pleasantly.

"Unfortunately, that would require at least twenty minutes, and I want it swept now."

"Yes, Sir."

Gohr beckoned to her assistant, and the two of them began punching in commands to deploy the specified drone shell to cover the area to system north of Vespasien once again.

* * *

"Crap," Leonardo Ericsson muttered as the fresh drones began deploying from the outsized Manty battlecruiser.

"So they didn't buy the decoys after all," deCastro said.

"No." Bellefeuille shook her head. "They bought them—

for a little while, at least. But whoever that is over there, she's a suspicious one. So she's doublechecking the 'clear areas' just in case."

"Well, they're going to pick us up, emissions control or no emissions control, in about another seven minutes, Ma'am,"

Ericsson pointed out. "These two, especially, are coming straight down our throats."

He tapped two light codes on his display, and this time Bellefeuille nodded.

"Yes, they are. And they're about where we wanted them anyway." She straightened, inhaled deeply, and nodded to deCastro.

"It's time," she said.

* * *

"Missile launch!" Betty Gohr barked suddenly. "


missile launches!"

Oversteegen looked up sharply as the deadly, blood-red icons appeared on the master plot.

"Range at launch eight-five-point-two light-seconds,"

Gohr said flatly. "Time to attack range six-point-one-three minutes!"

* * *

Jennifer Bellefeuille and her staff had devised the operational plan she'd dubbed "Smoke and Mirrors" in response to the Manticorans' first set of raids. Although Chantilly had been assigned a substantially heavier system defense force than Gaston or Hera to begin with, she'd known it was grossly insufficient to hold off attacks in such strength using any conventional defensive plan, so she'd had to go outside the box.

Her six heavily refitted Warlord-class battlecruisers and three Trojan-class destroyers were the only hyper-capable combatants she had, but she also had almost six hundred Cimeterres and almost a thousand system-defense missile pods to back them up. And she also had two hundred and forty standard MDM pods to go with it.

The problem was that although the system-defense pods'

out-sized, over-powered birds could actually slightly exceed Manticoran MDMs' acceleration rates, her standard pods' missiles couldn't quite match them, and neither of them were as accurate as Manty missiles. In addition, what had happened in Gaston demonstrated that her LACs simply could not mix it up with Katanas—on Manty terms, at least—and win. So she'd had to get creative if she wanted to do any good.

The instant Perimeter Tracking picked up evidence the Manties were scouting Chantilly, her battlecruisers, already in their preselected positions, had gone to stealth and strict emissions control under the Smoke and Mirrors operational plan. In addition, two-thirds of her total LAC

strength had gone to immediate readiness, but been restricted to its bases. She'd continued to operate two hundred LACs normally, making certain the Manties saw them, but four hundred additional Cimeterres, based on Vespasien's main space station and a dozen other innocuous orbital platforms, outwardly indistinguishable from any freight-handling facility, had stayed completely covert.

Now, like any good magician, Bellefeuille began her stage show by fixing her audience's attention firmly on the distraction she wanted it to see.

* * *

"Estimate nineteen hundred incoming," Lieutenant Commander Gohr announced.

"Understood. Lieutenant Pattison, request Dagger One t'

expedite his arrival, if you please."

Michael Oversteegen's voice was as calm and drawling as ever as he watched the cyclone of missiles tear through space towards his command.

"Defense Plan Alpha," he continued, and HMS Nike and HMS Hector altered course. They rolled up on their sides to turn the bellies of their wedges towards the incoming fire while Keyhole platforms deployed far beyond the boundaries of their protective sidewalls, and counter-missile defense solutions were already cycling.

"Looks like you had a point, Sir," Blumenthal observed quietly. "Those—" he jabbed his head at the elusive impeller signatures the Gamma arrays had detected "—

have to be decoys."

Oversteegen nodded. The missiles coming at Nike and Hector had been launched from a point in space this side of Vespasien and just under one light-minute "north" of it . . . the next best thing to four light-minutes away from Blumenthal's decoys.

"Obviously they wanted t' get us in as close as they could before launchin', so they kept us lookin' somewhere they weren't," he agreed. But even as he spoke, something continued to bother him.

* * *

"All Daggers, Dagger One!" Commander Dillinger snapped. "Flyswatter. I say again, Flyswatter!"

The forty-eight Katanas of Dagger Flight changed acceleration in almost instant response. One moment they were decelerating at seven hundred gravities, sixty thousand kilometers astern of Nike and slowing neatly towards rendezvous; the next, they were accelerating at the same seven hundred gravities as they charged to catch up with and pass the battlecruisers. Although they were smaller and far frailer than any battlecruiser, they were also much more difficult targets for long-range missile fire, and they raced towards the enemy to place their own defensive missile launchers between the incoming MDMs and their targets.

* * *

"The Katanas are moving to intercept, Ma'am," Ericsson announced, and Rear Admiral Bellefeuille jerked her head in combined acknowledgment and approval. The possibility of Cyrus' surviving the next half-hour or so was remote, but she'd actually managed to put that out of her mind as she concentrated on the task in hand.

"Remind the Mirror Box platforms that they do not launch without my specific order," she said.

"Aye, Ma'am."

* * *

"Damn," Michelle Henke said, far more mildly than she felt. The fact that her instincts had been correct didn't make her feel much better as she watched the massive missile launch sweeping towards





"Take us to maximum acceleration," she told Stackpole.

"Close us up on Oversteegen and prepare to support his missile defenses."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am!" her ops officer said crisply. "But it's going to be awfully long range for our CMs," he pointed out. "And we're really too far out to coordinate with Nike and Hector. Even with FTL telemetry, we're simply too far away to data share effectively."

"I understand that, John. But, worst case, any attack bird we kill is simply one Oversteegen would have nailed anyway. And if we take out one he would have missed . . ."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Stackpole began issuing orders, and Henke turned back to her own display. The ops officer was certainly correct about the dispersal problem, she thought. Her own battlecruiser division was two and a half million kilometers behind Oversteegen. She had the reach—barely, with the new extended-range counter-missiles—to bolster his defensive umbrella, but her support would be far less effective from this far out. Still, something about the attack pattern—

"There aren't enough birds," Oliver Manfredi said suddenly. She looked up, turning towards the chief of staff, and Manfredi shook his golden head. "There's less than two thousand in the salvo, Ma'am. That's less than three hundred of their standard pods. So where are the others?"

Henke looked at him for perhaps three seconds, then spun her chair to face Lieutenant Kaminski.

"Get me an immediate priority link to Captain Oversteegen!"

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," the communications officer replied instantly.

* * *

"Weapons free!" Commander Dillinger snapped, and the


of Dagger Flight began punching counter-missiles at the incoming fire.

Dillinger didn't really like to think about just how expensive each of his LACs' "counter-missiles" actually was.

The systems built into the Viper for its anti-LAC role meant it cost twice as much as the standard extended-range Mark 31 CM on which it was based. But the Viper retained the Mark 31's basic drive system, and a counter-missile's impeller wedge was what it used to "sweep up" attack missiles. Which meant the Viper was still perfectly capable of being used defensively, and earmarking a percentage of them for missile defense, rather than using magazine space on dedicated Mark 31s which couldn't be used in the anti-shipping role, simplified their ammunition requirements and gave them a potentially useful cushion both offensively and defensively.

Now the Vipers bored out of their launch tubes, streaking to meet the incoming missiles, and Dillinger smiled nastily. He was willing to bet the Peeps had never seen LACs kill missiles at this range!

* * *

"You were right, Ma'am," deCastro said. "They do use those things for counter-missiles, too."

"Made sense," Bellefeuille said almost absently, watching her plot. "The signatures Admiral Beach recorded at Gaston made it pretty clear they were basically the same missile body and drive package, after all."

"And it's a reasonable decision from the viewpoint of ammo supply, too," Ericsson agreed, then showed his teeth. "Of course, sometimes even the most reasonable decisions can bite you right on the ass."

"Especially if someone else helps it do it," deCastro said with a tight, answering grin.

* * *

"Tactical," Michael Oversteegen said suddenly. "Have the near-planet pods we've located launched?"

"Sir?" Lieutenant Commander Gohr sounded startled. It took her a fraction of a second to shake her mind loose from the anti-missile engagement as the steady vibration of counter-missile launches shook Nike. The first wave of Vipers from Dagger Flight was beginning to rip holes in the Havenite salvo, and her own missile defense section was running at full stretch, analyzing the attack missiles' EW

patterns. But then she stabbed a quick look at a secondary plot, and Oversteegen saw her twitch upright in her chair as the data registered.

"No, Sir," she said, turning her head to look directly at him. " None of this fire's coming from Vespasien orbit!"

"That's what I thought," he said grimly. "Com, get me Dagger One."

"Sir," Lieutenant Pattison said, "you have an immediate priority signal from Admiral Henke."

"Put it through, Jayne—and get me Dagger One!"

"Aye, aye, Sir."

Michelle Henke's face appeared on Oversteegen's display, her expression tense.

"Michael, I'm looking at the missile density, and—"

"And it's too low," Oversteegen broke in. "We've just confirmed the near-planet platforms haven't launched a single bird." A window opened in the corner of his display, showing Crispus Dillinger's face. "And now, I've got t' go,"

Oversteegen told his admiral, and punched the button that brought Dillinger to the center of the display.

"Yes, Sir?" Dillinger said.

"There's somethin' peculiar about their attack pattern, Commander," Oversteegen said quickly. "They're only using a fraction of their total missile power—and everything they're actually firin' is coming from further away, with what have t' be poorer targetin' solutions."

"Sir?" Dillinger looked puzzled, and Oversteegen shook his head impatiently.

"They're tryin' t' distract us—and quite possibly t' lure us into expendin' counter-missiles before their real attack."


"This isn't a debatin' society, Commander," Oversteegen said. "Abort your missile defense of this division— now! "

* * *

Crispus Dillinger looked at the face on his communications display with something very like incredulity. The man had to be insane! There were almost a thousand missiles tearing down on each of his ships, and he wanted Dillinger to


defending them?!


"All Daggers," he said harshly, "Dagger One. Abort Flyswatter. Repeat, abort Flyswatter. Missile Defense Alpha is now in effect."

* * *

"Well, it was nice while it lasted," Jennifer Bellefeuille said as the torrent of counter-missiles pouring from the


slowed abruptly to a trickle. She looked at Ericsson. "Estimates on their expenditure, Leonardo?"

"Assuming they have the same basic magazine space as the Manty missile LACs we were able to inspect after Thunderbolt, and that these things are basically the same size as their standard counter-missiles, that has to be at least fifty percent of their total loadout, Ma'am. Possibly as high as sixty, if they've committed additional volume and mass to more point defense clusters, as well."

"And they did a real number on our missiles with them, too," deCastro pointed out. "Their kill percentages are damned close to twice what Cimeterres would have managed, even at much shorter ranges."

"True." Bellefeuille nodded. "On the other hand, there are less than fifty of them, and if Leonardo's right, they don't have a lot of missiles left."

She gazed at the plot a second or two longer, then nodded again, crisply.

"Initiate Phase Two, Leonardo."

* * *



twisted sinuously as the depleted missile storm tore down upon her and her division mate.

The Katanas had thinned it considerably before Oversteegen ordered them to stand down. Of the nineteen hundred missiles which had launched, the LACs had killed seven hundred. The battlecruisers' counter-missiles killed two hundred and sixty, and another hundred and fifty or so simply lost lock and wandered off on their own. Three hundred and twelve more locked onto the Ghost Rider decoys Nike and Hector had deployed, and another sixty looped suddenly back towards the Katanas, only to be ripped apart by the LACs' point defense clusters.

But that left four hundred and seventy-eight, and as they streamed past the Katanas, the battlecruisers were on their own.

Oversteegen watched them come, absolutely motionless in his command chair, narrow eyes very still. Thirty point defense laser clusters studded each of Nike's flanks. They were individually more powerful than any past Manticoran battlecruiser had ever mounted, with fourteen emitters per cluster, each capable of cycling at one shot every sixteen seconds. That came to one shot every 1.2 seconds per cluster, but that was only twenty-five per broadside per second, and these were MDMs. They had traveled over twenty-five million kilometers to reach their targets, their closing speed was almost 173,000 KPS—fifty-eight percent of the speed of light—and they had a standoff attack range of 30,000 kilometers.

They crossed the inner perimeter of the counter-missile interception zone, losing another hundred and seventeen in the process. Of the three hundred and sixty-one survivors, fifty-eight were electronic warfare platforms, which meant"only" three hundred and three missiles—

barely fifteen percent of the original launch—actually attacked.

The space about Nike and Hector was hideous with incandescent eruptions of fury, and bomb-pumped lasers ripped and gouged at their targets. But these battlecruisers had been designed and built to face exactly this sort of attack. Their sidewalls—especially Nike's—were far tougher and more powerful than any previous battlecruisers had mounted, and both of them were equipped with the RMN's bow and stern walls. The fact that they'd been able to keep their wedges turned towards the incoming fire even while they engaged it with their own counter-missiles presented additional targeting problems for the Havenite missiles' onboard systems.

Instead of the broadside aspect ships were normally forced to show attack missiles' sensors, all these missiles saw was the wedge itself. But no sensor could penetrate a military-grade impeller wedge, which made it impossible for them to absolutely localize their targets. They could predict the volume in which their target must lay, but not precisely where within that volume to find it.

And that was why Nike and Hector survived. The missiles'

sensors could have seen through the battlecruisers'

sidewalls, but the sidewalls were turned away from them.

Most of them streaked "above" and "below" the Manticoran battlecruisers, fighting for a "look-down" shot, while others crossed the Manticorans' bows or sterns, trying for "up-the-kilt" or "down-the-throat" shots. Tough as Nike's passive defenses were, they were no match for the raw power of the Havenite lasers, but the very speed which made MDMs such difficult targets for short-range point defense fire worked against them now. They simply didn't have time to find their targets and fire in the fleeting fragment of a second they took to cross the Manticoran ships' tracks.

* * *

"No damage, Sir!" Lieutenant Commander Gohr announced jubilantly. "None!"

"Well done, Guns," Oversteegen replied.

"Captain Hanover reports one hit forward on Hector, Sir,"

Lieutenant Pattison reported. "No casualties, but she's lost one graser and a laser cluster."

"Good," Oversteegen said. "In that case, let's—"

"Missile launch!" Gohr said suddenly. "Multiple launches!

Sir, I have LAC separation from in-system platforms!"

Oversteegen's eyes flew to the main plot, and his jaw tightened as threat sources exploded across it. A fresh wave of MDMs had abruptly appeared, launched from the same spot as the first salvo. But this one was considerably more massive. The next best thing to six thousand missile icons spangled the display, streaking towards his ships—and also Dillinger's LACs and Michelle Henke's division—and Gohr was right about the LAC launches, as well. The two hundred Task Force 81 had already known about went suddenly to full acceleration, charging towards the Manticorans, but twice that many more were erupting into space, turning towards Dillinger's Katanas and the battlecruisers behind them.

Oversteegen glared at the innocent icons of the near-planet missile pods Gohr's sensor crews had managed to locate. They hadn't launched yet, but they would, he knew. They were waiting, until their missiles could join the missile storm coming in from further out. Their lower base velocities when they arrived would make them easier targets, but it would also give them better shots at his sidewalls, and there were probably at least another two or three thousand missiles aboard them. The tactician in him cried out to hit them with proximity-fused warheads, to kill them before they fired. But they were too close to Vespasien. There was too big a chance a faulty firing solution would hit the planet itself or kill one of the unarmed civilian platforms and everyone aboard it.

No. They were simply going to have to take it, and his expression was bleak as he watched the attack come in. It was unlikely that even this would destroy his ship. The one mistake whoever had planned the attack had made was in his targeting selection. He ought to have directed all of that fire at no more than one or two targets, not spread it among so many. But it was hard to fault him for that, when he probably hadn't realized just how tough the battlecruisers he faced truly were. And if he wasn't going to kill them, that didn't mean he wasn't going to hurt them badly. Which didn't even consider what was going to happen to Dillinger's Katanas after they'd been mousetrapped into expending so many of their missiles against the first wave of MDMs.

For just a moment, behind the armor of his eyes, Michael Oversteegen felt a fleeting glow of admiration for his opponent. Whoever he was, he'd made maximum use of his limited resources, and Task Force 81's lead elements were about to get hammered.

But the moment passed, and Oversteegen straightened in his command chair.

"Defense plan Alpha-Three," he said calmly.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

"Reverend Sullivan." Robert Telmachi, Archbishop of Manticore, walked across his spacious, sunlit office to shake hands as the bald, fierce-nosed visitor was ushered into it.

"This is an honor," Telmachi continued. "And, if I may say so, a meeting I've hoped for for quite some time."

"Thank you, Archbishop." The head of the Church of Humanity Unchained shook the offered hand firmly. "I, too, have looked forward to meeting you. Monsignor Davidson has been most satisfactory as your representative on Grayson, but given the intimacy of our two star nations'

political relationship . . ."

He smiled, and Telmachi nodded with a smile of his own.

"Precisely," he said, escorting his guest towards an inviting conversational nook arranged in the office's huge, floor-to-ceiling bay window. "Of course," he continued, his smile broadening as they sat, "I don't have quite as much authority in the Star Kingdom's spiritual matters as you do in the Protectorate's."

"You might be surprised," Sullivan said wryly. "Our doctrine of the Test makes for a certain spiritual obstreperousness."

"But obstreperousness can be a good thing, as long as you learn to pay attention to its causes," Telmachi replied.

"We found that out the hard way in my own Church. In fact, I believe we'd begun discovering it well before your own ancestors departed for Grayson."

"As did we, with those lunatics on Masada," Sullivan said more grimly.

"Every Faith has its moments of lunacy, Reverend."

Telmachi shook his head sadly. "The Inquisition, the Islamic terrorist movement, the New Athens Jihad, your own Faithful . . . Extremism is no one's monopoly when faith turns to fanaticism."

"But no one faith has a monopoly on resisting fanaticism, either," Sullivan replied. "A point certain of my own predecessors have had difficulty remembering on Grayson, given Father Church's monopoly—" he reused the word deliberately "—on spiritual authority there."

"Perhaps," Telmachi said. "Yet I think no one could accuse you or Reverend Hanks of that. I've deeply admired the way both of you have grappled with the huge changes your society has faced in the wake of your alliance with the Star Kingdom."

"You mean, in the wake of our having been exposed to an entire galaxy of dangerous, if not downright heretical, notions about radical things like women's rights," Sullivan corrected with an easy chuckle.

"Well, of course I did. But I'm far too diplomatic to ever say so."

Both men laughed, but then Telmachi sat back in his chair, crossed his legs, and looked at his visitor thoughtfully.

"Your Grace, I'm truly delighted to meet you, and I see you're just as engaging in person as Monsignor Davidson's reports indicated. But I'm also aware this is the first time in the history of Grayson any Reverend has ever left the planet for any reason. I've issued all the expected press statements and news releases, and I've arranged to attend the meetings with representatives of all of our major religions and denominations which you requested. But I must confess I wasn't very surprised when your staff contacted mine to suggest a private preliminary meeting between the two of us."

"You weren't?" Sullivan asked, leaning back in his own chair.

"No. Monsignor Davidson is, as I'm sure you've discovered, as intelligent as he is charming. From certain questions which you'd asked him, he concluded you were particularly interested in establishing direct contact with me. He did not, however, suggest a reason for your interest, although I may have drawn a few conclusions of my own."

Sullivan looked out the window, at the sky-piercing towers of the City of Landing. It was a fascinatingly alien sight for any Grayson. Landing had been built by a counter-gravity civilization, on a planet whose environment had welcomed mankind, rather than attempting to repel the audacious invader. Its buildings towered far higher than any Grayson structure, and there wasn't a single environmental dome in sight. All that unobstructed sky was enough to make any Grayson nervous, especially when he watched the branches of the city greenbelts' trees dance in the brisk morning breeze. The Reverend felt almost undressed, and his hand twitched as he suppressed the reflex to reach for the breath mask normally cased on the right side of his belt. The fact that airborne dust on Manticore didn't represent a dangerous toxic threat was something his intellect had accepted more readily than his emotions. And yet, as he looked at the moving air cars, the pedestrians, the sidewalk cafes he could see from where he sat, he saw much the same people, however bizarrely some of them were dressed, as he might have seen at home.

He turned to gaze at the Archbishop once more, and there, too, he found the alien mingled with the utterly familiar. He recognized Telmachi's personal faith, and his genuine welcome, and Sullivan had deliberately immersed himself in studies of comparative theology since Grayson had been wrenched into the galactic mainstream. He saw in Telmachi the current heir to an apostolic succession stretching clear back to the dawn—the source—of their shared faith in God. And yet, Telmachi's spiritual authority was far less than his own. His Church had seen its uncontested primacy broken long before Man ever left Old Earth, and it had come to terms with that. It had evolved, survived, reached out to the stars along with a multiplicity of other religious beliefs and ways of thought which would have been totally bewildering to any Grayson. In many ways, he knew, Telmachi was far more . . . cosmopolitan than he himself was, but was that strength, or was it weakness? And in Telmachi, did Sullivan see the Reverends of Grayson's future?

That lay in God's hands, the Reverend told himself. One of the cardinal elements of the New Way, perhaps the cardinal element, was the belief that the book was never closed, never ended. God was infinite; Man's understanding was not. And so, there would always be more for Man to learn, more for God to teach him, and as the doctrine of the Test taught, it was best to pay attention to one's lessons, whatever the form in which they might come.

Like his visit here, today.

"Actually, Archbishop," he said, "you're right. I see Monsignor Davidson's description of your own intelligence was accurate. I do have many pressing and completely valid reasons, as Father Church's spiritual head, for meeting with as many Manticoran religious leaders as possible. For almost a thousand years, Grayson has been effectively a theocracy—a closed theocracy. Given our doctrines, our people have tended, by and large, to see the opening of the doors of our temple, as it were, as yet another of God's Tests. There's been some friction, but less, I suspect, than there would have been on almost any other planet under similar circumstances.

"Still, as we've become more and more integrally involved with the Star Kingdom on a secular level, the influx of foreigners with their very foreign belief structures has swelled steadily. I see no reason to believe that tendency will reverse itself, and so I think it's probably past time Father Church reached out his hand to the Star Kingdom's religious leadership. There will undoubtedly be misunderstandings, or at least points of difference, but we must embrace the religious toleration which has always been a part of the Manticoran tradition. To that end, my visit to Manticore will have great significance for Father Church's members back home on Grayson.

"Yet, while all of that is true, the reason I specifically asked to meet with you had less to do with the fact that you are, whether you choose to admit it or not, what I suppose I might think of as the senior member of the Manticoran religious establishment, than it did with a pastoral concern."

"Pastoral." Telmachi smiled. "Let me see," he murmured.

"Now, what could it possibly be about? Hmmm. . . . Could it be something to do with Steadholder Harrington and certain members of my own flock?"

"Monsignor Davidson didn't do you justice, Your Grace,"

Sullivan said with an answering smile.

"It wasn't very difficult to guess, Your Grace," Telmachi replied. "Especially not in light of Dame Honor's stature on Grayson and the rather poisonous commentary of one of our less than scintillating examples of journalistic professionalism. Of course, the fact that she's neither Catholic nor a member of the Church of Humanity Unchained does leave both of us in rather a gray area where she's concerned."

"She may not be a daughter of Father Church," Sullivan said quietly, his eyes level, "but of my own experience, I can tell you she is most certainly a daughter of God. I'll be honest with you and admit that nothing would give me greater joy than to have her embrace Father Church, but this is one woman for whose soul I feel no concern at all."

"That accords well with my own impression of her,"

Telmachi said seriously. "I believe she's a Third Stellar?"

"She is. Which presents me with something of a problem, since the Third Stellars appear to have no organized hierarchy in the sense your Church or mine does."

"The Third Stellars are actually rather like I suppose the Church of Humanity might have turned out without a firmly established hierarchy," Telmachi said. "When the representatives of all their congregations meet for their General Convocation every three T-years, they elect a leadership for the Convocation, and also the membership of a Coordinating Committee to function between Convocations, but each congregation—and each individual member of each congregation—is personally responsible for his or her relationship with God. I'm on quite good terms with several of their clergy, and one of them compared their General Convocation to an exercise in herding treecats."

Sullivan chuckled at the image, and Telmachi nodded.

"They agree about a great many core doctrines and issues, but beyond those central areas of agreement, there's room for an enormous diversity."

"I'd gathered that impression from my own conversations with Lady Harrington and her parents," Sullivan agreed.

"And I believe you're probably correct—the . . .

individualism the Third Stellars encourage does have many resonances with our own doctrine. Indeed, I've often thought that was one of the reasons Lady Harrington's been so comfortable with Father Church, despite our inevitable differences.

"However, the problem to which I referred was my inability to identify some one individual member of the Third Stellar clergy with whom to discuss my concerns. My impression of their doctrine is that it is extremely . . .

inclusive, but I must confess I'm less familiar with it than I could wish."

"If your concerns are what I suspect they are, Your Grace," Telmachi said, "I think you don't need to worry.

However, I'd be very happy to suggest two or three of their theologians with whom you might discuss your thoughts."

"I would deeply appreciate that," Sullivan said, bending his head in an abbreviated bow of thanks. "But that, of course, brings me to the reason I specifically needed to meet with you."

"Reverend," Telmachi said with another chuckle,

" Mother Church has learned a few lessons of her own over the millennia. I don't believe there will be any problems."

* * *



you are," Dr. Allison Harrington said severely.

"And just what made you think you were going to be allowed to stay at a hotel, if I may ask?"

"The Royal Arms Hilton is scarcely a mere 'hotel,' My Lady," Jeremiah Sullivan replied mildly as he stepped past a solemn Harrington armsman into the foyer of Honor's Jason Bay mansion. He smiled, then bent over her hand and kissed it in approved Grayson style.

" Piffle! " she shot back. "I'll bet it was really just that you planned on stealing the towels. Or one of those cute little bathrobes of theirs."

The armsman seemed to cringe slightly, obviously awaiting the thunderbolt, but Sullivan only smiled more broadly as her eyes twinkled at him.

"It was the soap, actually, My Lady," he said solemnly.

"I knew it!"

She gurgled a laugh and tucked her arm through his as she escorted him into the house.

"It's good to see you," she said more seriously. "And while I'm sure you really would have been perfectly comfortable at the Royal Arms, Honor and Benjamin would both have wanted my scalp if I'd let you stay there. Besides, I wouldn't have been that happy about it myself."

"Thank you," he said.

"Nonsense." She squeezed his arm tighter, and the laughter in her eyes was momentarily quenched. "I still remember how comforting you were when we all thought Honor was dead."

"As I remember the day you explained to me why our birthrate has always been so skewed," he replied. " And the day you and your team showed our own fertility experts how to identify sperm with the lethal combination."

"Yes. Well, now that we've both congratulated one another on what splendid people we are," Allison said,

"what really brings you to Manticore?"

"Why, what makes you think I might have any sort of ulterior motivation?" Sullivan fenced, accepting the change of subject with a smile.

"The fact that I have a functional brain," she replied tartly. He looked at her, and she snorted. "In a thousand years, not one Reverend has ever left the planet. Not one.

Now, three weeks after that poisonous toad Hayes' articles must have reached Grayson, here you are. Allowing a week or so for travel time, you must have set some sort of galactic record for arranging this 'state visit' of yours!"

"I do hope," Sullivan said a bit plaintively, "that my Machiavellian schemes aren't going to be this transparent to every Manticoran I meet."

"Most Manticorans don't know you as well as I've come to," Allison assured him comfortably. "And most other Manticorans wouldn't begin to understand how damaging something like this could be to a political figure like Honor on Grayson. Or," she smiled warmly at him again, "how deeply you care about my daughter."

He inclined his head slightly, and she nodded.

"I thought so. You've come to straighten out the children's problems, haven't you?"

He burst out laughing, and she paused, turning to smile up at him until he shook his head.

"My Lady, all of the 'children' involved, including your daughter, are quite a few T-years older than I am!"

"Chronologically, perhaps. In other ways?" She shrugged.

"And whatever your comparative ages may be, they definitely need straightening out. Which is why you're here, isn't it?"

"Yes, Allison," he admitted, surrendering at last. "I do intend to accomplish a few other things while I'm here, but, yes. Mostly, I came to straighten out the children's problems."

Chapter Twenty-Nine

"Tell me you've got some good news for a change, Armand," Thomas Theisman said moodily as the naval Chief of Staff stepped into his office with a memo board clasped under his left arm.

"The only 'good' news I've got is a follow up report that Bellefeuille survived after all," Admiral Marquette replied.

"She did?" Theisman perked up just a bit, and Marquette nodded.

"She and her entire staff got off Cyrus before the scuttling charges blew. We lost a lot of good people, but not her, thank God."

"Absolutely," Theisman agreed fervently.

Of the four star systems Harrington had hit this time around, only Chantilly had mounted any effective resistance. Not for want of trying, he reminded himself grimly. Rear Admiral Bressand had done his best in Augusta, but he'd been totally outclassed and outgunned . . . and not as cunning as Jennifer Bellefeuille.

Harrington's pod-layers had reduced his hyper-capable combatants to scrap metal in return for minor, if any, damage. And when his LACs had closed with suicidal gallantry, they had discovered that the Manties' counter-missile tubes, at least aboard their newer construction, were perfectly capable of launching the "dogfighting"

missiles they'd developed for their damned Katanas.

It had been a massacre, and not one for which he could blame Bressand. A part of him would have liked to, and he could actually make a case for it, if he really tried. After all, Bressand could have exercised his discretion and declined to engage such a massively superior force. But the reason that force had been so superior to his was that his own superiors—headed by one Thomas Theisman—had failed to adequately support him.

Bressand had done his job with what he had, and, like Bellefeuille in Chantilly, he'd obviously hoped to inflict at least attritional damage on the raiders. And that, Theisman reminded himself, was probably a direct consequence of the staff analysis he'd ordered shared with all of his system commanders. Given the numerical advantage the Republic enjoyed—or shortly would enjoy—

even an unfavorable exchange rate was ultimately in Haven's favor. He'd ordered that analysis disseminated because it was true, yet it had been much easier to accept its truth before so many thousands of Navy men and women had died in Augusta.

"Do we have a better read on the damage Bellefeuille managed to inflict?" he asked Marquette, resolutely turning his mind away from Bressand.

"We hurt their LACs pretty badly, relatively speaking,"

Marquette said. Then he grimaced. "I can't believe I just said that. Bellefeuille took out about seventy of their LACs, including fifty or so of their Katanas, in return for just over five hundred of our own. As exchange rates go, that sucks, but it's the equivalent of about three quarters of one of their LAC groups, and much as I hate to say it, we can replace our personnel and materiel losses more easily than they can.

"On the starship side, we didn't do as well. Mostly because those damned new battlecruisers of theirs are a hell of a lot tougher than a battlecruiser has any right being. We hammered one of their pod-layers pretty badly—

her wedge strength was down, and she was venting a lot of atmosphere by the end. Bellefeuille's other main target—

that big-assed 'battlecruiser' that just has to be this new Nike we've been hearing rumors about—got off with what was probably only minor damage."

Marquette shook his head, his expression rueful.

"That's a very tough ship, Tom. And they appear to have armed her with that new, smaller MDM NavInt's also been hearing about. By the way, that's how the staff weenies figure they've managed to cram so many missiles into their battlecruiser pod-layers' pods. They're using pods big enough to fire all-up missiles, but loading them with these smaller ones. It costs them something in total powered envelope, but it also increases their throw weight, and accuracy at extreme range's so poor the heavier fire more than compensates across the effective envelope. And the reports that they're somehow firing both broadsides simultaneously from their more conventionally armed ships

—and doing it while they're rolled on their sides relative to their targets, to boot—seem to be confirmed."

"Wonderful." Theisman turned his chair to gaze out the window behind his desk at the massive towers of the city of Nouveau Paris, all of them freshly refurbished and properly maintained for the first time in his memory. Clean windows glittered in the slanting rays of the westering sun, air cars and air buses moved steadily in the traffic lanes, and the walkways and pedestrian slideways were crowded with busy, purposeful people. It was a scene of rebirth and revitalization—of rediscovery—of which he rarely tired, but today, his expression was profoundly unhappy.

"How are we going to respond, Tom?" Marquette asked quietly after a moment, and Theisman's expression turned unhappier still. He stared out the window into the sunset for several more seconds, then turned back to face the Chief of Staff.

"We've got two options—well, three, I suppose. We could do nothing, which wouldn't exactly sit well with Congress or the public at large. We could immediately launch a general offensive, which might succeed, but probably wouldn't—at least until we've got more of the new construction up to speed and ready for action—and which definitely would entail heavy casualties. Or we dust off the contingency plans for Operation Gobi and hand it to Lester."

"Of the three, my gut reaction is to favor Gobi,"

Marquette said. "Especially given the intelligence we've managed to gather and the operational data Diamato brought back."

"I think I agree with you, but that doesn't make me extraordinarily happy. It's going to divert us and disperse at least a sizable fraction of the striking force we've been working so hard to build up. Worse, it's going to take at least three weeks or a month for Lester to get it up and running. If the Manties stick to their apparent operational tempo, that means they'll hit us again at least once while we're hitting them."

"We could have him try something a little more extemporaneous." Marquette didn't seem especially pleased by his own suggestion, but he continued anyway.

"He's got Second Fleet's core organization just about set up, and he's got a nucleus of experienced units to go with the new ones. He could probably slice off a battle squadron or two for a quick-and-dirty, off-the-cuff job if we told him to."

"No." Theisman shook his head firmly. "If we hand him Gobi—and I think we're going to have to—he gets time to set it up right. I saw too many operations fucked up when the old management decided to improvise and demand miracles. I won't send our people in without adequate time to prepare unless there's absolutely no other alternative."

"Yes, Sir," Marquette said quietly, and Theisman smiled almost apologetically at him.

"Sorry. Didn't mean to sound like I was biting your head off. I think maybe I'm using you to rehearse what I'm going to wind up saying in front of the Naval Committee when it wants to know why we haven't already kicked the Manties'


"I suppose it shouldn't really have come as a surprise that a genuine representative government's no more immune to the 'But what have you done for me recently?' syndrome than the Legislaturalists were," Marquette said sourly.

"No, it shouldn't have. But it's still a lot more satisfying to work for. And at least we don't have to worry about being shot, just fired."


Marquette stood for a moment, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, then cocked his head.

"Actually, Tom," he said slowly, "there may be a fourth option. Or, at least, one we could try in conjunction with Gobi."

"Really?" Theisman regarded him quizzically.

"Well, Lewis and Linda have handed me their tea leaf-readers' best guess as to the most threatened systems.

Their report is full of qualifiers, of course. Not so much because they're trying to cover their asses, as because they really don't have a good predictive model. They're having to use more intuition and old fashioned WAGs than number-crunching at this point, and they don't like it.

Despite that, though, I think they're on to something."

"Tell me more," Theisman commanded, and pointed at one of the chairs facing his desk.

"Basically," Marquette said, sitting obediently, "they tried looking at the problem through Manty eyes. They figure the Manties are looking for targets they can anticipate will be fairly lightly defended, but which have enough population and representation to generate a lot of political pressure. They're also hitting systems with a civilian economy which may not be contributing very much to the war effort, but which is large enough to require the federal government to undertake a substantial diversion of emergency assistance when it's destroyed. And it's also pretty clear that be want to impress us with their aggressiveness. That's why they're operating so deep. Well, that and because the deeper they get, the further away from the 'frontline' systems, the less likely we are to have heavy defensive forces in position to intercept them. So that means we should be looking at deep penetration targets, not frontier raids."

"All of that sounds reasonable," Theisman said after considering it. "Logical, anyway. Of course, logic is only as good as its basic assumptions."

"Agreed. But it's worth noting that two of the systems they predicted might be hit were Des Moines and Fordyce."

"They were?" Theisman sat a bit straighter, and Marquette nodded.

"And Chantilly was on their secondary list of less likely targets."

"That is interesting. On the other hand, how many other systems were on their lists?"

"Ten on the primary list and fifteen on the secondary."

"So they hit three out of a total of twenty-five. Twelve percent."

"Which is a hell of a lot better than nothing," Marquette pointed out.

"Oh, no question. But we could fritter away an awful lot of strength trying to cover a list of systems that long without being strong enough in any one place to make a difference."

"That wasn't really what I had in mind."

"Then tell me what you did have in mind."

"You and I—and our analysts, for that matter—agree that these raids represent what's basically a strategy of weakness. They're trying to hurt us and throw us off balance for a minimal investment in forces and minimal losses of their own. So I would submit that we don't really have to stop them dead everywhere; we just have to hammer them really hard once or twice. Hurt them proportionately worse than they're hurting us."

"All right." Theisman nodded. "I'm in agreement so far."

"Well, Javier's doing a lot of expansion work, too, if not as much as Lester. He's been discussing training missions and simulations to fit his new units into existing battle squadrons and task group organizations, and he'd really like a chance to try some of his task force and task group commanders in independent command before it's a life-or-death situation. What if we were to take, say, three or four—maybe a half-dozen—of those task groups and pull them back from the front? We're not going to be committing them to offensive action anytime soon, and it's obvious the Manties aren't going to launch any frontal assaults when they're running this sensitive about losses.

So it wouldn't weaken our offensive stance, and it would give us some powerful forces close to likely targets."

"Ummm . . . ." Theisman gazed into space, the fingers of his right hand drumming lightly on his blotter. He stayed that way for quite some time, then refocused on Marquette.

"I think this has . . . possibilities," he said. "I should've thought of a similar approach on my own, but I guess I've been too fixated on maintaining concentration instead of swanning around in understrength detachments the way we used to operate. There are still some risks involved, though. Strategy of weakness or no, this is clearly their first team were talking about. If it weren't, Harrington wouldn't be in command of it. So it's not something we want to throw green units in front of."

"I was figuring we'd use detachments working up a relatively smaller percentage of new units," Marquette replied. "And, while I'm thinking about it, I think it would be a very good idea to put Javier himself in position to cover the system we think is most likely to be hit."

"Now that is a very good notion." Theisman nodded enthusiastically. "He's still kicking himself over Trevor's Star, and pointing out to him that he's being wise with the benefit of hindsight doesn't seem to help much. It'd make a lot of sense for him to be involved in training his own squadrons, and if he just happened to kick the ass of a Manty raid . . ."

"That's what I was thinking," Marquette agreed. "It would do a world of good for his confidence, and the shot in the arm it would provide for public and fleet morale wouldn't be anything to sneer at, either."

"And if we get some of Shannon's new goodies deployed to help him out, things could get hot enough for even 'the Salamander' to think twice about climbing back into the oven again," Theisman said.

He thought about it again for several seconds, then nodded once more.

"Sit down with Linda. Draft me a preliminary plan for it by tomorrow afternoon."

Chapter Thirty

"Excuse me, Your Grace."

Honor paused in her conversation with Mercedes Brigham, Alice Truman, Alistair McKeon, and Samuel Miklós, and one eyebrow rose in surprise. It was very unlike James MacGuiness to obtrude into a serious meeting like this. He was a past master at unobtrusively refilling coffee and cocoa cups, sliding food in front of people when they started looking peaked, and otherwise keeping them provided with whatever they needed. But the key word was "unobtrusively." Most of the time, people never even realized he'd been there until he was already gone.

That was her first thought. Her second was more concerned as she tasted his emotions.

"What is it, Mac?" she asked as Nimitz sat upright on the back of her chair and pricked his ears at the man who still insisted on functioning as Honor's steward.

"You have a personal message, Your Grace. From your mother." Honor stiffened, eyes darkening with concern. "I have no idea what it's about," he continued quickly, "but it came up in the standard mailbag from Jason Bay. If it were really bad news, I'm sure it would have been delivered by special courier. For that matter, Miranda would have dropped me a line about it, as well."

"You're right, of course, Mac," she said, smiling in thanks for his reassurance.

"On the other hand, Your Grace," he said, "it does carry a priority code. I really think you ought to view it as soon as possible."

"I see."

MacGuiness bobbed his head and withdrew, and Honor frowned thoughtfully for a moment. Then she shook herself and returned her attention to her guests.

"I think we're just about at a decent stopping point, anyway, aren't we?" she said.

"I think so," Truman agreed. "We need to spend a little more time kicking around what happened at Chantilly, but we can do that later. I'd never heard of this Admiral Bellefeuille until she screened me after the shooting was over to thank us for arranging the full evacuation of the civilian platforms before we blew them. She was floating around in a pinnace—or maybe even a life pod—for most of that time, I understand. But I think we need to bring her name to ONI's attention. This woman is sneaky, Honor. She reminds me a lot of what you've said about Shannon Foraker, and if she'd had better information on our defensive capabilities, we'd have gotten hurt a lot worse."

"It was bad enough, anyway," McKeon growled, shaking his head. " Hector's going to be out of action for at least three months."

"I know, I know," Truman sighed. "But at least Hanover's personnel casualties were light. To be perfectly honest, I'm more distressed by what happened to my Katanas. We managed a four- or five-to-one exchange rate even after Bellefeuille tricked us into firing off so many of their missiles, but that's pretty cold comfort. And," she looked at Honor, "Scotty blames himself."

"That's ridiculous," McKeon said sharply.

"I agree entirely," Truman replied. "The deployment decision was mine—not his, not Mike Henke's, but mine.

Given what I knew at the time, I'd do the same thing again, too. But Scotty seems to think he should have argued with me, although exactly what form of clairvoyance was supposed to tell him this was coming eludes me."

"And how is Mike taking it?" Honor asked quietly.

"Better than I was afraid she might, actually," Truman said. "She's not happy about it, and especially not about the fact that she was the one who suggested using Hector and Nike as her point. But the truth is that she was right.

Hector may have gotten hammered, but her core hull was never penetrated, and she and Nike stood up to missile attack even better than BuShips predicted they might. And if Dillinger hadn't used up so many of his Vipers defending Oversteegen's division, he'd have made out much better against the Peep LACs. I think she's drawn the right conclusions."

Honor nodded. She knew both Truman and McKeon well enough to be confident they understood why she was concerned without getting any more specific.

"I hope you and she both have," she said aloud, smiling wryly at Truman. "The two of you are developing a nasty habit of always finding the feistiest system defense forces!

I'd appreciate it if you'd cut that out."

"Hey, you're the one assigning the targets," Truman shot back. "Well, you and Mercedes here."

"Don't blame me!" Brigham protested. " My idea of how to assign the task forces was to pull system names out of a hat. For some reason, neither Andrea nor Her Grace thought that was a wonderful idea."

"Nonsense," Honor said as the other admirals laughed.

"What I said was that it didn't seem very professional and it wouldn't do very much for the public's confidence in the Navy if we did it that way and word got out."

"As long as it works as well as it seems to be working so far, I don't think they'd have any problems," McKeon said, and Truman and Miklós nodded in agreement.

"Then let's keep it that way, shall we?" Honor replied.

"And on that note, I think we should probably adjourn and let me find out what's on Mother's mind. Alice, could you have dinner with me this evening? And invite Mike and Oversteegen along? For that matter, bring Scotty and Harkness, too; I haven't seen either of them in a while, and their perspective on something like this is almost always worth getting. Let's go over it with all of them in person.

As you say, we need to get a better feel for what Bellefeuille did to us, and I'd like to give Mike and Oversteegen, especially, a chance to talk out their own reactions to it."

"I think that would be a good idea," Truman agreed.

"In that case, people, let's be about it."

* * *

"Hello, Honor," Allison Harrington said, and smiled from Honor's display. "We got the news about your return this morning—Hamish screened from Admiralty House to tell us you and Nimitz are back safe and sound. Obviously, we're all delighted to hear that . . . some even more than others."

She smiled again, wickedly, but then her expression grew more serious.

"I'm sure you have all sorts of Navy things you need to attend to, but I think it would be a very good idea if you could come home for a day or two. Soon."

Honor felt herself tightening internally. Nothing about her mother's expression suggested anything terrible, but she was a little surprised to realize how much it bothered her to be unable to taste Allison's emotions from the recorded message. Had she become that reliant upon her odd empathic capabilities?

"There are several reasons I feel that way, dear," Allison continued. "Among them, the fact that Reverend Sullivan's extended his visit to the Star Kingdom. They were going to put him up at the Royal Arms, but I put a stop to that, and he's been comfortably ensconced here at the Bay House.

I'm sure that one reason he's stayed over longer than he originally planned was to see you before he returns to Grayson. So take care of anything you really need to deal with, and then hop one of the shuttle flights home as soon as you can. We're all really eager to see you. I love you.


The display blanked, and Honor frowned. A lifetime's instincts told here there was more to her mother's request than a simple desire for her to have dinner with Sullivan before the Reverend went home. Not that that wouldn't have been a perfectly valid consideration. It just wasn't the only thing on her mother's mind, and she wondered exactly what sort of devious scheme was revolving inside that agile brain.

Unfortunately, there was only one way to find out, and she punched a button on her com.

"Admiral's Quarters, MacGuiness speaking," a voice said.

"Mac, please check my calendar with Mercedes. You and she both know what I'm doing better than I do, anyway. I need to clear a couple of days, the sooner the better, for a quick hop back to Manticore."

"I thought you might, Ma'am." Even across the voice-only circuit, Honor could almost feel his satisfaction. "I've already checked. I believe that if you shift a few of your meetings—and possibly combine the meetings you'd scheduled with the division and squadron commanders into a single session—you could be on the evening shuttle flight tomorrow. Would that be satisfactory?"

"And have you already discussed your proposed agenda with my chief of staff, O Puppetmaster?"

"Not in any specific detail, Ma'am." MacGuiness's dignified response was somewhat flawed by the chuckle lurking in its depths.

"Well, do so."

"Of course, Your Grace."

* * *

"There's the limo, My Lady."

Honor turned her head, looking in the indicated direction, and saw Jeremiah Tennard, the senior of Faith's personal armsmen, standing beside the door of one of the VIP lounge's private air car stages.

"So I see, Andrew," she said, and chuckled. "I wonder how Mother pried him loose from fending off assassination attempts on Faith to send him after us?"

"Actually," Andrew LaFollet said seriously, "we have a very good team in place at the house. Especially since Captain Zilwicki upgraded our electronic systems for us.

He's not really running any risks leaving her uncovered, My Lady. You know I wouldn't tolerate that, don't you?"

"Andrew, it was a joke," she said, turning back to him. "I didn't—"

She stopped speaking as she tasted her personal armsman's emotions. No one, looking at his expression, could doubt for a moment the earnest seriousness of his response to her question. She, however, had certain additional advantages, and her eyes narrowed.

"All right," she told him. "You got me. For a minute, there, I actually thought you were serious."

"My Lady," he said in shocked tones, "I'm always serious!"

"You, Andrew LaFollet," she said severely, "have been hanging around with Nimitz entirely too long. His questionable excuse for a sense of humor seems to have infected you."

Nimitz bleeked a laugh on her shoulder, and his hands flashed.

The first two fingers of his right true-hand closed onto his thumb. Then the hand rolled over, palm downward, and folded into the sign for the letter "N" and jerked slightly downward. Next, it rose to his temple, curled into the closed fist sign for the letter "E," and moved forward.

Both true-hands folded their fingers over in the palm-up sign for the letter "A," then swung inward and down twice, ending palm-down. The right hand extended all three long, wiry fingers, while the left hand extended only two, signing the number five in one of the compromises forced upon the treecats by the fact that they had fewer digits than humans did. Next, both true-hands rose, slightly bent, fingertips just touching his chest, and the right hand flicked back slightly before turning to form a palm-out "A"

that moved slightly to his right. Then the two opened fingers of the letter "P" circled his face before the right true-hand touched its fingers to his chin, then dropped into the palm of his left true-hand. The bent second finger of his right true-hand tapped behind his ear, then fell to meet his left true-hand as he linked the thumb and first fingers of both hands before raising both hands to the corners of his mouth in the "H" sign.

"So there was no need for you to infect him, since he already had a good sense of humor?" Honor said.

Nimitz nodded and raised his right true-hand, palm-in, to press his forefinger to his forehead, then twisted it into a palm out position before it closed into the upright, thumb-extended fist of the letter "A." Then he held up two fingers and patted the thigh of his right leg with his right true-hand formed into the extended forefinger and thumb of an "L."

"Oh, for a 'two-legs' is it?" she demanded, and he nodded again, even more complacently, while she shook her head.

"You're riding for a fall there, Stinker. Besides, I know your sense of humor, and I don't think the sign for 'good' means quite what you think it does."

The 'cat only looked away, flirting his tail airily, and LaFollet chuckled.

"Don't take that as a compliment," Honor told him darkly. "Not until you've discussed some of his ideas of what constitutes a joke with the Harrington House staff, at any rate."

"Oh, I have, My Lady!" LaFollet assured her. "My favorite was the one with the stuffed treecat and the cultivator."

"Stuffed treecat?" Honor's eyebrows arched, and he chuckled again.

"They were using the robotic cultivators to trench for the new irrigation system," the armsman explained. "So Nimitz and Farragut kidnapped one of the lifesized stuffed treecats from Faith's bedroom."

"They didn't—" Honor began, dark eyes starting to laugh, and LaFollet nodded.

"Oh, but they did, My Lady. They used those sharp little claws of theirs to . . . disconnect the front and back ends, then burrowed down on either side of the trench and left the tail sticking up on one side and one poor, pathetic true-hand poking up on the other. The assistant gardener almost died on the spot when he found it."

"Stinker," Honor said, as severely as a sudden attack of giggles would permit, "when they finally come for you with pitchforks, I'm not going to protect you from the mob. I hope you realize that right now."

Nimitz sniffed, elevating his muzzle. Timothy Meares had hopped the same shuttle flight back to Manticore with his Admiral, and he laughed out loud. Honor gave him a glare and shook her head at him.

"A proper flag lieutenant does not encourage his Admiral's 'cat in the ways of evil, Lieutenant Meares!"

"Of course not, Ma'am!" Meares agreed, eyes twinkling.

"I'm shocked that you should think I would even consider doing such a thing!"

"Sure you are," Honor growled. Then she smiled at him as Tennard started across the lounge towards them. "As Andrew says, our ride is here, Tim. Can we drop you anywhere?"

"No, thanks, Ma'am. I'll catch a cab. I need to do a little shopping before I head home to surprise Mom and Dad."

"All right, then you'd best be about it," she said, and he smiled back at her, saluted, and trotted off just as Tennard reached them.

"My Lady, Colonel." The armsman bowed to Honor in greeting.

"Jeremiah." Honor nodded back. "It's good to see you."

"And you, My Lady. We've missed you—all of us.

Especially Faith, I think."

"How is she?" Honor asked.

"Excited about her new nephew," Tennard replied, with a smile.

"Is she really?"

"Really, My Lady," Tennard said, reassuringly. "Don't forget, she's seen what Bernard Raoul has to put up with, and she's a smart child. She's already figured out that she's been getting off light where her own security detachment is concerned, compared to most steadholders' heirs, and I don't think she really wants to have to put up with any more of us armsmen than she has to. At this particular point in her life, avoiding that is a lot more important than being Steadholder Harrington could ever be."

"Good," Honor sighed. Then she smiled. "And I suppose you're here to ferry me off to meet the Reverend at the house?"

"To meet the Reverend, yes, My Lady. But not at the Bay House. You and your parents are having dinner at White Haven this evening, and he's joining you there."

"He's what?" Honor blinked, but Tennard only shrugged.

"That's the itinerary I was given, My Lady. If you want to argue with your Lady Mother about it, you go right ahead. I have better sense."

"Mother's been a terrible influence on all of you armsmen," Honor said. "I don't remember you being this uppity before she got hold of you!"

"It's all purely self-defense, My Lady, I promise," Tennard said earnestly, and she laughed.

"That I can believe. All right. If it's White Haven, it's White Haven. Let's get this cavalcade in the air."

* * *

"What the—?!" Timothy Meares jerked back as he opened the air cab door and got hit in the face with an eye-stinging spray of moisture.

"Oh, shit!" a voice said, and he blinked his burning eyes, then found himself glaring somewhat blearily at the cabby on the other side of the opened partition between the cockpit and the passenger compartment. She was an attractive, if not spectacular, blonde, and she held a bottle of commercial air freshener in one hand, still pointed almost directly at Meares. She also wore an expression of almost comical dismay.

"I'm so sorry, Lieutenant!" she said quickly. "I didn't see you coming, and my last fare was a smoker." She shook her head in angry disgust. "Big sign, right there," she jabbed her head at the "No Smoking In This Vehicle" notice on the partition, "and the jerk sits right down and lights up. A cigar, of all damned things. And not a very expensive one, from the stink!"

The air freshener's scent was almost overpowering, but as it began to dissipate, Meares could smell the tobacco reek to which she'd referred. And, he admitted, it really was pretty bad.

"So I was just turning around to spritz some of this stuff

—" she waved the air freshener "—and you opened the door, and, well . . ."

Her voice trailed off, and her expression was such a mixture of dismay and apology that Meares had to laugh.

"Hey, I've had worse happen, okay?" he said, wiping the last film of air freshener off his face. "And you're right. It is pretty ripe back here. So I'll just stand back and let you spray away to your heart's content."

"Oh, gee, thanks!" she said, and applied the air freshener industriously for several seconds. Then she sniffed critically.

"That's about as good as it's going to get, I'm afraid," she said. "You still want a ride? Or do you want to wait for something that smells a little fresher?"

"This smells just fine to me," Meares said, and climbed into the cab.

"Where to?" she asked.

"I need to do some shopping, so let's hit Yardman's first."

"You got it," she agreed, and the cab whined away towards the capital's best known shopping tower.

Behind it, a nondescript man watched it with carefully incurious eyes, then turned and walked away.

* * *

"Hello, Nico," Honor said as Nico Havenhurst opened the front door for her. "You seem to have quite a mob out here this evening."

"Oh, it's been more crowded than this upon occasion, Your Grace," Havenhurst said, stepping back with a welcoming smile. "Not in the last few decades, you understand, but—"

He shrugged, and Honor chuckled. Then she stepped past him into the entrance hall, and paused in mid-stride.

Emily, Hamish, and her parents were there. So was Reverend Sullivan, but Honor had expected that. What she hadn't expected was the distinguished, dark-haired man in the episcopal purple cassock and glittering pectoral cross.

She recognized him almost instantly, although they'd never met, and she wondered what Archbishop Telmachi was doing at White Haven.

Surprise kept her focused on him for at least a few heartbeats. Long enough for her feet to get reorganized and resume carrying her forward. She'd just noticed the younger man standing at Telmachi's elbow and recognized him as Father O'Donnell, Emily and Hamish's parish priest, when the mingled flow of the welcoming committee's emotions swept over her.

There were too many individual sources for her to analyze their feelings clearly, but Hamish and Emily's strands stood out more clearly than those of anyone else, including her parents. She felt herself reaching out for them, as automatically as breathing, and then both eyebrows rose as she tasted the mingled love, determination, apprehension, and almost giddy anticipation rising off of them like smoke.

Obviously, she'd been right to suspect her mother was up to something. But what?

"Hello, Honor," Emily said calmly, reaching out her hand.

"It's good to see you home."

* * *

The meal, as always, was delicious, although Honor decided Mistress Thorne could have taught Tabitha DuPuy a thing or two about poaching salmon. The company had also been convivial, and Honor was pleased by the genuine friendship and mutual admiration she tasted between Sullivan and Telmachi. The Star Kingdom was legally nondenominational, with a specific constitutional bar against any state religion. Despite that, the Archbishop of Manticore was recognized as the "dean" of the Manticoran religious community, and she was glad he and Sullivan had hit it off so well.

But despite that, and despite her happiness at being home, she found it increasingly difficult not to select someone at random to strangle as supper went on and on and the strange combination of the Alexanders' emotions—

and her parents', and even Sullivan's, now that she thought about it—continued to swirl about her. She still didn't have a clue what they were all so . . . energized about, which was maddening enough. But what made it even more maddening was her absolute confidence that it all focused on her, somehow.

At last, finally, the dessert dishes were cleared away, the servants withdrew, and the Alexanders and their guests were left alone around the huge table. It was the first time Honor had ever eaten in White Haven's formal dining salon, and despite its low ceiling and ancient wood paneling, she found it just a bit overpowering. Possibly because it was half the size of a basketball court, or seemed that way, at least, after the more intimate quarters in which she, Hamish, and Emily normally dined.

"Well," her mother said brightly as the door to the serving pantry closed, "here we all are at last!"

"Yes," Honor said, handing a last celery stalk to Nimitz,

"here we are, indeed, Mother. The question in my mind—

and it does appear to be in my mind, alone, since everyone else at this table obviously already knows the answer—is why we're all here."

"Goodness!" Allison said placidly, and shook her head.

"Such youthful impetuosity! And in front of such distinguished guests, too."

"I might point out that the guests in question are Hamish and Emily's, not yours, Mother," Honor replied. "Except, of course, that whenever someone is pulling the strings and you're present, I never have to look very far for the puppetmaster."

"Honor Stephanie Harrington!" Allison shook her head mournfully. "Such an undutiful child, too. How could you possibly think of me in that way?"

"Sixty years of experience," the undutiful child in question responded. "And now, if someone could possibly answer my question?"

"Actually, Honor," Hamish said, and his voice—and emotions—were far more serious than her mother's droll tone, "the person 'pulling the strings,' inasmuch as anyone is, isn't your mother. It's Reverend Sullivan."

"Reverend Sullivan?" Honor looked at the Grayson primate in surprise, and he nodded back gravely, although there was a twinkle in his dark eyes and she clearly tasted the affectionate amusement behind it.

"And just which strings are being pulled?" she asked more warily, looking back at Hamish and Emily.

"What it comes down to, Honor," Emily said, "is that, just as we'd feared, the news about your pregnancy—and mine

—has gotten back to Grayson. It's already started to die down a bit here in the Star Kingdom, actually. Especially,"

a bubble of pure, malicious delight danced in her mind-glow, "since the Landing Tattler's new management discovered certain irregularities in Solomon Hayes'

financial records and let him go. I believe he's currently discussing those irregularities with the LCPD and the Exchequer.

"But," the brief flicker of amusement faded, "the situation on Grayson was about what you and I had feared it might be. In fact, a delegation of Steadholders called on the Reverend to discuss their . . . concerns."

Her mouth tightened bleakly for a moment, then she flipped her right hand in a shrug.

"Needless to say, Reverend Sullivan supported your position strongly," Honor glanced at Sullivan, who bent his head gravely in response to the gratitude in her eyes, "but it was clear some of them—especially Steadholder Mueller, I understand—are prepared to use this situation to attack you as publicly as possible. So the Reverend decided to take matters into his own hands, pastorally speaking."

Emily paused, and Reverend Sullivan looked at Honor.

"In some ways, My Lady," he said, "I suppose my decision to involve myself in such a deeply personal matter must be considered intrusive, especially since none of you are communicants of the Church of Humanity Unchained, and I hope I haven't offended by doing so. I might argue that my position as Reverend and First Elder and head of the Sacristy, and the constitutional obligations of those offices, give me a responsibility to involve myself, but that would be less than fully honest of me. The truth is," he looked directly into her eyes, and she tasted his utter sincerity, "that my own heart would have driven me to speak, were I Reverend or not. You, as a person, not simply as Steadholder Harrington, are important to far too many people on Grayson, myself included, for me to do otherwise."

"Reverend, I—" Honor paused and cleared her throat. "I can think of many things people could do which I might find offensive. Having you take a hand to help in a situation like this certainly isn't one of them."

"Thank you. I hope you'll still feel that way in a few minutes."

Despite the ominous words, there was a very faint gleam in his eye, and Honor frowned in puzzlement.

"The thing is, Honor," Emily continued, reclaiming her attention, "the Reverend's come up with a solution for all our problems. Every one of them."

"He's what?" Both of Honor's eyebrows rose, and she looked back and forth between Sullivan, Hamish and Emily, and her parents. "That's . . . hard to believe."

"Not really," Emily said, with a sudden, huge smile and a matching internal swell of delight. "You see, Honor, all you have to do is answer one question."

"One question?"

Honor blinked as her eyes prickled suddenly and unexpectedly. She didn't even know why—just that the joy inside Emily had reached out and blended with a matching tide of joyous anticipation from Hamish into something so strong, so exuberant and yet so intensely focused on her, that her own emotions literally couldn't help responding to it.

"Yes," Emily said softly. "Honor, will you marry Hamish and me?"

For an instant that seemed an eternity Honor simply stared at her. Then it penetrated, and she jerked upright in her comfortable chair.

" Marry you?" Her voice trembled. "Marry both of you? Are

. . . are you serious?"

"Of course we are," Hamish said quietly, while Samantha purred from the high chair beside him as if the bones were about to vibrate right out of her body. "And if anyone can be certain of that," he added, "you can."

"But . . . but . . ." Honor looked at Archbishop Telmachi and Father O'Donnell, finally understanding why they were both here. "But I thought your marriage vows made that impossible," she said hoarsely.

"If I may, My Lord?" Telmachi said gently, looking at Hamish, and Hamish nodded.

"Your Grace," the Archbishop continued, turning to Honor, "Mother Church has learned a great deal over the millennia. Many things about human beings and their spiritual needs never change, and God, of course, is always constant. But the context in which those humans confront their spiritual needs does change. The rules evolved to handle those needs in a preindustrial, pre-space civilization simply cannot be applied to the galaxy in which we live today, any more than could the one-time religious ratification of slavery, or of the denial of the rights of women, or the prohibition of women in the priesthood, or the marriage of priests.

"Hamish and Emily chose to wed monogamously. The Church didn't require that of them, for we've learned that what truly matters is the love between partners, the union which makes it a true marriage, and not simply a convenience of the flesh. But that was their decision, and at the time, I believe it was the proper one for them.

Certainly, anyone looking at them or speaking with them today, after all their marriage has endured, can still see the love and mutual commitment they share.

"But we live in an era of prolong, when men and women live literally for centuries. Just as Mother Church was eventually forced to deal with the tangled problems of genetic engineering and of cloning, she's been forced to acknowledge that when individuals live that long, the likelihood that even binding decisions must be revisited increases sharply.

"The Church doesn't look lightly upon the modification of wedding vows. Marriage is a solemn and a holy state, a sacrament ordained by God. But ours is a loving and an understanding God, and such a God wouldn't punish people to whom He's given the joyous gift of a love as deep as that which binds you, Hamish, and Emily together by forcing you to remain apart. And because the Church believes that, the Church has made provision for the modification of those vows, so long as all parties are in agreement and there's no coercion, no betrayal. I've spoken with Hamish and Emily. I have no question in my mind that they would welcome you into their marriage with unqualified joy. The only question which must be answered before I grant the necessary dispensation is whether or not that's what you most truly and deeply desire."

"I—" Honor's vision wavered, and she blinked back tears.

"Of course it's what I desire," she said huskily. "Of course it is! I just never thought, never expected—"

"Forgive me for suggesting it, dear," her mother said gently, rising from her chair to fold her arms about her seated daughter, "but sometimes, much as I love you, you can be just a tiny bit slow."

Honor gurgled with tearful laughter and hugged her mother tightly.

"I know. I know! If I'd ever thought for a minute—" She broke off and looked at Hamish and Emily through her tears. "Of course I'll marry you, both of you! My God, of course I will!"

"Good," Reverend Sullivan said, and smiled when Honor turned to look at him. "It just happens that Robert, here,"

he waved one hand at Telmachi, "has already granted the necessary dispensation, contingent upon your acceptance of the idea. And it also just happens that Father O'Donnell, here, has brought along his prayerbook and a special license, and that I happen to know the Alexander family chapel just happens to have been given a most thorough cleaning this morning. And it just so happens that at this particular moment there's a representative of Father Church here on Manticore to serve as the temporal witness required for any steadholder's marriage. So since the bride's family," he bowed to include Nimitz and Samantha in that family, "are present, I don't really see any reason why we couldn't get this little formality out of the way tonight."

" Tonight? " Honor stared at him.

"Indeed," he replied calmly. "Unless, of course, you had other plans?"

"Of course I had—!"

Honor chopped herself off, torn between laughter, more tears, and a sense of the entire universe whirling further and further out of control.

"What?" her mother demanded, still hugging her. "You want a big fancy, formal wedding? Piffle! You can always have that later, if you really feel the need, but all that hoopla isn't what makes a marriage—or even a wedding.

And even if it were, I'd think having the Archbishop and the Reverend assist in the ceremony should satisfy even the highest social stickler!"

"It isn't that, and you know it!" Honor half laughed, giving her mother a shake. "It's just all moving so quickly. I hadn't even considered it ten minutes ago, and now—!"

"Well, it's something you ought to have considered long ago, My Lady," Sullivan said with twinkle-eyed severity.

"After all, you are a Grayson. And if you think I'm going to permit you and this man—" he jabbed a finger at Hamish "—

to spend one more night cavorting in sin, then you have another think coming."

He waved the jabbing finger at Honor, smiling as she simultaneously laughed and blushed.

"All right. All right! You win, all of you. But before we get to the 'I do's,' we've got to get Miranda and Mac out here. I can't get married without them!"

"Now that," Allison congratulated her, "is the first reasonable objection you've raised all night. And, as the Reverend is fond of saying, it just so happens I sent Jeremiah back to fetch them—and Farragut and the twins—

about the time we sat down to dinner. They should be here in—" she checked her chrono "—another thirty minutes or so. So," she cupped Honor's face between her hands, and her own smile was just a little misty, "why don't you and I spend the time between now and then making you even more beautiful, love?"

Chapter Thirty-One

Admiral Lady Dame Honor Alexander-Harrington, Duchess and Steadholder Harrington (and possibly—Hamish wasn't certain exactly how it would work out—Countess White Haven), walked across the shuttle pad lounge in a euphoric haze.

Being married was going to take some getting used to.

This floating feeling of joy and relaxation—the knowledge that she'd truly come home at last—was worth any price, yet she already foresaw all sorts of problems on Grayson, once news of the marriage became public. Grayson conventions denoting marital status all assumed the husband's surname would be adopted by all of his wives.

But those same conventions had also always assumed any steadholder would be male, and she had a pretty shrewd notion the Conclave of Steadholders wouldn't take kindly to the notion of changing the Harrington Dynasty to the Alexander Dynasty in the very first generation of the Steading. Plus, of course, the fact that they were going to have to deal with the fact that the Steadholder was the junior wife of a man who stood completely outside the succession.

Personally, she was rather looking forward to watching her fellow steadholders work their way through the problems. It would do their residually patriarchal little hearts good, she thought as she counted noses in her travel party. Then she frowned, as she came up a nose short.

"Wasn't Tim supposed to hop back up with us?" she asked MacGuiness.

"Yes, he was, My Lady." MacGuiness shook his head with an irritated expression. "But he screened last night, and I forgot to tell you. He'll be catching the next shuttle flight back. Something about his younger sister's birthday, I believe. Technically, he's got another thirty-six hours before he's due to report back aboard, so I told him I didn't think there'd be any problem."

"Oh." Honor rubbed the tip of her nose for a moment, then shrugged. "You were right, of course. And goodness knows a birthday party's more important—and probably a lot more fun—than riding back to the flagship with a stodgy old flag officer."

"Nonsense, My Lady," MacGuiness said with an absolutely straight face. "I'm sure he doesn't think of you as old."

"And you, Mac, may not get a lot older," she told him with a smile.

"I'm terrified, Your Grace," he said sedately.

* * *

"You did


?" Michelle Henke asked, staring at Honor.

"I said that while I was back on Manticore and didn't have anything better to do, I went ahead and got married,"

Honor repeated with a huge smile. "It . . . seemed like the thing to do."

She shrugged, and Nimitz bleeked with laughter on her shoulder as the two of them enjoyed Henke's poleaxed mind-glow.

"But . . . but . . . but—"

"Mike, you sound like one of those antique motorboats Uncle Jacques and his SCA buddies play with."

Henke closed her mouth, and her stunned expression began to transform itself into one of outrage.

"You married Hamish Alexander—and his wife—and you didn't even invite me?!"

"Mike, I almost didn't get invited," Honor said. "Reverend Sullivan, Archbishop Telmachi, my mother, Hamish and Emily—I think about thirty percent of the entire population of Manticore!—knew about it before anybody bothered to tell me. And when the Reverend suggests you get married right now instead of—how did he put it? Oh, yes—instead of continuing to 'cavort in sin' with your intended groom, it takes more intestinal fortitude than I just discovered I have to say no."

"Yeah, sure you don't." Henke eyed her narrowly. "I've known treecats—hell, I've known boulders— less stubborn then you are, Honor Harrington. No way in the world did anyone hold a pulser to your head and make you do this!"

"Well, that's true," Honor admitted. "In fact, I'm a more than a little ticked off with myself for not having thought of this and proposed it myself months ago. It's just, after the High Ridge smear campaign, it never occurred to me."

"Even if it had," Henke said shrewdly, "you wouldn't have suggested it. You'd have just sat on it and hoped the idea occurred to Emily."

"You might be right," Honor said, after a moment. "I hadn't really thought about that while I was busy kicking myself for being so slow."

"Honor, you're my best friend in the universe, but I've got to tell you, you've got one blind spot about two kilometers wide. It's funny, given that you're also the only functional two-foot empath I know, but it's true. You are constitutionally incapable of suggesting anything that will get you what you want if it might step on someone else.

And you're so incapable of it, that you go into some sort of immediate internal denial where the very possibility of suggesting it is concerned."

"I do not!"

"You do so." Henke looked at Nimitz. "Doesn't she, Stinker?"

Nimitz looked down at Henke from Honor's shoulder for a moment, and then nodded firmly.

"See? Even your furry minion knows it. Which is one reason this marriage of yours is going to be so good for you. Somehow, I don't see Hamish and Emily Alexander—or Hamish and Emily Alexander-Harrington, I suppose now—

letting you get away with that anymore."

Honor considered protesting further, but she didn't. And one reason she didn't, she admitted to herself, was that she wasn't positive she could, and be honest. The notion certainly bore thinking on, at any rate.

"Whatever," she said, instead, smiling at Henke. "But the main thing is that, aside from Mac and my armsmen, you're the only one in the Fleet who knows. I'm going to tell Alice and Alistair, as well, but no one else. Not for a while."

"Marriage licenses and wedding certificates are public records, Honor," Henke pointed out. "You can't keep this one quiet for long."

"Longer than you might think," Honor replied with an urchin-like grin. "Since I'm Steadholder Harrington, and a steadholder outranks a duchess or an earl, the license and certificate are both being filed on Steadholder Harrington's planet of residence. In the Public Records Office of Harrington Steading, as a matter of fact. Reverend Sullivan offered to take care of it for me."

"Well, wasn't that nice of him," Henke said with a matching grin. "I don't suppose they're likely to get temporarily misfiled, are they?"

"No, they aren't," Honor said, more seriously. "They're important official documents, so we're not going to be playing any games with them. But we're also not going to mention to anyone that they're there, and while the records are public, they have to be requested, so we'll know if anyone accesses them." She shrugged. "We couldn't keep it secret forever, even if we wanted to, which we don't. This will just buy a little more time."

"But why buy it in the first place?" Henke frowned. "Like Emily said, this solves all your problems. Except, of course, for the people who're going to suggest that the fact that you're marrying them now probably proves Hayes was right with his original rumors about you and Hamish."

"The main reason is my command and Hamish's position at the Admiralty," Honor admitted. "Hamish's theory is that since the First Lord, unlike the First Space Lord, is a civilian without any authority to issue orders to uniformed personnel, he's not in my direct chain of command, and so there's been no official prohibition against our . . .

involvement from the start. Unfortunately, that's currently just his opinion. Before we go public, we want to be certain the courts are going to agree with him."

"And if they don't?" Henke frowned again. Rules-lawyering was very unlike the Honor Harrington she'd always known.

"And if they don't, the solution's relatively simple. I resign my Manticoran commission, and High Admiral Matthews makes Admiral Steadholder Harrington available to the Alliance to command Eighth Fleet. That we know would be legal, since there's no similar prohibition in Grayson service. But it would be complicated and an obvious case of finding a way to technically comply with the law, and we'd all prefer to simply find out that what we're doing is legal in the first place under the Star Kingdom's Articles of War."

"And how long will it take for you to determine whether or not it is?"

"Not too long, I hope. I've got Richard Maxwell working on it now, and he feels confident he can have a definitive opinion for us within a month or so. Which is actually moving at light-speed for the legal system, you know. In the meantime, we've got to get Cutworm III organized and launched, and no one at Admiralty House or here in the Fleet needs to be worrying about something like this while we're planning an op."

"I don't suppose I can argue about that," Henke said.

"Personally, given who you and Hamish are—not to mention Emily—I figure you could probably get away with just about anything short of murder!"

"Maybe we could," Honor said with a frown of her own,

"but that's one game I really don't want to start playing."

"Honor, you've earned a little slack, a little special consideration," Henke told her quietly.

"Some people may think so. And, in some respects, I suppose I do, too," Honor said slowly. "But the minute I begin demanding some sort of free pass, I turn into someone I don't want to be."

"Yes, I guess you would," Henke said, shaking her head with a slight, rueful smile. "Which is probably one reason everyone else would be so willing to give it to you. Oh, well." She shook herself. "I guess we'll just have to put up with you the way you are."

* * *

"And don't forget to


this time!"

" Mom! " Lieutenant Timothy Meares protested. "I always write! You know I do!"

"But not often enough," she said firmly, with an impish smile, as she banked into the final approach to Landing Field's parking bays.

"All right. All right," he sighed, giving in with a smile of his own. "I'll try to write more often. Assuming the Admiral gives me the free time."

"Don't you go blaming your slackness on Duchess Harrington," his mother scolded. "She doesn't keep you that busy."

"Yes, she does," Meares objected in tones of profound innocence. "I swear she does!"

"Then you won't mind me dropping her a little note of my own to ask her not to overwork my baby boy that way?"

"Don't you dare!" Meares protested with a laugh.

"That's what I thought," his mother said complacently.

"Mothers know these things, you know."

"And they fight dirty, too."

"Of course they do. They're mothers."

The air car settled into the designated parking bay, and she turned to look at him, her expression suddenly much more serious.

"Your father and I are very proud of you, Tim," she said quietly. "And we worry about you. I know—I know!" She raised one hand when he started to protest. "You're safer on the flagship than you would be almost anywhere else.

But a lot of mothers and fathers who thought their children were safe before the Peeps started shooting again found out they were wrong. We're not lying awake at night, unable to sleep. But we do worry, because we love you. So

. . . be careful, all right?"

"I promise, Mom," he said, and kissed her cheek. Then he climbed out of the car, collected his single light bag, and waved goodbye.

His mother watched him step onto the pedestrian slideway. She watched him until he disappeared into the crowd, then lifted the air car into the exit traffic lanes and headed home.

She never noticed the nondescript man who also watched her son head for the departure concourse.

* * *

"I wish we were getting a few reinforcements, Ma'am,"

Rafael Cardones said as he, Simon Mattingly, and Honor and Nimitz walked down the passage away from the flag briefing room where the first preliminary meeting for Cutworm III had just broken up.

"So do I," Honor replied. "But realistically, it's only been three months since we activated Eighth Fleet. It's going to be at least a few more months before we start seeing anything else, I'm afraid."

"Three months." Cardones shook his head. "It doesn't seem anywhere near that long, somehow, Ma'am."

"That's because of how much more intense the operational pace has been this time around," Honor said with a shrug. "For us, at least. Time is probably dragging for the folks in Home Fleet and Third Fleet." It was her turn to shake her head. "I was always fortunate, as a captain. I didn't get anchored to one of the major defensive fleets and have to sit around cooling my heels for months at a time with nothing but simulations to keep my people sharp."

"No, you didn't," Cardones said dryly. "If I recall correctly, Your Grace, you were generally too busy getting the crap shot out of your ship to worry about something like that."

"Picky, picky, picky," Honor said, and the flag captain chuckled. "At least it kept my people from getting bored,"

she added, and he laughed harder.

Honor smiled, and the four of them stepped through the hatch onto Imperator's flag bridge.

It was fairly late in the shipboard day, and the watch was at a minimum. Mattingly peeled off, just inside the hatch, and Honor and Cardones crossed the spacious command deck to stand on its far side, gazing into the main visual display. The endless depths of space lay before them, crystal clear and sooty black, spangled with stars.

"Beautiful, isn't it, Ma'am?" Cardones asked quietly.

"And it looks so peaceful," Honor agreed.

"Too bad looks can be so deceiving," her flag captain said.

"I know what you mean. But let's not get too moody. It's always been 'deceiving,' you know. Think about what each of those tiny little, cool-looking stars is like when you get close to it. Not so 'peaceful' then, is it?"

"You do have an interesting perspective on things, sometimes, Your Grace," Cardones observed.

"Do I?"

Honor turned her head as the hatch opened again and Timothy Meares walked through it, carrying his memo board under his arm. The flag lieutenant had stayed behind to tidy up his notes of the session.

"If my perspective seems odd," she continued, turning back to Cardones, "it's only because—"

Her voice chopped off as abruptly as a guillotine blade, and she whirled back towards the hatch even as Nimitz catapulted off her shoulder with a bloodcurdling, tearing-canvas snarl. Cardones' jaw dropped, and he started to turn himself, but he was far too slow.

"Simon!" Honor shouted, even as her right hand flashed up, caught Cardones by the front of his tunic, and flung him towards the floor with all the brutal power of her genetically engineered heavy-world musculature.

The armsman's head snapped up, but he lacked Honor's empathic sense. He couldn't taste what she tasted—

couldn't recognize the sudden, surging horror radiating from Timothy Meares as the young man abruptly found his body responding to the orders of someone—or something—


It wasn't Mattingly's fault. Timothy Meares was part of his Steadholder's official family. He was her aide, her student, almost an adoptive son. He'd been alone in her company literally thousands of times, and Mattingly knew he was no threat. And so, he was totally unprepared when Meares' right hand reached out casually—so casually—in passing . . . and snaked Mattingly's pulser out of his holster.

The armsman reacted almost instantly. Despite the totality of his surprise, his own arm lashed out, seeking to recapture the weapon, or at least immobilize it. But

"almost instantly" wasn't quite good enough, and the pulser snarled.


This time it was no shout. Honor screamed her armsman's name in useless protest as the burst of heavy-caliber darts ripped into his abdomen and tracked upward into his chest. His uniform tunic, like Honor's, which had been modified to resist Nimitz's claws, was made of antiballistic fabric, but it wasn't designed to resist military-grade pulser fire at point-blank range, and Mattingly went down in an explosion of blood.

Honor felt the agony of his death, but there was no time to grieve. And agonizing as what had just happened to Mattingly was, it was actually less agonizing than what she tasted from Timothy Meares. His horror, shock, disbelief and guilt as his hand killed a man who'd been his friend was like some horrifying shroud. She could feel him screaming in protest, fighting with desperate futility, as his arm came up, sweeping around the bridge, holding down the stud on the stolen pulser.

A hurricane of darts shrieked across Flag Bridge. Two Plotting ratings went down, one of them screaming horribly. The Communications section exploded as the darts chewed their way through displays, consoles, chair backs. The deadly muzzle tracked onward, slicing the bandsaw of hyper-velocity darts across Andrea Jaruwalski's unmanned station and killing the Tactical quartermaster of the watch. And yet, even as the carnage mounted, Honor knew it was all incidental. She knew her horrified flag lieutenant's actual target.

Nimitz hit the back of a command chair, bounding towards Meares, but the cyclone of darts slammed into the chair. They missed the 'cat, but the chair literally exploded under him, and not even his reflexes could keep him from falling to the deck. He landed with his feet under him, already prepared to bound upward once again, but he'd lost too much time. He couldn't possibly reach the flag lieutenant before the pulser in Meares' hand found Honor.

Honor felt it coming. Felt the useless denial screaming in Timothy Meares' mind. Knew the flag lieutenant literally could not resist whatever hideous compulsion had seized him. Knew he would rather have died himself than do what he'd just done. What he was about to do.

She didn't think about it, not consciously. She simply reacted, just as she'd reacted by throwing Rafael Cardones out of the line of fire. Reacted with the trained instincts of over forty years of practice in the martial arts, and with the muscle memory she'd drilled into herself on the firing range under her Jason Bay mansion.

Her artificial left hand flexed oddly. It rose before her, forefinger rigid, and in the instant before Timothy Meares'

fire reached her, the tip of that forefinger exploded as a five-dart burst of pulser fire ripped across the flag bridge and the flag lieutenant's head erupted in a ghastly spray of gray, red, and pulverized white bone.

Chapter Thirty-Two

"Your Grace, Captain Mandel is here," James MacGuiness said quietly.

Honor looked up from her console with a feeling of guilty relief. She'd gotten only a few hours of fitful sleep in the twenty-one hours since the massacre on her flag bridge, and she was still dealing with personal letters to the families of the dead. The message she'd already composed for Simon Mattingly's family had been bad enough; the one she was recording now, for Timothy Meares' parents, was far worse.

MacGuiness stood in the open hatch of the office workspace attached to her day cabin, and his expression was as haggard as she felt. Simon Mattingly had been his friend for over sixteen T-years, and Timothy Meares had been like a younger brother. Eighth Fleet's entire command structure was stunned by what had happened, but for some, Honor thought, it was far more personal than for others.

"Show the Captain in, please, Mac."

"Yes, Ma'am."

MacGuiness disappeared, and Honor saved what she'd already recorded for Timothy's parents. As she did, her eyes fell on the black glove on her left hand—the glove concealing the tattered last joint of her index finger—and she felt once again the terrible, tearing grief there'd been no time to feel then as she shot down all of the potential and youthful exuberance of the flag lieutenant who'd meant so much to her.

A throat cleared itself, and she looked up once more.

"Captain Mandel, Your Grace," the burly, broad-shouldered officer just inside the hatch, black beret tucked under his left epaulet and spine ramrod straight, said gruffly. He and the slightly taller, slender woman beside him both wore the insignia of the Office of Naval Intelligence. "And this," Mandel indicated his companion,

"is Commander Simon."

"Come in, Captain, Commander." Honor pointed at the chairs in front of her desk. "Be seated."

"Thank you, Your Grace," Mandel said. Simon—Honor felt herself flinch inside as the commander's last name lacerated her sense of loss—said nothing, only smiled politely and waited a moment until Mandel had seated himself. Then she sat, as well, economically and neatly.

Honor regarded them thoughtfully, tasting their emotions. They were an interesting contrast, she decided.

Mandel's emotions were just as hard-edged as his physical appearance. He radiated bulldog toughness, but there was no sense of flexibility or give. Focused, intense, determined . . . all of those applied, yet she had the sense that he was a blunt instrument. A hammer, not a scalpel.

But Simon, now. Simon's emotions were very different from her outward appearance. She looked almost colorless

—fair-haired, with a complexion almost as pale as Honor's own and curiously washed out looking blue eyes—and her body language appeared diffident, almost timid. But under that surface was a poised, 'catlike huntress. An agile mind, coupled with intense curiosity and an odd combination of a puzzlesolver's abstract concentration and a crusader's zeal.

Of the two, Honor decided, Simon was definitely the more dangerous.

"Now, Captain," she said, after a moment, folding her hands atop her blotter, "what can I do for you and the Commander?"

"Obviously, Your Grace, everyone at Admiralty House—

and in the Government at large, for that matter—takes a very grave view of what's happened," Mandel said. "Admiral Givens will be personally reviewing all our reports, and I've been instructed to inform you that Her Majesty will also be receiving them."

Honor nodded silently when he paused.

"Commander Simon is attached to counterintelligence,"

Mandel continued. "My own specialty is CID, however, which means I'll be functioning as the lead investigator."

"Criminal Investigation Division is taking the lead?" Honor managed to keep the surprise out of her voice, but her eyes sharpened.

"Well, clearly what's happened here represents a serious security breach," Mandel replied. "The Commander has an obvious responsibility to determine how the penetration occurred. However, in a case like this, it's usually most efficient to allow an experienced criminal investigator to go over the ground first. We know what to look for, and we can often identify the points at which the perpetrator began acting abnormally." He shrugged. "With that to direct them to the point at which he was first recruited, the counterintelligence types can hit the ground running."

"Perpetrator," Honor repeated, and to her own ears her voice was oddly flattened.

"Yes, Your Grace." Mandel radiated puzzlement at her comment, and she smiled thinly.

"Lieutenant Meares," she said quietly, "was a member of my staff for almost a full T-year. He was a diligent, responsible, conscientious young man. Had he lived, he would, I feel no doubt, have attained senior rank and discharged it well. He won't do that now, because I killed him. I would greatly appreciate it, Captain, if you could find some word other than ' perpetrator' with which to describe him."

Mandel looked at her, and something clicked into place behind his eyes. She could feel it, taste his sense of "Oh, that's what it was!" as he recognized—or thought he did—

what he was dealing with.

"Your Grace," he said compassionately, "it's not unusual, especially this soon after something like this, for it to be difficult to accept that someone we knew and liked, trusted, wasn't exactly what we thought he was. I'm sure you feel responsible for the death of the 'conscientious young man' you killed. But you killed him in self-defense, and the fact that you had to demonstrates that he wasn't who or what you thought he was."

Honor's eyes narrowed, and she heard Nimitz's soft, sibilant hiss.

"Captain Mandel," she said even more quietly, "did you or did you not read my own report about what happened here?"

"Of course, Your Grace. I have a copy of it here." He tapped the microcomputer cased at his belt.

"In that case, you ought to be aware that Lieutenant Meares was not responsible for his actions," she said flatly.

"He wasn't the 'perpetrator' of this crime, Captain; he was its first victim."

"Your Grace," Mandel said in patient tones, "I did, indeed, read your report. It was well written, concise, and to the point. However, you're a combat officer. You command ships and lead fleets in battle, and the entire Star Kingdom knows how well you do it. But you aren't a criminal investigator. I am, and while I don't doubt a single factual observation from your report, I'm afraid your conclusion that Lieutenant Meares was under some form of compulsion simply doesn't make sense. It's just not supported by the evidence."

"I beg your pardon?" Honor asked, almost conversationally, and a slight tic began at the right corner of her mouth.

"Your Grace," Mandel probably wasn't even aware of his own sense of patient, confident superiority in his area of expertise, but Honor certainly was, "you stated in your report that Lieutenant Meares was attempting to resist some sort of compulsion the entire time he was killing people, including your own armsman. But I'm afraid that statement is in error—a conclusion I base on two main points of observation and logic.

"First, I've reviewed the flag bridge visual records of the incident, and there's absolutely no sign of hesitation on his part. Secondly, for him to have been operating under compulsion would have required major personality adjustment, were he, in fact, the person you believed him to be.

"It's not at all unusual, when something as violent and totally unexpected as this incident occurs, for someone involved in it to be mistaken in his observations. And that, I'm afraid, is even more common when the observer doesn't want—for perfectly understandable, very human reasons—

to believe what's happening or why. The visual records, however, are immune to that sort of subjectivity, and they reveal nothing but purposeful, intentional, controlled, unhesitating action on Lieutenant Meares' part.

"And as far as personality adjustment is concerned, it's simply not possible. Lieutenant Meares, like all Queen's officers, had received the standard anti-drug and anti-conditioning protocols. It wouldn't have been flatly impossible for those safeguards to be broken or evaded, but it would have been difficult. And even without them, adjustment takes time, Your Grace. Quite a lot of it. And we can account for almost every instant of Lieutenant Meares' time over the past T-year. Certainly, there's no unaccounted for period long enough for him to have been involuntarily adjusted to carry out an action like this one."

The CID captain shook his head, his expression sad.

"No, Your Grace. I know you want to believe the best of an officer to whom you were so attached. But the only explanation for what happened here is that he was, and had for some time, been an agent for Peep intelligence."

"That's preposterous," Honor said flatly. Mandel's face stiffened, his feeling of professional superiority segueing into beginning anger, and Honor leaned forward in her chair. "If, in fact, Lieutenant Meares—Timothy—" she used the dead officer's first name deliberately, "had been a Havenite agent, he would have been far more valuable as a spy than as an assassin. As my flag lieutenant, he had access to virtually all of Eighth Fleet's most secure and sensitive data. He would have been a priceless intelligence asset, and they would never have thrown that away in an attempt like this.

"In addition, Captain, I didn't state in my report that I believed him to have been under compulsion; I stated that he was under compulsion. That was not interpretation. It was an observed fact."

"With all due respect, Your Grace," Mandel said stiffly,

"my own analysis of the visual records doesn't support that conclusion."

"My observation," Honor stressed the noun deliberately,

"didn't rely upon visual analysis."

"Feelings and instinct are a poor basis for a criminal investigation, Your Grace," Mandel said even more stiffly.

"I've been doing this for almost fifty T-years. And, as I explained on the basis of that experience, it's normal for emotions to cloud one's interpretation of events like this one."

"Captain," the muscle tic at the corner of Honor's mouth was more pronounced, "you're aware of the fact that I've been adopted by a treecat?"

"Of course, Your Grace." Mandel was obviously trying to sit on his temper, but his voice came out just a bit too clipped. "Everyone is aware of that."

"And you're aware that treecats are empaths and telepaths?"

"I've read some articles to that effect," Mandel said, and Honor felt her own temper click a notch higher at the dismissiveness in his emotions. Clearly, the captain was one of those people who continued, despite the evidence, to reject the notion that 'cats were fully sentient beings.

"They are, in fact, telepathic and empathic, and also highly intelligent," she told him. "And because they are, Nimitz was able to sense what Lieutenant Meares was feeling in the last few moments of his life."

She considered—briefly—telling Mandel she'd sensed those emotions herself, personally and directly, but rejected the temptation immediately. If he was sufficiently closed-minded to reject all the recent scientific evidence of treecat intelligence and capabilities, he would undoubtedly consider any human who claimed the same empathic ability was obviously insane.

"Nimitz knows, Captain Mandel. He doesn't suspect, and he doesn't think, he knows Timothy was trying desperately not to do what he was doing. That he was horrified by his own actions but couldn't stop them. And that, I submit to you, is the exact definition of someone acting under compulsion."

Mandel looked at her, and she tasted his incredulity that anyone could possibly expect him to allow the supposed observations of an animal, be it ever so clever, to influence the direction of his investigation.

"Your Grace," he said finally, "I'm attempting to make full allowance for your obvious close emotional attachment to Lieutenant Meares, but I must disagree with your conclusions. As far as his value as an intelligence asset is concerned, I will, of course, defer to the judgment of Commander Simon's people in counterintelligence. From my own perspective, however, and given how successful Eighth Fleet's operations have been, it seems obvious you'd make a perfect target for an assassination. We know the Peeps are fond of assassination as a technique, and your death would have been a major blow to the Star Kingdom's morale. In my own judgment, it seems likely Peep intelligence felt that killing you would be even more valuable than whatever sensitive data Lieutenant Meares might have been in position to give them.

"As far as your treecat's 'observations' are concerned, I'm afraid I can't allow them to overrule my own analysis of the visual records, which aren't subject to emotional overtones or subjectivity. And those records show absolutely no sign of hesitation on Lieutenant Meares' part from the instant he seized your armsman's weapon.

"And, finally, as I've already pointed out," he concluded with dangerous, pointed patience, "there simply hasn't been an unaccounted for block of the lieutenant's time long enough for him to have been adjusted."

"Captain," Honor said, "should I conclude, from what you've just said, that you don't believe a treecat's empathic sense is a valid guide to the emotional state of humans in his presence?"

"I'm not sufficiently versed in the literature on the subject to have an opinion, Your Grace," he said, but she tasted the truth behind the meaningless qualification.

"No, you don't believe it," she said flatly, and his eyes flickered. "Nor," Honor continued, "is your mind even remotely open to the possibility that Timothy Meares was acting against his will. Which means, Captain Mandel, that you're completely useless for this investigation."

Mandel reared back in his chair, eyes wide with shock, and Honor smiled thinly.

"You're relieved of authority for this investigation, Captain," she told him softly.

"You can't do that, Your Grace!" he objected hotly. "This is an ONI investigation. It falls outside your chain of command!"

" Captain," Honor emphasized his rank coldly, "you do not want to get into a pissing contest with me. Trust me on that. I said you're relieved, and you are relieved. I will inform all Eighth Fleet personnel that you have no authority, and instruct them not to cooperate with your investigation in any way. And if you choose not to accept my decision, I will personally return to Manticore to discuss it with Admiral Givens, Admiral Caparelli, Earl White Haven, and—if necessary—with the Queen herself. Are you reading me clearly on this, Captain?"

Mandel stared at her, then seemed to deflate in his chair. He didn't say a word, and as she tasted his emotions, she knew he literally couldn't.

She held him for a moment longer with icy brown eyes, then turned her attention to Commander Simon. The commander was almost as stunned as Mandel, but she was already beginning to come to grips with it.

"Commander Simon."

"Yes, Your Grace?" Simon had a pleasant mezzosoprano much warmer than her washed out coloring, Honor noticed.

"On my authority, you'll assume lead responsibility for this investigation until and unless Admiral Givens assigns a replacement for Captain Mandel."

"Your Grace," Simon said carefully, "I'm not certain you have the authority in my chain of command to give that order."

"Then I suggest you accept it provisionally, under protest, if you must, until the situation is clarified by someone you know is in your chain of command," Honor said coldly. "Because unless you do, this investigation will go nowhere until such time as an entire new team is sent out from Manticore. I will not have Captain Mandel in charge of it. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Your Grace," Simon said quickly.

"Very well then, Commander. Let's be about it."

Chapter Thirty-Three

"So we've been rethinking our previous target selection criteria and force levels," Andrea Jaruwalski said, looking around the flag briefing room.

All of Eighth Fleet's division commanders attended electronically, each with his or her own individual quadrant of the huge holo display hovering above the conference table. The squadron and task force commanders, and Scotty Tremaine as Eighth Fleet's senior COLAC, were physically present, and even now, almost three full days after the flag bridge massacre, Honor could taste the residual shock, the stunned desire to disbelieve what had happened, hovering in the compartment like smoke.

"At this point," Jaruwalski continued, seeking her own escape from personal grief in brisk professionalism,

"Commander Reynolds and I are in agreement with Her Grace. The Peeps have to have begun putting in place some response to Cutworm I and Cutworm II. What that response may be, we can't predict. Obviously, we all know what we'd like it to be. However, even if we've succeeded completely in convincing them to do what the Admiralty wants, it's still a situation with a definite downside for us here in Eighth Fleet. Specifically, the targets are going to get tougher. Whether it's simply improved doctrine—more of what we saw at Chantilly—or an actual redeployment of assets, they're going to do their best to ensure that we don't have any more cakewalks.

"Bearing that in mind, we're reducing our objectives list for Cutworm III to only two star systems: Lorn and Solon.

Admiral Truman will command the attack on Lorn; Her Grace will command the attack on Solon. We'll be assigning one carrier squadron to each attack, and splitting the heavy cruisers and battlecruisers just about down the middle."

She paused, looking up and sweeping the faces of her audience, corporeal and electronic, then continued.

"Even without any precautionary redeployment on the Peeps' part, both these targets would almost certainly be more heavily defended then our previous objectives. Lorn, in particular, is a relatively important secondary naval shipyard. It's not a building yard, but a satellite yard that handles a lot of refit activity, although it's really geared to working on units below the wall. Also, we know from prior intelligence that Lorn is fairly heavily involved in construction of the Peeps' new LACs. Because of that, we anticipate that the likelihood of encountering at least light and medium combatants in some numbers is relatively high.

"Solon is less directly involved in the construction or maintenance of Peep naval units. It is, however, substantially more heavily populated than any of the systems we've hit so far. According to the last census data available to us, the system population is over two billion, and its economy was one of the relatively few bright spots for the Peeps even before the Pierre Coup. This makes it particularly valuable from our perspective, since a successful attack on it is certain to generate powerful political pressure for Theisman and his staff to deploy additional heavy units for home defense. In addition, the severity of the economic damage inflicted by the destruction of this system's industrial infrastructure will be truly significant. All of which, again, suggests the system will be more heavily defended than the more lightly populated systems we've attacked so far."

She paused once again, glancing over the notes on her individual display, then looked up once more.

"That completes the overview, Your Grace. Would you care to entertain discussion of the points already raised, or would you prefer for me to begin the point-by-point operational brief?"

"I think we'll begin by seeing if anyone has anything she wants to add to what you've already said," Honor replied.

It was her turn to look around the faces, physical and electronic, and she smiled, despite her fatigue and her aching awareness of the empty spots behind her which should have been filled by Simon Mattingly and Timothy Meares.

"Who'd like to start the ball rolling?" she asked.

* * *

The intercom buzzer sounded shockingly loud in the stillness.

Honor sat up quickly, brushing her right hand across her eyes, and grimaced as she brought up the time display in her left eye. She'd been stretched out on the couch for barely fifty minutes, and the small amount of sleep she'd gotten made her feel even worse than she had before she collapsed onto it.

The intercom buzzed again, and she shoved herself to her feet and stalked across to it.

"Mac," she said, with unaccustomed ire, "I thought I told you—"

"I'm sorry, Ma'am," MacGuiness interrupted. "I know you didn't want to be disturbed before supper. But there's someone here you should see."

"Mac," she said again, without her previous atypical heat, but wearily, "unless it's some sort of an emergency, I really don't want to see anyone. Can't Mercedes handle whatever it is?"

"I'm afraid not, Ma'am," MacGuiness replied. "He's come directly from Admiralty House specifically to speak to you."


Honor made her spine straighten and inhaled deeply.

There'd been just enough time for her blistering comments on Mandel to reach Admiralty House and draw a response, and the fact that they'd sent someone out to deliver that response in person suggested that Admiral Givens and the Judge Advocate General might not have been too delighted by her actions.

Well, that's just too bad, she thought grimly. I'm a full admiral, a fleet commander, a duchess, and a steadholder.

This investigation is too important to be sandbagged at the outset by someone too closed minded to even consider the blindingly obvious, and this time around, the Powers That Be are damned well going to pay attention to me!

The anger in her own thoughts surprised her, just a bit, and she wondered—not for the first time—how much of it stemmed from her own feeling of guilt. But that didn't really matter. Not when she knew she was right about whatever had been done to Timothy Meares.

"Very well, Mac," she said, after a moment, "give me two minutes, then send him in."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Honor keyed off the intercom, picked up her uniform tunic and slipped it back on, sealed it, and glanced into a bulkhead mirror. She shrugged her shoulders to settle the tunic perfectly in place, and ran her right hand lightly over her hair. That hair fell halfway to her waist when it was unbound, these days, but its tightly coiled braids hadn't slipped during her all too brief nap, and she nodded in approval. The slight tightness around her eyes might have told someone who knew her very well how weary she actually was, but there was no fault to find in her outward appearance.

She glanced at Nimitz, but the 'cat was draped over his sleeping perch, still sound asleep. She sensed him in the back of her mind, just as she knew he was always at least peripherally aware of her, even when his sleep was deepest, but she didn't wake him. He was as exhausted as she was, and he, too, was still dealing with his grief for two people who had been close personal friends.

Simon Mattingly's funeral had helped . . . some. There'd been at least a little catharsis in it, but at the same time it had only made her more aware of how far he'd come from his native world to die. She'd borrowed Brother Hendricks, the chaplain attached to one of the Grayson LAC groups assigned to Alice Truman's carrier squadron, to perform the ceremony. She'd known from agonizing personal experience that the Grayson tradition was that an armsman was buried where he fell, and Andrew LaFollet and Spencer Hawke had stood ramrod straight at her back throughout the brief military funeral ceremony. And then they, Alistair McKeon, Michelle Henke, and James MacGuiness had carried the Harrington Steading flag-draped coffin to the waiting airlock.

The two armsmen had stood rigidly at attention at her back once again as the airlock's inner hatch closed. And then Brother Hendricks had spoken quietly.

"Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the endless sea of space, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through the Intercessor, our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose coming in glorious Majesty to judge the universe, it shall give up its dead, and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in Him shall be changed, and made like unto His glorious body, according to the mighty workings whereby He is able to subdue all things unto Himself.


Honor had reached out as he spoke, and at the final word, she'd pressed the button beside the hatch that expelled Simon Mattingly's coffin. The coffin's small reaction drive had activated as soon as it was clear of the ship, turning the coffin, aligning it perfectly with the distant fusion furnace of Trevor's Star, and she'd felt her own heart go with it.

Perhaps she'd be able, in time, to find the comfort in the ancient words of farewell. And certainly, if there'd ever been a man who had met the Test of his life, that man had been Simon Mattingly. But, oh, she missed him so.

She drew a deep breath, crossed to her desk, seated herself behind it, switched on her terminal, and pretended to be studying the document upon it, then waited.

Precisely one hundred and twenty seconds from the moment she'd given him the instruction, MacGuiness opened the cabin hatch.

"Your Grace," he said, "your visitor is here."

There was something peculiar about his voice, and something even odder about his emotions, and Honor looked up sharply.

"Hello, Honor," her visitor said, and she shot up out of her chair.


She never clearly remembered stepping around her desk.

She just was, and then she walked straight into his arms.

She heard a thump behind her as Samantha vaulted from Hamish's shoulder and flowed across the carpet. She tasted Nimitz's awakening and sudden delight as his mate's mind-glow reached out to him, and then Hamish's arms were about her, and hers were about him.

"Hamish," she repeated more quietly, almost wonderingly, letting her head rest on his shoulder.

"'Salamander,' indeed." Hamish's deep voice was more than a little frayed around the edges, and his arms tightened. "Damn it, woman—can't you go anywhere without somebody trying to kill you?!"

"I'm sorry," she said, never opening her eyes as she tasted his very real worry. "I'm sorry, but no one could have seen this one coming."

"I know, I know." He sighed, and his embrace loosened at last.

He put his hands on her upper arms, holding her back at arm's length, and looked deeply into her eyes. He lacked her own empathic abilities, but once again, she tasted that echo of a treecat bonding between them, and she knew she could no more conceal her innermost feelings from him than he could conceal his from her.

"Poor Honor," he said, after a moment. "Love, when we got the initial dispatches, Emily and I—" He broke off, shaking his head firmly. "Let's just say we didn't take it well. I wanted to come straight out here personally, but I was afraid of the attention I might have drawn. But then you fired Mandel, and I decided the hell with the attention I might attract. I know you, Honor. You wouldn't have brought the hammer down that hard on him unless he was a complete and utter idiot and you felt an overriding urgency to get someone competent to replace him, or unless you were really, really hurting. In either case, I needed to be here."

"I suppose it was a bit of each," she admitted, stepping back and linking her arm through his. She urged him across the cabin, and the two of them sat side by side on the couch, leaning comfortably against one another.

"I am hurting, badly," she said quietly. "Not just over Simon. Not even mostly over him, in some ways. Tim—"

She broke off, biting her lip, her vision misting, remembering how vehemently she had rejected Mercedes Brigham's suggestion that perhaps she should be thinking about filling the hole in her staff Meares death had left.

But no admiral was required to have a flag lieutenant, and Honor refused to replace him. It might not be the most rational decision she'd ever made, but she had no intention of changing her mind.

"I'm hurting," she repeated. "And I will be, for a long time. But I honestly believe that it was mostly because Mandel was such a square peg in a round hole."

"From the tone of your dispatches—and, frankly, his report to Pat Givens—I sort of figured it was something like that," he said. "Although, I understand Mandel really does have a reputation as an effective investigator."

"I don't doubt he does," she said. "In fact, to be scrupulously fair, which I really don't want to, I imagine he really is very good at what he does . . . under more normal circumstances. But in this instance, he's simply not the man for the job. Maybe he's too experienced. It's like . . .

like he's got some sort of tunnel vision. He knows what he knows, and he's going to focus in on that and get the job done without any distractions from amateurs who don't know their ass from their elbow about criminal investigations."

Hamish quirked one eyebrow at her language.

"You are pissed," he observed.

"Frustrated," she corrected. "Well, and maybe pissed off because he made me so frustrated. But he wouldn't believe me when I told him Tim was being compelled somehow, and he wasn't ready to believe Nimitz was smart enough to recognize what was going on—assuming a 'cat really had any sort of telempathic ability in the first place—or to tell anyone anything sensible if he could recognize it."

"Jesus, he managed to step on all your sore toes, didn't he?"

"Just about," she admitted, smiling faintly at the humor in his voice. "But he was so fixated on the notion that my sense of guilt was making me believe the best about Tim that he wasn't paying any attention to what I was telling him about what really happened. And he wasn't about to change his mind, either. I could tell."

She tapped her temple with her right forefinger, grimacing wryly, and he nodded.

"I figured that was what it was. And I imagine from what you're saying you weren't about to tell him you'd sensed what was happening?"

Honor simply snorted, and he chuckled without much humor.

"Frankly, I'm just as glad you didn't. I'd like you to go on holding that little ability in reserve for as long as you can.

Let people think Nimitz is the one doing the sensing. It never hurts to be under estimated in some ways."

"I know. Not to mention the fact that I don't want people to think I'm some sort of mind-reading, privacy-invading freak."


Hamish gazed into space for a few moments, then looked back at her.

"I don't doubt a single thing you've said," he told her,

"but I've got to tell you, I viewed the same footage from the bridge visuals." His face tightened. "It scared the shit out of me, too, even though I knew you hadn't been hurt before they ever showed it to me."

He shook his head, jaw muscles bunching for a second, and she slipped her arm around him and squeezed tightly.

"But the point I was going to make," he continued more normally after a couple of heartbeats, "was that watching what happened, I can see why someone who didn't realize how you can get inside somebody else's head would discount the possibility that Lieutenant Meares was trying to stop himself. He moved so fast, Honor. So smoothly. As if he'd not only planned out what he was going to do, but actually rehearsed it ahead of time. I don't know if you really realize sometimes just how fast your own reflexes are, but you killed him just fractions of a second before he would have killed you. And I don't think anyone else could have done it, trick finger or not."

Honor looked down at her gloved left hand.

"I know it was fast," she said. "If I'd had even a fraction of a second more warning—if I'd been able to do more than just shout Simon's name—we might . . ."

She stopped and made herself inhale.

"I'll always wonder if it would have been better not to shout," she said, admitting to Hamish what she wasn't certain she would have been able to admit only to herself.

"Did I distract him? Did I make him look at me, in exactly the wrong direction, when he might have seen something, noticed something?" She looked into Hamish's eyes. "Did I get him killed?"

"No." Hamish shook his head firmly. "Yes, you may have distracted him, but distracted him from what? From watching a young man he'd seen literally thousands of times walk into Flag Bridge on a perfectly legitimate errand?" He shook his head again. "Not even a Grayson armsman would have expected anything like this, love."

"But he was my friend," Honor half-whispered. "I . . .

loved him."

"I know."

It was Hamish's turn to squeeze her, and she leaned into his embrace.

"Nonetheless," he went on, "the fact that you had to so little warning suggests a couple of things to me."

"Such as?"

"First, there's no way he was a Peep agent. He never could've concealed that from you—or Nimitz—for this long.

Second, whatever happened to him, he hadn't been personality adjusted."

"Why not? I mean, why can you be so confident of that?"

"Partly because Mandel, however pigheaded you may've found him, was right. Adjustment takes time—lots of time, even without the safeguards built into our military security protocols. And partly because someone who's been adjusted knows he has. On some level, he's aware of the fact that he's not fully in control of his own actions. In fact, I made a quick flight out to your parent's house on Sphinx with Samantha and had her consult the Bright Water memory singers about the attempted assassination of Queen Adrienne."

"You know, I'd actually forgotten about that," Honor said in a chagrined voice.

"You've been under a lot of stress," Hamish told her. "But Samantha got the memory song of the entire episode. She says the assassin knew what was happening to him from the moment he came into Dianchect's mental reach. It wasn't like . . . turning on a switch. Dianchect picked him up before he ever got into visual range of the Princess, and he knew there was something badly wrong the instant he tasted the assassin's mind-glow. That wasn't the case here."

"No, it wasn't," Honor agreed. "He was perfectly cheerful when he stepped through the hatch. Everything was normal, exactly the way it always was. And then, suddenly, he went for Simon's pulser."

"So he wasn't adjusted," Hamish said thoughtfully, "but he was programmed."

"I suppose you could say that. But how could that be done?" Honor shook her head. "That's what I keep coming back to, again and again. How in the name of God could someone program another human being that way without the human in question even being aware it had happened?"

"I don't know the answer to that one," Hamish said grimly, "but here's another one. Why did it happen now?