Book: Storm From the Shadows




Storm From the Shadows

David Weber

Storm From the Shadows

An Authorial Note

Many readers will notice that some of the earlier chapters in this book retell, or fill in between, events which occurred in At All Costs. The retold material constitutes a very small portion of the entire book, and there is a definite method to my madness in taking this approach.

Once upon a time, in the simpler days of yore when I first began the Honor Harrington series, I hadn't quite visualized the scale of the project upon which I'd embarked. I always knew the story that I wanted to tell, and I'd always intended to arrive at the portion of the story line of which this book is a part. What I hadn't really counted on was the degree of detail, the number of characters, and the sheer size of the canvas I was going to end up with.

It isn't often that a writer is blessed with the response the Honor Harrington books have generated. When it happened to me, I was deeply gratified, and that's still true today. I also think that when readers are kind enough to support a series as strongly as these books have been supported, the writer has not only a special relationship with his readers, but also a special responsibility to them. At the same time, when a series extends through as many novels (thirteen, including Shadow of Saganami and Crown of Slaves) and anthologies, the writer sometimes finds himself forced to consider taking the storyline in directions of which not all of his readers are likely to approve. There's a fine balance between going where you know you have to go with a book and worrying about how you meet that special responsibility to your readership. And, to be honest, the Honor books reached that point about two novels ago.

Some of my readers who have spoken to me at conventions know that Honor was supposed to be killed inAt All Costs under my version of what Mentor of Arisia used to refer to as his "visualization of the cosmic all." I always knew that killing Honor would have been a high-risk move, and that many readers of the series would have been very angry with me, but at the time I'd organized the timeline of Honor's life—that is, before I'd even begunOn Basilisk Station—I hadn't really anticipated the fierce loyalty of the readership she was going to generate. Nor, for that matter, had I fully realized just how fond I was going to become of the character. Nonetheless, I remained steadfastly determined (my wife Sharon will tell you that I can sometimes be just a tad stubborn) to hew to my original plan. The fact that I'd always visualized Honor as being based on Horatio Nelson only reinforced my determination, since the Battle of Manticore was supposed to be the equivalent of his Battle of Trafalgar. Like Nelson, Honor had been supposed to fall in battle at the moment of victory in the climactic battle which saved the Star Kingdom of Manticore and ratified her as the Royal Manticoran Navy's greatest heroine.

At the same time, however, I had always intended to continue writing books in the "Honorverse." The great challenge of the later books was supposed to emerge about twenty-five or thirty years after Honor's death, and the primary viewpoint characters would have been her children, Raoul and Katherine. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending upon your viewpoint—Eric Flint screwed up my original timetable when he introduced the character of Victor Cachat and asked me for an enemy which Manticoran and Havenite secret agents could agree to fight as allies, despite the fact that their star nations were at war. I suggested Manpower, which worked very well for Eric's story. But, especially when I incorporated Eric's characters into the mainstream novels, and when Eric and I decided to doCrown of Slaves, it also pulled the entire storyline forward by two or three decades. Which meant I wasn't going to have time to kill Honor off and get her children grown up before the Manpower challenge hit Manticore.

I wasn't precisely heartbroken when I realized I no longer had any choice about granting Honor a reprieve. Not only did I think her fans would be less likely to come looking for me with pitchforks and ropes, but the closer I'd come to actually killing her, the less and less I'd liked the thought myself.

This still left me with something of a problem, however, since Honor had grown too senior to be sent on any more "death rides." I needed some additional, less senior officers who could become the fresh viewpoint figures on the front lines that Raoul and Katherine had originally been supposed to provide. So, I wroteShadow of Saganami, and it andCrown of Slaves were supposed to be the lead books in two separate, subsidiary series. They were supposed to proceed separately from but in parallel with the "main stem" novels in which Honor would continue to be a primary viewpoint character. I actually intended for one of her kids to take the lead in the military portion of the storyline and for the other to become the "spymaster," which would have permitted a logical division of the Honorverse into two separate but related storylines. And these two new series were also supposed to be a device which would allow me to cut down on the amount of "back story" which had to be included in each of those "main stem" books.

To some extent, that original plan continues to hold good, but I've found myself forced to modify it. What I've discovered over the last two or three novels is that incorporating those two subsidiary series much more closely into the main series permits me to advance the story line on a broader front and focus on specific areas of the same story in separate novels. Thus,Shadow of Saganami andStorm from the Shadows both focus primarily on the events in and around the Talbott Cluster, andCrown of Slaves andTorch of Freedom focus on the "covert war" between the two sides and on the moral issues of genetic slavery. AndMission of Honor, the next "main stem" book, will weave events from both of those areas together and advance the general storyline towards its final destination. (Which does not now necessarily include the demise of Honor Alexander-Harrington.)

Both Torch of Freedom and Mission of Honor have been delivered and are currently in the production pipeline, so hopefully readers won't be left too long between books.

One aspect of this new master scheme of mine, however, is that scenes which have appeared in one book may very well appear—usually from another character's point of view—in another book. This is not an effort simply to increase word count. It is intended to serve the function of more fully developing additional characters, giving different perspectives on the events they observe and participate in, filling in missing details, and—perhaps most importantly of all—nailing down exactly when these books' events occur relative to one another.

So far, this seems to be working out fairly well. That doesn't necessarily mean it will continue to do so, or that something won't come along to send me off in yet another direction, but at this moment, I don't expect that to happen. So for the foreseeable future, at least, expect this pattern to continue.

And I suppose I should also warn you that the ride is going to get a lot rougher for the good guys over the next few books.

Take care,

David Weber

Chapter One

"Talk to me, John!"

Rear Admiral Michelle Henke's husky contralto came sharp and crisp as the information on her repeater tactical display shifted catastrophically.

"It's still coming in from the Flag, Ma'am," Commander Oliver Manfredi, Battlecruiser Squadron Eighty-One's golden-haired chief of staff, replied for the squadron's operations officer, Lieutenant Commander John Stackpole. Manfredi was standing behind Stackpole, watching the ops section's more detailed displays, and he had considerably more attention to spare for updates at the moment than Stackpole did. "I'm not sure, but it looks—"

Manfredi broke off, and his jaw clenched. Then his nostrils flared and he squeezed Stackpole's shoulder before he turned his head to look at his admiral.

"It would appear the Peeps have taken Her Grace's lessons to heart, Ma'am," he said grimly. "They've arranged a Sidemore all their own for us."

Michelle looked at him for a moment, and her expression tightened.

"Oliver's right, Ma'am," Stackpole said, looking up from his own display as the changing light codes finally restabilized. "They've got us boxed."

"How bad is it?" she asked.

"They've sent in three separate groups," Stackpole replied. "One dead astern of us, one at polar north, and one at polar south. The Flag is designating the in-system force we already knew about as Bogey One. The task group to system north is Bogey Two; the one to system south is Bogey Three; and the one directly astern is Bogey Four. Our velocity relative to Bogey Four is just over twenty-two thousand kilometers per second, but range is less than thirty-one million klicks."

"Understood."

Michelle looked back at her own, smaller, display. At the moment, it was configured to show the entire Solon System, which meant, by definition, that it was nowhere as detailed as Stackpole's. There wasn't room for that on a plot small enough to deploy from a command chair—not when it was displaying the volume of something the size of a star system, at any rate. But it was more than detailed enough to confirm what Stackpole had just told her. The Peeps had just duplicated exactly what had happened to them at the Battle of Sidemore, and managed to do it on a more sophisticated scale, to boot. Unless something reduced Task Force Eighty-Two's rate of acceleration, none of the three forces which had just dropped out of hyper-space to ambush it could hope to overtake it. Unfortunately, they didn't need to physically overtake the task force in order to engage it—not when current-generation Havenite multidrive missiles had a maximum powered range from rest of over sixty million kilometers.

And, of course, there was always the possibility that there was yet another Havenite task group waiting in hyper, prepared to drop back into normal space right in their faces as they approached the system hyper limit . . .

No, she decided after a moment. If they had the hulls for a fourth force, it would have already translated in, as well. They'd reallyhave us in a rat trap if they'd been able to box us from four directions. I suppose it's possible that they do have another force in reserve—that they decided to double-think us and hold number four until they've had a chance to see which way we run. But that'd be a violation of the KISS principle, and this generation of Peeps doesn't go in much for that sort of thing, damn it.

She grimaced at the thought, but it was certainly true.

Honor's been warning us all that these Peeps aren't exactly stupid, she reflected. Not that any of us should've needed reminding after what they did to us in Thunderbolt! But I could wish that just this once she'd been wrong.

Her lips twitched in a humorless smile, but she felt herself coming back on balance mentally, and her brain whirred as tactical possibilities and decision trees spilled through it. Not that the primary responsibility was hers. No, that weight rested on the shoulders of her best friend, and despite herself, Michelle was grateful that it wasn't hers . . . a fact which made her feel more than a little guilty.

One thing was painfully evident. Eighth Fleet's entire operational strategy for the last three and a half months had been dedicated to convincing the numerically superior navy of the Republic of Haven to redeploy, adopt a more defensive stance while the desperately off-balance Manticoran Alliance got its own feet back under it. Judging by the ambush into which the task force had sailed, that strategy was obviously succeeding. In fact, it looked like it was succeeding entirely too well.

It was so much easier when we could keep their command teams pruned back . . . or count on State Security to do it for us. Unfortunately, Saint-Just's not around anymore to shoot any admiral whose initiative might make her dangerous to the régime, is he? Her lips twitched with bitterly sardonic amusement as she recalledthe relief with which Manticore's pundits, as well as the woman in the street, had greeted the news of the Committee of Public Safety's final overthrow.Maybe we were just a little premature about that, she thought, since it means that this time around, we don't have anywhere near the same edge in operational experience, and it shows. This batch of Peeps actually knows what it's doing. Damn it.

"Course change from the Flag, Ma'am," Lieutenant Commander Braga, her staff astrogator announced. "Two-niner-three, zero-zero-five, six-point-zero-one KPS squared."

"Understood," Michelle repeated, and nodded approvingly as the new vector projection stretched itself across her plot and she recognized Honor's intention. The task force was breaking to system south at its maximum acceleration on a course that would take it as far away from Bogey Two as possible while maintaining at least the current separation from Bogey Four. Their new course would still take them deep into the missile envelope of Bogey One, the detachment covering the planet Arthur, whose orbital infrastructure had been the task force's original target. But Bogey One consisted of only two superdreadnoughts and seven battlecruisers, supported by less than two hundred LACs, and from their emissions signatures and maneuvers, Bogey One's wallers were pre-pod designs. Compared to the six obviously modern superdreadnoughts and two LAC carriers in each of the three ambush forces, Bogey One's threat was minimal. Even if all nine of its hyper-capable combatants had heavy pod loads on tow, its older ships would lack the fire control to pose a significant threat to Task Force Eighty-Two's missile defenses. Under the circumstances, it was the same option Michelle would have chosen if she'd been in Honor's shoes.

I wonder if they've been able to ID her flagship? Michelle wondered. It wouldn't have been all that hard, given the news coverage and her "negotiations" in Hera.

That, too, of course, had been part of the strategy. Putting Admiral Lady Dame Honor Harrington, Duchess and Steadholder Harrington, in command of Eighth Fleet had been a carefully calculated decision on the Admiralty's part. In Michelle's opinion, Honor was obviously the best person for the command anyway, but the appointment had been made in a glare of publicity for the express purpose of letting the Republic of Haven know that "the Salamander" was the person who'd been chosen to systematically demolish its rear-area industry.

One way to make sure they honored the threat, Michelle thought wryly as the task force came to its new heading in obedience to the commands emanating from HMS Imperator, Honor's SD(P) flagship. After all, she's been their personal nightmare ever since Basilisk station! But I wonder if they got a fingerprint on Imperator at Hera or Augusta? Probably—they knew which ship she was aboard at Hera, at least. Which probably means they know who it is they've just mousetrapped, too.

Michelle grimaced at the thought. It was unlikely any Havenite flag officer would have required extra incentive to trash the task force if she could, especially after Eighth Fleet's unbroken string of victories. But knowing whose command they were about to hammer certainly couldn't make them any less eager to drive home their attack.

"Missile defense Plan Romeo, Ma'am," Stackpole said. "Formation Charlie."

"Defense only?" Michelle asked. "No orders to roll pods?"

"No, Ma'am. Not yet."

"Thank you."

Michelle's frown deepened thoughtfully. Her own battlecruisers' pods were loaded with Mark 16 dual-drive missiles. That gave her far more missiles per pod, but Mark 16s were both smaller, with lighter laser heads, and shorter-legged than a ship of the wall's multidrive missiles like the Mark 23s aboard Honor's superdreadnoughts. They would have been forced to adopt an attack profile with a lengthy ballistic flight, and the biggest tactical weakness of a pod battlecruiser design was that it simply couldn't carry as many pods as a true capital ship likeImperator. It made sense not to waste BCS 81's limited ammunition supply at a range so extended as to guarantee a low percentage of hits, but in Honor's place, Michelle would have been sorely tempted to throw at least a few salvos of all-up MDMs from her two superdreadnoughts back into Bogey Four's face, if only to keep them honest. On the other hand . . .

Well, she's the four-star admiral, not me. And I suppose—she smiled again at the tartness of her own mental tone—that she's demonstrated at least a modicum of tactical insight from time to time.

"Missile separation!" Stackpole announced suddenly. "Multiple missile separations! Estimate twenty-one hundred—two-one-zero-zero—inbound. Time to attack range seven minutes!"

Each of the six Havenite superdreadnoughts in the group which had been designated Bogey Four could roll six pods simultaneously, one pattern every twelve seconds, and each pod contained ten missiles. Given the fact that Havenite fire control systems remained inferior to Manticoran ones, accuracy was going to be poor, to say the least. Which was why the admiral commanding that group had opted to stack six full patterns from each superdreadnought, programmed for staggered launch to bring all of their missiles simultaneously in on their targets. It took seventy-two seconds to deploy them, but then just over a thousand MDMs hurled themselves after Task force Eighty-Two.

Seventy-two seconds after that, a second, equally massive salvo launched. Then a third. A fourth. In the space of just over seven minutes, the Havenites fired just under thirteen thousand missiles—almost a third of Bogey Four's total missile loadout—at the task force's twenty starships.

* * *

As little as three or four T-years ago, any one of those avalanches of fire would have been lethally effective against so few targets, and Michelle felt her stomach muscles tightening as the tempest swept towards her. But this wasn't three or four T-years ago. The Royal Manticoran Navy's missile defense doctrine was in a constant state of evolution, continually revised in the face of new threats and the opportunities of new technology, and it had been vastly improved even in the six months since the Battle of Marsh. TheKatana-class LACs deployed to cover the task force maneuvered to bring their missile launchers to bear on the incoming fire, but their counter-missiles weren't required yet. Not in an era when the Royal Navy had developed Keyhole and the Mark 31 counter-missile.

Each superdreadnought and battlecruiser deployed two Keyhole control platforms, one through each sidewall, and each of those platforms had sufficient telemetry links to control the fire of all of its mother ship's counter-missile launchers simultaneously. Equally important, they allowed the task force's units to roll sideways in space, interposing the impenetrable shields of their impeller wedges against the most dangerous threat axes without compromising their defensive fire control in the least. Each Keyhole also served as a highly sophisticated electronics warfare platform, liberally provided with its own close-in point defense clusters, as well. And as an added bonus, rolling ship gave the platforms sufficient "vertical" separation to see past the interference generated by the impeller wedges of subsequent counter-missile salvos, which made it possible to fire those salvos at far tighter intervals than anyone had ever been able to manage before.

The Havenites hadn't made sufficient allowance for how badly Keyhole's EW capability was going to affect their attack missiles' accuracy. Worse, they'd anticipated no more than five CM launches against each of their salvos, and since they'd anticipated facing only the limited fire control arcs of their fleeing targets' after hammerheads, they'd allowed for an average of only ten counter-missiles per ship per launch. Their fire plans had been based on the assumption that they would face somewhere around a thousand ship-launched counter-missiles, and perhaps another thousand or so Mark 31-based Vipers from the Katanas.

Michelle Henke had no way of knowing what the enemy's tactical assumptions might have been, but she was reasonably certain they hadn't expected to see over seven thousand counter-missiles from Honor's starships, alone.

"That's a lot of counter-missiles, Ma'am," Commander Manfredi remarked quietly.

The chief of staff had paused beside Michelle's command chair on his way back to his own command station, and she glanced up at him, one eyebrow quirked.

"I know we've increased our magazine space to accommodate them," he replied to the unspoken question. "Even so, we don't have enough to maintain this volume of defensive fire forever. And they're not exactly inexpensive, either."

Either we're both confident as hell, or else we're certifiable lunatics with nothing better to do than pretend we are so we can impress each other with our steely nerve, Michelle thought wryly.

"They may not be cheap," she said out loud, returning her attention to her display, "but they're a hell of a lot less expensive than a new ship would be. Not to mention the cost of replacing our own personal hides."

"There is that, Ma'am," Manfredi agreed with a lopsided smile. "There is that."

"And," Michelle continued with a considerably nastier smile of her own as the leading salvo of Havenite MDMs vanished under the weight of the task force's defensive fire, "I'm willing to bet Mark 31s cost one hell of a lot less than all those attack missiles did, too."

The second attack salvo followed the first one into oblivion well short of the inner defensive perimeter. So did the third. And the fourth.

"They've ceased fire, Ma'am," Stackpole announced.

"I'm not surprised," Michelle murmured. Indeed, if anything surprised her, it was that the Havenites hadn't ceased fire even sooner. On the other hand, maybe she wasn't being fair to her opponents. It had taken seven minutes for the first salvo to enter engagement range, long enough for six more salvos to be launched on its heels. And the effectiveness of the task force's defenses had surpassed even BuWeaps' estimates. If it had come as as big a surprise to the bad guys as she rather expected it had, it was probably unreasonable to expect the other side to realize instantly just how hard to penetrate that defensive wall was. And the only way they had to measure its toughness was to actually hammer at it with their missiles, of course. Still, she liked to think that it wouldn't have taken a full additional six minutes for her to figure out she was throwing good money after bad.

On the other other hand, there are those other nine salvos still on the way, she reminded herself. Let's not get too carried away with our own self-confidence, Mike! The last few waves will have had at least a little time to adjust to our EW, won't they? And it only takes one leaker in the wrong place to knock out an alpha node . . . or even some overly optimistic rear admiral's command deck.

"What do you think they're going to try next, Ma'am?" Manfredi asked as the fifth, sixth, and seventh salvos vanished equally ineffectually.

"Well, they've had a chance now to get a feel for just how tough our new doctrine really is," she replied, leaning back in her command chair, eyes still on her tactical repeater. "If it were me over there, I'd be thinking in terms of a really massive salvo. Something big enough to swamp our defenses by literally running us out of control channels for the CMs, no matter how many of them we have."

"But they couldn't possibly control something that big, either," Manfredi protested.

"We don't think they could control something that big," Michelle corrected almost absently, watching the eighth and ninth missile waves being wiped away. "Mind you, I think you're probably right, but we don't have any way of knowing that . . . yet. We could be wrong. And even if we aren't, how much accuracy would they really be giving up at this range, even if they completely cut the control links early and let the birds rely on just their on-board sensors? They wouldn't get very good targeting solutions without shipboard guidance to refine them, but they aren't going to get good solutions at this range anyway, whatever they do, and enough bad solutions to actually break through are likely to be just a bit more useful than perfect solutions that can't get past their targets' defenses, wouldn't you say?"

"Put that way, I suppose it does make sense," Manfredi agreed, but it was apparent to Michelle that her chief of staff's sense of professionalism was offended by the idea of relying on what was essentially unaimed fire. The notion's sheer crudity clearly said volumes about the competence (or lack thereof) of any navy which had to rely upon it, as far as he was concerned.

Michelle started to twit him for it, then paused with a mental frown. Just how much of a blind spot on Manfredi's part—or on her own, for that matter—did that kind of thinking really represent? Manticoran officers were accustomed to looking down their noses at Havenite technology and the crudity of technique its limitations enforced. But there was nothing wrong with a crude technique if it was also an effective one. The Republican Navy had already administered several painful demonstrations of that minor fact, and it was about time officers like Oliver Manfredi—or Michelle Henke, for that matter—stopped letting themselves be surprised each time it happened.

"I didn't say it would be pretty, Oliver." She allowed the merest hint of reprimand into her tone. "But we don't get paid for 'pretty,' do we?"

"No, Ma'am," Manfredi said just a bit more crisply.

"Well, neither do they, I feel fairly confident." She smiled, taking the possible sting out of the sentence. "And let's face it, they're still holding the short and smelly end of the hardware stick. Under the circumstances, they've made damned effective use of the capabilities they have this time around. Remember Admiral Bellefeuille? If you don't, I certainly do!" She shook her head wryly. "That woman is devious, and she certainly made the best use of everything she had. I'm afraid I don't see any reason to assume the rest of their flag officers won't go right on doing the same thing, unfortunately."

"You're right, Ma'am." Manfredi twitched a smile of his own. "I'll try to bear that in mind next time."

" 'Next time,' " Michelle repeated, and chuckled. "I like the implication there, Oliver."

"Imperator and Intolerant are rolling pods, Ma'am," Stackpole reported.

"Sounds like Her Grace's come to the same conclusion you have, Ma'am," Manfredi observed. "That should be one way to keep them from stacking too big a salvo to throw at us!"

"Maybe," Michelle replied.

The great weakness of missile pods was their vulnerability to proximity kills once they were deployed and outside their mother ship's passive defenses, and Manfredi had a point that incoming Manticoran missiles might well be able to wreak havoc on the Havenite pods. On the other hand, they'd already had time to stack quite a few of them, and it would take Honor's missiles almost eight more minutes to reach their targets across the steadily opening range between the task force and Bogey Four. But at least they were on notice that those missiles were coming.

The Havenite commander didn't wait for the task force's fire to reach him. In fact, he fired at almost the same instant Honor's first salvo launched against him, and whereas Task Force Eighty-Two had fired just under three hundred missiles at him, he fired the next best thing to eleven thousand in reply.

"Damn," Commander Manfredi said almost mildly as the enemy returned more than thirty-six missiles for each one TF 82 had just fired at him, then shook his head and glanced at Michelle. "Under normal circumstances, Ma'am, it's reassuring to work for a boss who's good at reading the other side's mind. Just this once, though, I really wish you'd been wrong."

"You and I, both," Michelle replied. She studied the data sidebars for several seconds, then turned her command chair to face Stackpole.

"Is it my imagination, John, or does their fire control seem just a bit better than it ought to be?"

"I'm afraid you're not imagining things, Ma'am," Stackpole replied grimly. "It's a single salvo, all right, and it's going to come in as a single wave. But they've divided it into several 'clumps,' and the clumps appear to be under tighter control than I would have anticipated out of them. If I had to guess, I'd say they've spread them to clear their telemetry paths to each clump and they're using rotating control links, jumping back and forth between each group."

"They'd need a lot more bandwidth than they've shown so far," Manfredi said. It wasn't a disagreement with Stackpole, only thoughtful, and Michelle shrugged.

"Probably," she said. "But maybe not, too. We don't know enough about what they're doing to decide that."

"Without it, they're going to be running the risk of completely dropping control linkages in mid-flight," Manfredi pointed out.

"Probably," Michelle repeated. This was no time, she decided, to mention certain recent missile fire control developments Sonja Hemphill and BuWeaps were pursuing. Besides, Manfredi was right. "On the other hand," she continued, "this salvo is five times the size of anything they've tried before, isn't it? Even if they dropped twenty-five or thirty percent of them, it would still be a hell of a lot heavier weight of fire."



"Yes, Ma'am," Manfredi agreed, and smiled crookedly. "More of those bad solutions you were talking about before."

"Exactly," Michelle said grimly as the oncoming torrent of Havenite missiles swept into the outermost counter-missile zone.

"It looks like they've decided to target us this time, too, Ma'am," Stackpole said, and she nodded.

TF 82's opening missile salvo reached its target first.

Unlike the Havenites, Duchess Harrington had opted to concentrate all of her fire on a single target, and Bogey Four's missile defenses opened fire as the Manticoran MDMs swept towards it. The Manticoran electronic warfare platforms scattered among the attack missiles carried far more effective penetration aids than anything the Republic of Haven had, but Haven's defenses had improved even more radically than Manticore's since the last war. They remained substantially inferior to the Star Kingdom's in absolute terms, but the relative improvement was still enormous, and the gap between TF 82's performance and what they could achieve was far narrower than it once would have been. Shannon Foraker's "layered defense" couldn't count on the same sort of accuracy and technological sophistication Manticore could produce, so it depended on sheer weight of fire, instead. And an incredible storm front of counter-missiles raced to meet the threat, fired from the starships' escorting LACs, as well as from the superdreadnoughts themselves. There was so much wedge interference that anything resembling precise control of all that defensive fire was impossible, but with so many counter-missiles in space simultaneously, some of them simply had to hit something.

They did. In fact, they hit quite a few "somethings." Of the two hundred and eighty-eight MDMs Intolerant and Imperator had fired at RHNS Conquete, the counter-missiles killed a hundred and thirty-two, and then it was the laser clusters' turn. Each of those clusters had time for only a single shot each, given the missiles' closing speed. At sixty-two percent of light-speed, it took barely half a second from the instant they entered the laser clusters' range for the Manticoran laser heads to reach their own attack range ofConquete. But there were literally thousands of those clusters aboard the superdreadnoughts and their escorting Cimeterre-class light attack craft.

Despite everything the superior Manticoran EW could do, Shannon Foraker's defensive doctrine worked. Only eight of TF 82's missiles survived to attack their target. Two of them detonated late, wasting their power on the roof ofConquete's impenetrable impeller wedge. The other six detonated between fifteen and twenty thousand kilometers off the ship's port bow, and massive bomb-pumped lasers punched brutally through her sidewall.

Alarms screamed aboard the Havenite ship as armor shattered, weapons—and the men and women who manned them—were wiped out of existence, and atmosphere streamed fromConquete's lacerated flanks. But superdreadnoughts were designed to survive precisely that kind of damage, and the big ship didn't even falter. She maintained her position in Bogey Four's defensive formation, and her counter-missile launchers were already firing against TF 82's second salvo.

"It looks like we got at least a few through, Ma'am," Stackpole reported, his eyes intent as the studied the reports coming back from the FTL Ghost Rider reconnaissance platforms.

"Good," Michelle replied. Of course, "a few" hits probably hadn't done a lot more than scratch their target's paint, but she could always hope, and some damage was a hell of a lot better than no damage at all. Unfortunately . . .

"And here comes their reply," Manfredi muttered. Which, Michelle thought, was something of an . . . understatement.

Six hundred of the Havenite MDMs had simply become lost and wandered away, demonstrating the validity of Manfredi's prediction about dropped control links. But that was less than six percent of the total . . . which demonstrated the accuracy of Michelle's counterpoint.

The task force's counter-missiles killed almost nine thousand of the missiles which didn't get lost, and the last-ditch fire of the task force's laser clusters and theKatana-class LACs killed nine hundred more.

Which left "only" three hundred and seventy-two.

Five of them attackedAjax.

Captain Diego Mikhailov rolled ship, twisting his command farther over onto her side relative to the incoming fire, fighting to interpose the defensive barrier of his wedge, and the sensor reach of his Keyhole platforms gave him a marked maneuver advantage, as well as improving his fire control. He could see threats more clearly and from a greater range, which gave him more time to react to them, and most of the incoming X-ray lasers wasted themselves against the floor of his wedge. One of the attacking missiles managed to avoid that fate, however. It swept pastAjax and detonated less than five thousand kilometers from her port sidewall.

The battlecruiser twitched as two of the missile's lasers blasted through that sidewall. By the nature of things, battlecruiser armor was far thinner than superdreadnoughts could carry, and Havenite laser heads were heavier than matching Manticoran weapons as a deliberate compensation for their lower base accuracy. Battle steel shattered and alarms howled. Patches of ominous crimson appeared on the damage control schematics, yet given the original size of that mighty salvo,Ajax's actual damage was remarkably light.

"Two hits, Ma'am," Stackpole announced. "We've lost Graser Five and a couple of point defense clusters, and Medical reports seven wounded."

Michelle nodded. She hoped none of those seven crewmen were badly wounded. No one ever liked to take casualties, but at the same time, only seven—none of them fatal, so far at least—was an almost incredibly light loss rate.

"The rest of the squadron?" she asked sharply.

"Not a scratch, Ma'am!" Manfredi replied jubilantly from his own command station, and Michelle felt herself beginning to smile. But then—

"Multiple hits on both SDs," Stackpole reported in a much grimmer voice, and Michelle's smile died stillborn. "Imperator's lost two or three grasers, but she's essentially intact."

"And Intolerant?" Michelle demanded harshly when the ops officer paused.

"Not good," Manfredi replied as the information scrolled across his display from the task force data net. "She must have taken two or three dozen hits . . . and at least one of them blew straight into the missile core. She's got heavy casualties, Ma'am, including Admiral Morowitz and most of his staff. And it looks like all of her pod rails are down."

"The Flag is terminating the missile engagement, Ma'am," Stackpole said quietly.

He looked up from his display to meet her eyes, and she nodded in bitter understanding. The task force's sustainable long-range firepower had just been cut in half. Not even Manticoran fire control was going to accomplish much at the next best thing to two light-minutes with salvoes the size a single SD(P) could throw, and Honor wasn't going to waste ammunition trying to do the impossible.

Which, unfortunately, leaves the question of just what we are going to do wide open, doesn't it? she thought.

Several minutes passed, and Michelle listened to the background flow of clipped, professional voices as her staff officers and their assistants continued refining their assessment of what had just happened. It wasn't getting much better, she reflected, watching the data bars shift as more detailed damage reports flowed in.

As Manfredi had already reported, her own squadron—aside from her flagship—had suffered no damage at all, but it was beginning to look as if Stackpole's initial assessment of HMSIntolerant's damages had actually been optimistic.

"Admiral," Lieutenant Kaminski said suddenly. Michelle turned towards her staff communications officer, one eyebrow raised. "Duchess Harrington wants to speak to you," he said.

"Put her through," Michelle said quickly, and turned back to her own small com screen. A familiar, almond-eyed face appeared upon it almost instantly.

"Mike," Honor Alexander-Harrington began without preamble, her crisp, Sphinxian accent only a shade more pronounced than usual, "Intolerant's in trouble. Her missile defenses are way below par, and we're headed into the planetary pods' envelope. I knowAjax's taken a few licks of her own, but I want your squadron moved out on our flank. I need to interpose your point defense between Intolerant and Arthur. Are you in shape for that?"

"Of course we are." Henke nodded vigorously. Putting something as fragile as a battlecruiser between a wounded superdreadnought and a planet surrounded by missile pods wasn't something to be approached lightly. On the other hand, screening ships of the wall was one of the functions battlecruisers had been designed to fulfill, and at least, given the relative dearth of missile pods their scouts had reported in Arthur orbit, they wouldn't be looking at another missile hurricane like the one which had just roared through the task force.

"Ajax's the only one who's been kissed," Michelle continued, "and our damage is all pretty much superficial. None of it'll have any effect on our missile defense."

"Good! Andrea and I will shift the LACs as well, but they've expended a lot of CMs." Honor shook her head. "I didn't think they could stack that many pods without completely saturating their own fire control. It looks like we're going to have to rethink a few things."

"That's the nature of the beast, isn't it?" Michelle responded with a shrug. "We live and learn."

"Those of us fortunate enough to survive," Honor agreed, a bit grimly. "All right, Mike. Get your people moving. Clear."

"Clear," Michelle acknowledged, then turned her chair to face Stackpole and Braga. "You heard the lady," she said. "Let's get them moving."

BCS 81 moved out on Task force Eighty-Two's flank as the Manticoran force continued accelerating steadily away from its pursuers. The final damage reports came in, and Michelle grimaced as she considered how the task force's commanding officer was undoubtedly feeling about those reports. She'd known Honor Harrington since Honor had been a tall, skinny first-form midshipwoman at Saganami Island. It wasn't Honor's fault the Havenites had managed to mousetrap her command, but that wasn't going to matter. Not to Honor Harrington. Those were her ships which had been damaged, her people who had been killed, and at this moment, Michelle Henke knew, she was feeling the hits her task force had taken as if every one of them had landed directly on her.

No, that isn't what she's feeling, Michelle told herself. What she's doing right now is wishing that every one of them had landed on her, and she's not going to forgive herself for walking into this. Not for a long time, if I know her. But she's not going to let it affect her decisions, either.

She shook her head. It was a pity Honor was so much better at forgiving her subordinates for disasters she knew perfectly well weren't their fault than she was at forgiving herself. Unfortunately, it was too late to change her now.

And, truth to tell, I don't think any of us would want to go screwing around trying to change her, Michelle thought wryly.

"We'll be entering the estimated range of Arthur's pods in another thirty seconds, Ma'am," Stackpole said quietly, breaking in on her thoughts.

"Thank you." Michelle shook herself, then settled herself more solidly into her command chair.

"Stand by missile defense," she said.

The seconds trickled by, and then—

"Missile launch!" Stackpole announced. "Multiple missile launches, multiple sources!"

His voice sharpened with the last two words, and Michelle's head snapped around.

"Estimate seventeen thousand, Ma'am!"

"Repeat that!" Michelle snapped, certain for an instant that she must have misunderstood him somehow.

"CIC says seventeen thousand, Ma'am," Stackpole told her harshly, turning to look at her. "Time to attack range, seven minutes."

Michelle stared at him while her mind tried to grapple with the impossible numbers. The remote arrays deployed by the task force's pre-attack scout ships had detected barely four hundred pods in orbit around Arthur. That should have meant a maximum of only four thousand missiles, so where the hell—?

"We've got at least thirteen thousand coming in from Bogey One," Stackpole said, as if he'd just read her mind. His tone was more than a little incredulous, and her own eyes widened in shock. That was even more preposterous. Two superdreadnoughts and seven battlecruisers couldn't possibly have the fire control for that many missiles, even if they'd all been pod designs!

"How could—?" someone began.

"Those aren't battlecruisers," Oliver Manfredi said suddenly. "They're frigging minelayers!"

Michelle understood him instantly, and her mouth tightened in agreement. Just like the Royal Manticoran Navy, the Republic of Haven built its fast minelayers on battlecruiser hulls. And Manfredi was undoubtedly correct. Instead of normal loads of mines, those ships had been stuffed to the deckhead with missile pods. The whole time they'd been sitting there, watching the task force flee away from Bogey Four and directly towards them, they'd been rolling those pods, stacking them into the horrendous salvo which had just come screaming straight at TF 82.

"Well," she said, hearing the harshness in her own voice, "now we understand how they did it. Which still leaves us with the little problem of what we do about it. Execute Hotel, John!"

"Defense Plan Hotel, aye, Ma'am," Stackpole acknowledged, and orders began to stream out from HMS Ajax to the rest of her squadron.

Michelle watched her plot. There wasn't time for her to adjust her formation significantly, but she'd already set up for Hotel, even though it had seemed unlikely the Havenites' fire could be heavy enough to require it. Her ships' primary responsibility was to protectIntolerant. Looking out for themselves came fairly high on their list of priorities as well, of course, but the superdreadnought represented more combat power—and almost as much total tonnage—as her entire squadron combined. That was why Missile Defense Plan Hotel had stacked her battlecruisers vertically in space, like a mobile wall between the planet Arthur and Intolerant. They were perfectly placed to intercept the incoming fire . . . which, unfortunately, meant that they were completely exposed to that fire, as well.

"Signal from the Flag, Ma'am," Stackpole said suddenly. "Fire Plan Gamma."

"Acknowledged. Execute Fire Plan Gamma," Michelle said tersely.

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Executing Fire Plan Gamma," Stackpole said, and Battlecruiser Squadron Eighty-One began to roll pods at last.

It wasn't going to be much of a response compared to the amount of fire coming at the task force, but Michelle felt her lips drawing back from her teeth in satisfaction anyway. The gamma sequence Honor and her tactical staff had worked out months ago was designed to coordinate the battlecruisers' shorter-legged Mark 16s with the superdreadnoughts' MDMs. It would take a Mark 16 over thirteen minutes to reach Bogey One, as compared to the seven minutes one of Imperator's Mark 23s would require. Both missiles used fusion-powered impeller drives, but there was no physical way to squeeze three complete drives into the smaller missile's tighter dimensions, which meant it simply could not accelerate as long as its bigger brother.

So, under Fire Plan Gamma Imperator's first half-dozen patterns of pod-launched Mark 23s' drive settings had been stepped down to match those of the Agamemnons' less capable missiles. It let the task force put six salvos of almost three hundred mixed Mark 16 and Mark 23 missiles each into space before the superdreadnought began firing hundred-and-twenty-bird salvos at the Mark 23's maximum power settings.

All of which is very fine, Michelle thought grimly, watching the icons of the attack missiles go streaking away from the task force. Unfortunately, it doesn't do much about the birds they've already launched.

As if to punctuate her thought, Ajax began to quiver with the sharp vibration of outgoing waves of counter-missiles as her launchers went to sustained rapid fire.

The Grayson-designedKatana-class LACs were firing, as well, sending their own counter-missiles screaming to meet the attack, but no one in her worst nightmare had ever envisioned facing a single salvo this massive.

"It's coming through, Ma'am," Manfredi said quietly.

She looked back up from her plot, and her lips tightened as she saw him standing beside her command chair once more. Given what was headed towards them at the moment, he really ought to have been back in the shock frame and protective armored shell of his own chair. And he damned well knowsit, too, she thought in familiar, sharp-edged irritation. But he'd always been a roamer, and she'd finally given up yelling at him for it. He was one of those people who needed to move around to keep their brains running at the maximum possible RPM. Now his voice was too low pitched for anyone else to have heard as he gazed down into her repeater plot with her, but his eyes were bleak.

"Of course it is," she replied, equally quietly. The task force simply didn't have the firepower to stop that many missiles in the time available to it.

"How the hell are they managing to control that many birds?" Manfredi continued, never looking away from the plot. "Look at that pattern. Those aren't blind-fired shots; they're under tight control, for now at least. So where in hell did they find that many control channels?"

"Don't have a clue," Michelle admitted, her tone almost absent as she watched the defenders' fire ripping huge holes in the cloud of incoming missiles. "I think we'd better figure it out, though. Don't you?"

"You've got that right, Ma'am," he agreed with a mirthless smile.

No one in Task force Eighty-Two—or anyone in the rest of the Royal Manticoran Navy, for that matter—had ever heard of the control system Shannon Foraker had dubbed "Moriarty" after a pre-space fictional character. If they had, and if they'd understood the reference, they probably would have agreed that it was appropriate, however.

One thing of which no one would ever be able to accuse Foraker was thinking small. Faced with the problem of controlling a big enough missile salvo to break through the steadily improving Manticoran missile defenses, she'd been forced to accept that Havenite ships of the wall, even the latest podnoughts, simply lacked the necessary fire control channels. So, she'd set out to solve the problem. Unable to match the technological capability to shoehorn the control systems she needed into something like Manticore's Keyhole, she'd simply accepted that she had to build something bigger. Much bigger. And while she'd been at it, she'd decided, she might as well figure out how to integrate that "something bigger" into an entire star system's defenses.

Moriarty was the answer she'd come up with. It consisted of remotely deployed platforms which existed for the sole purpose of providing telemetry relays and control channels. They were distributed throughout the entire volume of space inside Solon's hyper limit, and every one of them reported to a single control station which was about the size of a heavy cruiser . . . and contained nothing except the very best fire control computers and software the Republic of Haven could build.

She couldn't do anything about the light-speed limitations of the control channels themselves, but she'd finally found a way to provide enough of those channels to handle truly massive salvos. In fact, although TF 82 had no way of knowing it, the wave of missiles coming at it was less than half of Moriarty's maximum capacity.

Of course, even if the task force's tactical officers had known that, they might have felt less than completely grateful, given the weight of fire which was coming at them.

Michelle never knew how many of the incoming missiles were destroyed short of their targets, or how many simply got lost, despite all Moriarty could do, and wandered off or acquired targets other than the ones they'd originally been assigned. It was obvious that the task force's defenses managed to stop an enormous percentage of them. Unfortunately, it was even more obvious that they hadn't stopped enough of them.

Hundreds of them hurled themselves at the LACs—not because anyone had wanted to waste MDMs on something as small as a LAC, but because missiles which had lost their original targets as they spread beyond the reach of Moriarty's light-speed commands had acquired them, instead. LACs, and especially Manticoran and Grayson LACs, were very difficult for missiles to hit. Which was not to say that they were impossible to hit, however, and over two hundred of them were blown out of space as the tornado of missiles ripped into the task force.

Most of the rest of Moriarty's missiles had been targeted on the two superdreadnoughts, and they howled in on their targets like demons. Captain Rafe Cardones maneuvered Honor's flagship as if the stupendous superdreadnought were a heavy cruiser, twisting around to interpose his wedge while jammers and decoys joined with laser clusters in a last-ditch, point-blank defense.Imperator shuddered and bucked as laser heads blasted through her sidewalls, but despite grievous wounds, she actually got off lightly. Not even her massive armor was impervious to such a concentrated rain of destruction, but it did its job, preserving her core hull and essential systems intact, and her human casualties were minuscule in proportion to the amount of fire scorching in upon her.

Intolerant was less fortunate.

The earlier damage to Imperator's sister ship was simply too severe. She'd lost both of her Keyholes and all too many of her counter-missile launchers and laser clusters in the last attack. Her sensors had been battered, leaving holes in her own close-in coverage, and her electronic warfare systems were far below par. She was simply the biggest, most visible, most vulnerable target in the entire task force, and despite everything BCS 81 could do, droves of myopic end-of-run Havenite MDMs hurled themselves at the clearest target they could see.

The superdreadnought was trapped at the heart of a maelstrom of detonating laser heads, hurling X-ray lasers like vicious harpoons. They slammed into her again and again and again, ripping and maiming, tearing steadily deeper while the big ship shuddered and bucked in agony. And then, finally, one of those lasers found something fatal and HMS Intolerant and her entire company vanished into a glaring fireball.

Nor did she die alone.

* * *

HMSAjax heaved indescribably as the universe went mad.

Compared to the torrent of fire streaming in on the two superdreadnoughts, only a handful of missiles attacked the battlecruisers. But that "handful" was still numbered in the hundreds, and they were much more fragile targets. Alarms screamed as deadly lasers ripped deep into far more lightly armored hulls, and the Agamemnon-class were podlayers. They had the hollow cores of their type, and that made them even more fragile than other, older battlecruisers little more than half their size. Michelle had always wondered if that aspect of their design was as great a vulnerability as the BC(P)'s critics had always contended.

It looked like they—and she—were about to find out.

Oliver Manfredi was hurled from his feet as Ajax lurched, and Michelle felt her command chair's shock frame hammering viciously at her. Urgent voices, high-pitched and distorted despite the professionalism trained bone-deep into their owners, filled the com channels with messages of devastation—announcements of casualties, of destroyed systems, which ended all too often in mid-syllable as death came for the men and women making those reports.

Even through the pounding, Michelle saw the icons of both of her second division's ships—Priam and Patrocles—disappear abruptly from her plot, and other icons disappeared or flashed critical damage codes throughout the task force's formation. The light cruisers Fury, Buckler, and Atum vanished in glaring flashes of destruction, and the heavy cruisersStar Ranger andBlackstone were transformed into crippled hulks, coasting onward ballistically without power or impeller wedges. And then—

"Direct hit on the command deck!" one of Stackpole's ratings announced. "No survivors, Sir! Heavy damage to Boat Bay Two, and Boat Bay One's been completely destroyed! Engineering reports—"

Michelle felt it in her own flesh as HMS Ajax faltered suddenly.

"We've lost the after ring, Ma'am!" Stackpole said harshly. "All of it."

Michelle bit the inside of her lower lip so hard she tasted blood. Solon lay in the heart of a hyper-space gravity wave. No ship could enter, navigate, or long survive in a gravity wave without both Warshawski sails . . . and without the after impeller ring's alpha nodes, Ajax could no longer generate an after sail.

Chapter Two

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

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

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

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

"Can you restore it?" Honor asked urgently.

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

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

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

"What do you mean?" Honor demanded quickly.

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

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

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

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

"Mike, I—"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Good for Rafe," Michelle replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

"Do it yourself," Honor shot back.

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes, Alex?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"By all means, Captain. Clear."

"You know," Lieutenant Commander Stackpole said, "I know we're pretty much screwed, Ma'am, but I really would like to take some of them with us."

There was something remarkably like whimsy in his tone, and Michelle wondered if he was aware of that . . . or how ironic it was.

Ironic or not, a part of her agreed with him. Bogey Two had continued its pursuit of the rest of the task force only until it became obvious that it would be impossible to overtakeImperator and the other ships in company with her. At that point, Bogey Two—all of Bogey Two—had altered course to pursue Ajax, instead, with acceleration advantage of almost 2.5 KPS2. Thanks to her own damage, and the fact that Bogey Two had been able to begin cutting the chord of Ajax's course after abandoning the pursuit of the rest of the task force, the pursuing Havenites had already been able to build a velocity advantage of over two thousand KPS. With that sort of overtake velocity and such an acceleration advantage over a ship which couldn't escape into hyper even if she managed to get across the hyper limit before she was intercepted, this chase could have only one outcome.

Maximum range for Havenite MDMs was just under sixty-one million kilometers, and the range was already down to little more than sixty-three million. It wouldn't be long now, unless . . .

"You know," Michelle said, "I wonder just how close these people are willing to come before they pull the trigger?"

"Well, they must know we've loaded our battlecruiser pods with Mark 16s," Stackpole pointed out, turning to look over his shoulder at her. "I can't believe they'd be interested in coming into our range!"

"I certainly wouldn't be, in their place," Michelle agreed. "Still, their hard numbers on the Mark 16's performance have to be a little iffy. Oh," she waved one hand in the air before her, "I know we've used them before, but the only time they've ever seen them used at maximum powered range was right here, in Fire Plan Gamma, and that had that ballistic component right in the middle of it. It's remotely possible Bogey Two hasn't had the benefit of a full tactical analysis yet."

"You're suggesting they might just come into our range, after all, Ma'am?" Stackpole sounded like a junior officer doing his best not to sound overtly dubious.

"It's possible, I suppose," Michelle said. Then she snorted. "On the other hand, it's entirely possible I'm grasping at straws, too!"

"Well, Ma'am," Stackpole said, "I hate to rain on your parade, but I can think of at least one damned good reason for them to be doing what they're doing." She cocked an eyebrow at him, and he shrugged. "If I were them, and if I did have a pretty good idea what our maximum powered envelope was, I wouldn't be in any hurry. I'd want to get as close as I could and still stay outside our envelope before I fired. Of course, if we want to start engaging them at longer ranges, with a ballistic component in the flight, they'll probably shoot back pretty damned fast."

"I know," Michelle said.

She smiled thinly, then tipped back in her command chair. It was remarkable, actually, she mused. Whatever the Peeps were up to, she was going to die sometime in the next hour or so, and yet she felt oddly calm. She hadn't resigned herself to death, didn't want to die—perhaps, deep down inside, some survival center simply refuse to accept the possibility, even now—and yet her forebrain knew it was going to happen. And despite that, her mind was clear, with a sort of bittersweet serenity. There were a lot of things she'd meant to do that she'd never have the chance to get around to now, and she felt a deep surge of regret for that. And, for that matter, she felt an even deeper, darker regret for the other men and women trapped aboard Ajax with her. Yet this was a possible ending she'd accepted the day she entered the Academy, the day she swore her oath as an officer in the Royal Manticoran Navy. She couldn't pretend she hadn't known it might come, and if she had to die, she could not have done it in better company than with the crew of HMS Ajax.

She considered the men and women who'd escaped aboard the battlecruiser's remaining operational life pods, wondered what they were thinking as they awaited rescue by their enemies. There'd been a time when the Manticoran Navy had been none too sure Havenite ships would bother with search-and-rescue after a battle, yet despite the sneak attack with which the Republic had opened this war, no one on either side had ever doubted that the victor in any engagement would do her very best to rescue as many survivors from both sides as possible.

So we've made some progress, at least, she told herself sardonically. Then she gave herself a mental shake. The last thing she should be doing at a moment like this was feeling anything except gratitude that the people Commander Horn had gotten off Ajax were going to survive!

We really have come a long way since Basilisk Station and First Hancock, she told herself. In fact—

"John." She let her command chair snap back upright and turned it to face the tac officer.

"Yes, Ma'am?" Something about her tone brought his own chair around to face her squarely, and his eyes narrowed.

"These people just finished borrowing Her Grace's tactics from Sidemore, right?"

"That's one way to put it," Stackpole agreed, his eyes narrowing further.

"Well, in that case," Michelle said with a razor-like smile, "I think it just might be time for us to borrow her tactics from Hancock Station. Why don't you and I kick this idea around with Commander Horn for a couple of minutes? After all," her smile grew thinner yet, "it's not like any of us have anything better to do, is it?"

"I like it, Your Grace," Alexandra Horn said grimly from Michelle's com screen.

"According to our best figures from here," Michelle said, "we've got roughly three hundred pods still on the rails."

"Three hundred and six, Admiral," Commander Dwayne Harrison, who had become Ajax's tactical officer in the same instant Horn had become the battlecruiser's captain, said from behind Horn.

"Just over fifteen minutes to roll all of them, then."

"Yes, Ma'am," Horn agreed. "Use their tractors to limpet them to the hull until we're ready to drop all of them in a single clutch?"

"Exactly. And if we're going to do this, we'd better get started pretty quick," Michelle said.

"Agreed." Horn frowned for a moment, then grimaced. "I've got too much else on my plate right now, Admiral. I think this is something for you and Commander Stackpole to work out with Dwayne while I concentrate on pushing the repair parties."

"I agree, Alex." Michelle nodded firmly, even though she knew Horn was as well aware as she was that all the repairs in the world weren't going to make much difference. Master Chief MaGuire and her repair parties were still fighting to get at least one boat bay cleared, but the bosun's last estimate was that she'd need at least another hour, and probably at least a little longer. It was . . . unlikely, to say the least, that Ajax was going to have that hour.

"Very well, Ma'am." Horn nodded back. "Clear," she said, and Harrison's face replaced hers on both Michelle's and Stackpole's com screens.

The grim pursuit was coming to its inevitable conclusion, Michelle thought. Her belly was like a lump of congealed iron, and she felt almost lightheaded. Fear was a huge part of it, of course—she wasn't insane, after all. And yet excitement, anticipation, gripped her almost as tightly as the fear.

If it's the final shot I'm ever going to get, at least it's going to be a doozy, she told herself tautly. And it looks like I'm actually going to get to see it fired, after all. Hard to believe.

It had become only too evident over the last forty-seven minutes that Stackpole's assessment of the Peep commander's intentions had been accurate. That was how long it had been since Bogey Two had entered its own extreme missile range of Ajax, but the enemy was clearly in no hurry to pull the trigger.

And rightly so, Michelle thought. The Peeps had every advantage there was—numbers, acceleration rate, firepower, counter-missile launchers and laser clusters, and missile range—and they were using them ruthlessly. She was a bit surprised, to be honest, that the enemy had managed to resist the temptation to start firing sooner, but she understood the logic perfectly. As Stackpole had suggested, the Peeps would close to a range at which they remained just outside the powered envelope of Ajax's Mark 16s, then open fire. Or, perhaps, call upon Ajax to surrender, since the situation would have become hopeless. There would have been just about zero probability of even Manticoran missiles getting through Bogey Two's defenses in salvos the size a single Agamemnon could throw and control at any range, but with the need for them to incorporate at least a brief ballistic phase in their approach, the probability would shrink still further. And no matter how good Ajax's missile defenses might be, she was still only a single battlecruiser, and she would be thirty million kilometers inside Bogey Two's maximum range. Light-speed communication lags would be far lower, which would improve both the enemy's fire control and its ability to compensate for Manticore's superior EW.

Of course, there could be a few minor difficulties hidden in that tactical situation, couldn't there? Michelle thought.

She turned her command chair back towards Stackpole once again. Her tactical officer's shoulders were tight, his attention totally focused on his displays, and she smiled at him with a sort of bittersweet regret. He and Harrison had implemented Michelle's brainstorm quickly and efficiently. Now—

Michelle's com beeped softly at her. The sound startled her, and she twitched before she reached down and pressed the acceptance key. Alexandra Horn appeared on her display, and this time there was something very different about the commander's gray eyes. They literally glowed, and she smiled hugely at Michelle.

"Master Chief MaGuire's cleared the after bay, Ma'am!" she announced before her admiral could even speak, and Michelle jerked upright. The bosun and her work parties had continued laboring heroically, but after so long, Michelle—like everyone else aboard Ajax, she was certain—had come to the conclusion that there was simply no way MaGuire's people were going to succeed.

Michelle's eyes darted to the countdown clock blinking steadily towards zero in the corner of her tactical plot, then back to Horn.

"In that case, Alex," she said, "I suggest you start getting our people off right now. Somehow, I don't think the other side's going to be very happy with us in about seven minutes."

No one aboard Ajax had needed their admiral's observation.

The range between the battlecruiser and her overwhelming adversaries was down to little more than 48,600,000 kilometers, which put them far inside the Havenites' engagement envelope. No doubt those SD(P)s astern of them had already deployed multiple patterns of pods, tractored to their hulls inside their wedges, where they wouldn't degrade anyone's acceleration. The Peep commander was no doubt watching his own tactical displays intently, waiting for the first sign that Ajax might change her mind and attempt a long-range missile launch. If he saw one, he would undoubtedly roll his own pods, immediately. And if he didn't see one, he would probably roll them anyway within the next ten to twelve minutes.

Small craft began to launch from the boat bay Master Chief MaGuire and her people had managed—somehow—to get back into service. The bad news was that there weren't very many of those small craft available. The good news was that there were barely three hundred people still aboard the battlecruiser. Of course, for some of those people, getting to the boat bay was going to take a bit longer than for others.

"Admiral," a voice said from Michelle Henke's com. "It's time for you to go, Ma'am."

It was Commander Horn, and Michelle glanced at the display, then shook her head.

"I don't think so, Alex," she said. "I'm a little busy just now."

"Bullshit." The single, succinct word snapped her head back around, and Horn shook her own head, her expression stern. "You don't have a damned thing to do, Admiral. Not anymore. So get your ass off my ship—now!"

"I don't think—" Michelle began once more, but Horn cut her off abruptly.

"That's right, Ma'am. You aren't thinking. Sure, it was your idea, but you don't even have a tactical link to the pods from Flag Bridge. That means it up to me and Dwayne, and you know it. Staying behind at this point isn't your duty, Admiral. And it doesn't have anything to do with courage or cowardice."

Michelle stared at her, wanting to argue. But she couldn't—not logically. Not rationally. Yet her own need to stay with Ajax to the very end had very little to do with logic, or reason. Her eyes locked with those of the woman who was effectively ordering her to abandon her and her tactical officer to certain death, and the fact that no one had expected to have the opportunity to escape only made her own sense of guilt cut deeper and harder.

"I can't," she said softly.

"Don't be stupid, Ma'am!" Horn said sharply. Then her expression softened. "I know what you're feeling," she said, "but forget it. I doubt Dwayne or I could get to the boat bay in time, anyway. And whether we can or not, it doesn't change a thing I just said to you. Besides, it's your duty to get off if you can and look after my people for me."

Michelle had opened her mouth again, but Horn's last seven words shut it abruptly. She looked at the other woman, her eyes burning, then inhaled deeply.

"You're right," she said softly. "Wish you weren't, Alex."

"So do I." Horn managed a smile. "Unfortunately, I'm not. Now go. That's an order, Admiral."

"Aye, aye, Captain." Michelle's answering smile was crooked, and she knew it. "God bless, Vicky."

"And you, Ma'am."

The screen blanked, and Michelle looked at her staff officers and their assistants.

"You heard the Captain, people!" she said, her husky contralto harsh and rasping. "Let's go!"

Bogey Two kept charging after HMS Ajax. The Havenites' sensor resolution was problematical at best against something as small as a pinnace or a cutter at such an extended range, but the remote arrays they'd sent ahead of them were another matter. Less capable, and with much shorter endurance than their Manticoran counterparts, they'd still had Ajax under close observation for the last half-hour. They were close enough to recognize the impeller wedges of small craft, and to confirm that they were small craft, and not missile pods.

"They're abandoning, Sir."

Admiral Pierre Redmont turned to his tactical officer, one eyebrow quirked.

"It's confirmed, Sir," the tac officer said.

"Damn." The admiral's lips twisted as if he'd just tasted something sour, but he couldn't pretend it was a surprise. Under the circumstances the only thing that qualified as a surprise was that the Manties had waited so long. Obviously, they didn't intend to let him take that ship intact, after all. They were getting their people off before they scuttled.

"We could always order them not to abandon, Sir," the tac officer said quietly. Redmont shot him a sharp look, and the tac officer shrugged. "They're deep inside our range, Sir."

"Yes, they are, Commander," the admiral said just a bit testily. "And they also aren't shooting at us. In fact, they can't shoot at us from here—not effectively enough to make us break a sweat, anyway. And just how do you think Admiral Giscard—or, worse, Admiral Theisman—is going to react if I open fire on a ship that can't even return fire just to keep them from abandoning?"

"Not well, Sir," the commander said after a moment. Then he shook his head with a wry smile. "Not one of my better suggestions, Admiral."

"No, it wasn't," Redmont agreed, but a brief smile of his own took most of the sting from it, and he returned his own attention to his displays.

Michelle Henke and her staff made their way quickly down the passage towards the lift tubes. The passageway itself was already deserted, hatches standing open. The ship was running almost entirely on her remotes as her remaining personnel hurried towards the restored boat bay, and a spike of worry stabbed suddenly through her.

Oh, Jesus! What if the Peeps decide all of this was nothing but a trick?That we could have abandoned any time, but we didn't because

She started to turn around, reaching for her personal communicator, but it was too late.

* * *

An alarm shrilled suddenly.

The flagship's tactical officer's head jerked up in astonishment as he recognized the sound. It was the proximity alarm, and that was ridiculous! The thought flashed through his brain, but he was an experienced professional. His automatic incredulity didn't keep him from turning almost instantly towards his active sensor section.

"Radar contact!" one of his ratings snapped, but it was too late for the warning to make any difference at all.

Current-generation Manticoran missile pods were extraordinarily stealthy. Against a powered-down missile, active radar detection range was around a million kilometers, give or take. But then, missiles weren't designed to be as stealthy as the pods that carried them, because any attack missile was going to be picked up and tracked on passives with ludicrous ease thanks to the glaring signature of its impeller wedge. Which meant stealth wasn't going to help it very much.

But a missile pod was something else entirely. Especially a pod like the current-generation Manticoran "flatpack" pods with their on-board fusion plants. They'd been designed to be deployed in the system-defense role, as well as in ship-to-ship combat. After all, BuWeaps had decided, it made more sense to build a single pod with the features for both, as long as neither function was compromised. It hugely simplified production and reduced expense, which was a not insignificant consideration in an era of MDM combat.

All of which meant the Havenite radar crews had done extraordinarily well in the first place just to pick up the missile pods HMS Ajax had deployed in a single, massive salvo. The sheer size of the radar target helped, no doubt, despite the stealthiness of the individual pods of which the salvo consisted, and the range was just under nine hundred thousand kilometers when the alarms went off.

Unfortunately, Bogey Two's velocity was up to over twenty-seven thousand kilometers per second, and its starships had been charging directly up Ajax's wake for well over an hour now. The missile pods had been continuing onward at the speed Ajax's velocity had imparted to them at launch, which meant the steadily accelerating units of Bogey Two overflew them at a relative velocity of 19,838 KPS. At that closure rate, Bogey Two had exactly 1.2 minutes to detect and react to them before they found themselves half a million kilometers behind Bogey Two . . . and launched.

There were three hundred and six pods, each loaded with fourteen Mark 16 missiles. Of those forty-two-hundred-plus missiles, a quarter were EW platforms. The remaining thirty-two hundred laser heads were far lighter than the laser heads mounted by capital ship missiles. In fact, they were too light to pose any significant threat to something as heavily armored and protected as a ship of the wall. But Bogey Two's SD(P)s were screened by battlecruisers, and battlecruisers didn't carry that sort of armor.

The Havenite tactical officers had eighty-four seconds to recognize what had happened. Eighty-four seconds to see their displays come alive with thousands of attacking missiles. Despite the stunning surprise, they actually managed to implement their defensive doctrine, but there simply wasn't enough time for that doctrine to be effective.

The hurricane of missiles tore into the Havenite formation. Michelle Henke had indeed taken a page from Honor Harrington's and Mark Sarnow's tactics at the Battle of Hancock Station, and her weapons were far more capable than the ones Manticore had possessed then. Although the Mark 16 hadn't really been designed for use in any area-defense mine role, its sensors were actually superior to those carried by most mines. And Henke had taken advantage of the improvements in reconnaissance platforms and communications links, as well. Along with the missile pods,Ajax had deployed half a dozen Hermes buoys—communications platforms equipped with FTL grav-pulse receivers and light-speed communications lasers. Ghost Rider recon platforms had kept the Havenites under close observation, reporting in near real-time to Ajax, and Ajax had used her own FTL com and the Hermes buoys to feed continuous updates to her waiting missile pods.

Any sort of precise fire control over such a jury rigged control link, with its limited bandwidth and cobbled-up target selection, was impossible, of course. But it was good enough to ensure that each of those missiles had been fed the emissions signatures of the battlecruisers it was supposed to attack. Accuracy might be poor, compared to a standard missile engagement, and the EW platforms and penetration aids were far less effective without proper shipboard updates, but the range was also incredibly short, which gave the defense no time to react. Despite any shortcomings, that huge salvo's accuracy was far greater than anything Haven could possibly have anticipated . . . and not one of its missiles wasted itself against a ship of the wall.

Admiral Redmont swore savagely as the missile storm rampaged through his screen. The missile defense computers did the best they could, and considering how completely surprised their human masters had been and the attack's deadly geometry, that best was actually amazingly good. Which, unfortunately, didn't mean it was even remotely good enough.

There was no time for a counter-missile launch, and the attack from almost directly astern minimized the number of laser clusters which could defend any of the Manticorans' targets. Hundreds of incoming missiles were destroyed, but there were thousands of them, and their targets heaved in agony as lasers stabbed through their sidewalls or blasted directly up the kilts of their wedges. Hulls shattered, belching atmosphere and debris, and the fragile humans crewing those ships burned like straw in a furnace.

Two of Bogey Two's eight battlecruisers died spectacularly, vanishing into blinding fireballs with every single man and woman of their crews as the demonic bomb-pumped lasers stabbed through them again and again and again. The other six survived, but four of them were little more than broken and battered wrecks, wedges down, coasting onward while shocked and stunned survivors fought their way through the wreckage, searching frantically for other survivors in the ruin.

The admiral's jaw muscles ridged as his battlecruisers died. Then he twisted around to glare at his tac officer.

"Open fire!" he snapped.

Chapter Three

"Admiral Henke."

Michelle Henke opened her eyes, then struggled hastily upright in the hospital bed as she saw the person who'd spoken her name. It wasn't easy, with her left leg still in traction while the quick heal rebuilt the shattered bone. But although they'd never met, she'd seen more than enough publicity imagery to recognize the platinum-haired, topaz-eyed woman standing at the foot of her bed.

"Don't bother, Admiral," Eloise Pritchart said. "You've been hurt, and this isn't really an official visit."

"You're a head of state, Madam President," Michelle said dryly, getting herself upright and then settling back in relief as the elevating upper end of the bed caught up with her shoulders. "That means it is an official visit."

"Well, perhaps you're right," Pritchart acknowledged with a charming smile. Then she gestured at the chair beside the bed. "May I?"

"Of course. After all, it's your chair. In fact," Michelle waved at the pleasant, if not precisely luxurious, room, "this is your entire hospital."

"In a manner of speaking, I suppose."

Pritchart seated herself gracefully, then sat for several seconds, her head cocked slightly to the side, her expression thoughtful. Michelle looked back at her, wondering what had brought her to a prisoner-of-war's bedside. As Michelle had just pointed out, this hospital—which, she'd been forced to admit, had been a much less unpleasant experience than she'd anticipated—belonged to the Republic of Haven. In point of fact, it belonged to the Republican Navy, and for all of its airiness and pastel color scheme, it was as much a prisoner-of-war camp as the more outwardly guarded facilities in which the rest of her personnel were confined.

She felt her facial muscles tightening ever so slightly as she remembered her flagship's final moments. The fact thatAjax hadn't gone alone was cold comfort beside the loss of two thirds of the ship's remaining company.

Me and my goddamned brilliant idea, she thought harshly. Sure, we ripped them a new one, but my God! No wonder they thought we'd deliberately sucked them in, then timed our evacuation of the ship perfectly to put them off guard! God knows Iwould've thought exactly the same thing in their place.

It wasn't the first time she'd battered herself with those thoughts. Nor, she knew, would it be the last. When her conscience wasn't prepared to savage her, the coldly logical strategist and tactician within her knew that in the merciless calculation of war, the complete destruction of two enemy battlecruisers and the reduction of at least three more into wrecks fit only for the breakers, was well worth the loss of so many men and women.

And, she thought harshly, at least these people believed me in the end. I think they did, anyway. I may have gotten Alex and way too many of her people killed, but at least no one even suggested the possibility of some sort of "reprisal." Which probably wouldn't have come as such a surprise to me if I'd paid more attention to what Honor had to say about Theisman and Tourville.

She still didn't remember exactly how Stackpole and Braga had gotten her into the boat bay and away from Ajax before the tornado of vengeful Havenite MDMs tore the battlecruiser the pieces. The first wave of lasers had slammed into the ship like sledgehammers before they ever reached the bay, and one of those hits had picked Michelle up and tossed her into a bulkhead like a toy. Somehow Stackpole and Braga had dragged her the rest of the way into the boat bay and gotten her aboard the last pinnace to clear the ship, and they were the only two members of her staff to survive Ajax's destruction.

I sure as hell hope keeping her systems out of Peep hands was worth it, she thought bitterly. But then she reminded herself that she had other things to worry about at this particular moment.

"To what do I owe the honor, Madam President?" she asked, shoving the useless "what ifs" and self-blame ruthlessly aside once more.

"Several things. First, you're our senior POW, in several senses. You're the highest ranking, militarily speaking, and you're also—what? Fifth in the line of succession?"

"Since my older brother was murdered, yes," Michelle said levelly, and had the satisfaction of seeing Pritchart flinch ever so slightly.

"I'm most sincerely sorry about the death of your father and your brother, Admiral Henke," she said, her voice equally level, meeting Michelle's eyes squarely as she spoke. "We've determined from our own records that StateSec was, in fact, directly responsible for that assassination. The fanatics who actually carried it out may have been Masadans, but StateSec effectively recruited them and provided the weapons. As far as we're able to determine, all the individuals directly involved in the decision to carry out that operation are either dead or in prison. Not," she continued as Michelle's eyebrows began to arch in disbelief, "because of that particular operation, but because of an entire catalog of crimes they'd committed against the people of their own star nation. In fact, while I'm sure it won't do anything to alleviate your own grief and anger, I'd simply point out that the same people were responsible for the deaths of untold thousands—no, millions—of their own citizens. The Republic of Haven has had more than enough of men and women like that."

"I'm sure you have," Michelle said, watching the other woman carefully. "But you don't seem to have completely renounced their methods."

"In what way?" Pritchart asked a bit sharply, her eyes narrowing.

"I could bring up the little matter of your immediately prewar diplomacy, except that I'm reasonably certain we wouldn't agree on that point," Michelle said. "So instead, I'll restrict myself to pointing out your attempt to assassinate Duchess Harrington. Who, I might remind you, happens to be a personal friend of mine."

Michelle's brown eyes bored into Pritchart's topaz gaze. Somewhat to her surprise, the Havenite President didn't even attempt to look away.

"I'm aware of your close relationship with the Duchess," Pritchart said. "In fact, that's one of the several reasons I mentioned for this conversation. Some of my senior officers, including Secretary of War Theisman and Admiral Tourville and Admiral Foraker have met your 'Salamander.' They think very highly of her. And if they believed for a moment that my administration had ordered her assassination, they'd be very, very displeased with me."

"Forgive me, Madam President, but that's not exactly the same thing as saying you didn't authorize it."

"No, it isn't, is it?" Pritchart smiled with what certainly appeared to be genuine amusement. "I'd forgotten for a moment that you're used to moving at the highest levels of politics in the Star Kingdom. You have a politician's ear, even if you are 'only a naval officer.' However, I'll be clearer. Neither I, nor anyone else in my administration, ordered or authorized an attempt to assassinate Duchess Harrington."

It was Michelle's eyes' turn to narrow. As Pritchart said, she was accustomed to dealing with Manticoran politicians, if not politics per se. In point of fact, she didn't like politics, which was why she was content to leave her mother, the Dowager Countess of Gold Peak, to act as her proxy in the House of Lords. Still, no one could stand as close to the crown as Michelle did without being forced to let politicians into hand-shaking range at least occasionally, and in her time, she'd met some extraordinarily adroit and polished liars. But if Eloise Pritchart was another of them, it didn't show.

"That's an interesting statement, Madam President," she said after a moment. "Unfortunately, with all due respect, I have no way to know it's accurate. And even if you think it is, that doesn't necessarily mean some rogue element in your administration didn't order it."

"I'm not surprised you feel that way, and we here in the Republic have certainly had more than enough experience with operations mounted by 'rogue elements.' I can only say I believe very strongly that the statement I just made is accurate. And I'll also say I've replaced both my external and internal security chiefs with men I've known for years, and in whom I have the greatest personal confidence. If any rogue operation was mounted against Duchess Harrington, it was mounted without their knowledge or approval. Of that much, I'm absolutely positive."

Oh, of course you are, Michelle thought sardonically. No Peep would ever dream of assassinating an opposing fleet commander! And, I'm sure, none of them would ever decide it might be easier to get forgiveness afterward than permission ahead of time and fire away at Honor on her own hook. What was that line Honor quoted to me . . . ? Something about 'Will no one rid me of this pestilential priest?' or something like that, I think.

"And who else would you suggest might have a motive for wanting her dead?" Michelle asked aloud. "Or the resources to try to kill her in that particular fashion?"

"We don't have many specific details about how the attempt was made," Pritchart countered. "From what we have seen, however, speculation seems to be centering on the possibility that her young officer—a Lieutenant Meares, I believe—was somehow adjusted to make the attempt on her life. If that's the case, we don't have the resources to have done it. Certainly not in the time window which appears to have been available to whoever carried out the adjustment. Assuming that's what it was, of course."

"I hope you'll forgive me, Madam President, if I reserve judgment in this case," Michelle said after a moment. "You're very convincing. On the other hand, like me, you operate at the highest level of politics, and politicians at that level have to be convincing. I will, however, take what you've said under advisement. Should I assume you're telling me this in hopes I'll pass your message along to Queen Elizabeth?"

"From what I've heard of your cousin, Admiral Henke," Pritchart said wryly, "I doubt very much that she'd believe any statement of mine, including a declaration that water is wet."

"I see you've got a fairly accurate profile of Her Majesty," Michelle observed. "Although that's probably actually something of an understatement," she added.

"I know. Nonetheless, if you get the opportunity, I wish you'd tell her that for me. You may not believe this, Admiral, but I didn't really want this war, either. Oh," Pritchart went on quickly as Michelle began to open her mouth, "I'll freely admit I fired the first shot. And I'll also admit that, given what I knew then, I'd do the same thing again. That's not the same thing as wanting to do it, and I deeply regret all the men and women who have been killed or, like yourself, wounded. I can't undo that. But I would like to think it's possible for us to find an end to the fighting short of one of us killing everyone on the other side."

"So would I," Michelle said levelly. "Unfortunately, whatever happened to our diplomatic correspondence, you did fire the first shot. Elizabeth isn't the only Manticoran or Grayson—or Andermani—who's going to find that difficult to forget or overlook."

"And are you one of them, Admiral?"

"Yes, Madam President, I am," Michelle said quietly.

"I see. And I appreciate your honesty. Still, it does rather underscore the nature of our quandary, doesn't it?"

"I suppose it does."

Silence fell in the sunlit hospital room. Oddly enough, it was an almost companionable silence, Michelle discovered. She remembered again what Honor had told her about Thomas Theisman and about Lester Tourville, and she reminded herself that whatever else Eloise Pritchart might be, she was the duly elected president both of those men had chosen to serve. Maybe she was actually telling the truth about not having authorized the assassination attempt against Honor.

And maybe she isn't, too. Not every evil, conniving politico in the universe goes around with a holo sign that says "I'm the Bad Guy!" For that matter, there's no rule that requires them all to look like that son-of-a-bitch High Ridge, either. It'd be nice if all the bad guys did look like bad guys, or acted like bad guys, but that's not the way things work outside really bad holo drama. I'm sure Adolf Hitler's and Rob Pierre's inner circles all thought they were just real sweethearts.

After perhaps three minutes, Pritchart straightened, inhaled crisply, and stood.

"I'll let you get back to the business of healing, Admiral. The doctors assure me you're doing well. They anticipate a full recovery, and they tell me you can be discharged from the hospital in another week or so."

"At which point it's off to the stalag?" Michelle said with a smile. She waved one hand at the unbarred windows of the hospital room. "I can't say I'm looking forward to the change of view."

"I think we can probably do better than a miserable hut behind a tangle of razor wire, Admiral." There was actually a twinkle in Pritchart's topaz eyes. "Tom Theisman has strong views on the proper treatment of prisoners of war—as Duchess Harrington may remember from the day they met in Yeltsin. I assure you that all our POWs are being properly provided for. Not only that, I'm hoping it may be possible to set up regular prisoner of war exchanges, perhaps on some sort of parole basis."

"Really?" Michelle was surprised, and she knew it showed in her voice.

"Really." Pritchart smiled again, this time a bit sadly. "Whatever else, Admiral, and however hardly your Queen may be thinking about us just now, we really aren't Rob Pierre or Oscar Saint-Just. We have our faults, don't get me wrong. But I'd like to think one of them isn't an ability to forget that even enemies are human beings. Good day, Admiral Henke."

Michelle put down her book viewer as the admittance chime on her hospital door sounded quietly.

"Yes?" she said, depressing the key on her bedside com.

"Secretary of War Theisman is here, Admiral," the voice of Lieutenant Jasmine Coatsworth, the senior floor nurse said, just a little bit nervously. "He'd like a few minutes of your time, if that would be convenient."

Both of Michelle's eyebrows rose. Just over a week had passed since her unexpected encounter with Eloise Pritchart. She'd had a handful of other visitors during that time, but most of them had been relatively junior officers, there to report to her in her role as the senior Manticoran POW about the status of her people and the other prisoners in Havenite hands. All of them had been professional and courteous, although she'd sensed a certain inevitable restraint which went beyond the normal restraint of a junior officer in the presence of a flag officer. No one had mentioned the possibility of a visit from Thomas Theisman himself, however.

"Well, Jasmine," she replied after a moment, with a smile she couldn't quite suppress (not that she tried all that hard, to be fair), "let me check my calendar." She paused for a single breath, eyes dancing with amusement, then cleared her throat. "By the strangest coincidence, I happen to be free this afternoon," she said. "Please, ask the Secretary to come in."

There was a moment of intense silence. Then the door slid open, and Lieutenant Coatsworth looked in. The expression on her face almost broke Michelle's self-control and sent her off in peals of laughter, but she managed to restrain herself. Then her eyes went past the nurse to the stocky, brown-haired man in civilian dress, accompanied by a dark-haired Navy captain with the shoulder rope which denoted her status as a senior officer's personal aide.

"I'm glad you were able to find time in your schedule for me, Admiral," the brown-haired man said dryly. His own lips appeared to hover on the edge of smiling, and Michelle shook her head.

"Forgive me, Mr. Secretary," she said. "I've been told I have a peculiar sense of humor. I couldn't quite resist the temptation, under the circumstances."

"Which is probably a sign that I'm not going to have to discipline anyone for mistreating or browbeating our POW patients."

"On the contrary, Mr. Secretary," Michelle said in a rather more serious tone, "everyone here in the hospital—especially Lieutenant Coatsworth—has treated our wounded people exactly the same way, I'm sure, that they would have treated any of your people. I've been very impressed with their professionalism and their courtesy."

"Good."

Theisman stepped into the room, looked around once as if personally assuring himself of its adequacy, then gestured at the bedside chair.

"May I?"

"Of course. As I pointed out to President Pritchart when she asked the same question, it's your hospital, Mr. Secretary."

"She didn't tell me you'd said that," he said as he seated himself in the chair, leaned back, and crossed his legs comfortably. "Still, you do have a point, I suppose."

He smiled, and, almost despite herself, Michelle smiled back.

Thomas Theisman reminded her a lot of Alastair McKeon, she thought as she studied the man leaning back in the chair while his aide tried not to hover too obviously over a boss of whom she was clearly more than just fond. Neither Theisman nor McKeon was exactly a towering giant of a man . . . physically, at least. But both of them had steady eyes: Thesiman's brown and McKeon's gray. Both of them radiated that sense of tough competence, and both of them—little as she'd wanted to admit it—projected that same aura of quiet, unflinching integrity.

It was a lot easier when all the Peeps I knew anything about were slime, she reflected. And it makes bearing in mind that they're the ones who lied about all our prewar diplomacy harder.

"I suppose the real reason I came by, Admiral Henke—" the Secretary of War began, then paused. "I'm sorry, Admiral, but it just occurred to me. Are you still properly addressed as 'Admiral Henke,' or should I be calling you 'Admiral Gold Peak'?"

"Technically, I've been 'Admiral Gold Peak' ever since my father and my brother were murdered," Michelle told him levelly. The look in his eyes acknowledged her unstated point, but he gazed back at her without flinching, and she continued in that same, level tone. "I'm still much more comfortable with 'Henke,' however. That's who I've been ever since the Academy."

She started to add something more, then stopped herself with a tiny headshake. There was no need to tell him a tiny part of her still insisted that as long as she could put off formally claiming the title in all aspects of her life, her father and her brother wouldn't truly be gone.

"I understand," Theisman told her, and cleared his throat. "As I was saying, then, Admiral Henke, the real reason I came by was to add my own reassurances to President Pritchart's. I know she's already told you your people are being well taken care of. On the other hand, I also know you and I are both fully aware of how seldom that was the case during the last war. So I decided I should probably come by and put in my own two-credits worth. After all," even his smile reminded her of McKeon, "in this instance, at least, we're the leopard who has to prove he's changed his spots."

"I appreciate that, Mr. Secretary," Michelle replied after a moment. "And I also appreciate the fact that I've already been allowed to communicate with the senior POWs. Who, I hasten to add, have confirmed everything you and President Pritchart have told me. Duchess Harrington's been assuring everyone that your attitude towards captured personnel isn't exactly the same as Cordelia Ransom's or Oscar Saint-Just's. While I won't pretend I wouldn't rather be sitting down to dinner at Cosmo's in Landing just now instead of enjoying your hospitality, I'm glad to see just how right she was."

"Thank you." Theisman looked away for a moment and cleared his throat again, harder this time, before he looked back at her. "Thank you," he repeated. "That means a lot to me—knowing Lady Harrington's said that, I mean. Especially given the circumstances the only two times we've actually met."

"No one in the Star Kingdom blames you for what those Masadan lunatics did on Blackbird, Mr. Secretary. And we remember who told Honor—Duchess Harrington, I mean—about what was happening. And who testified for the prosecution at the trials." She shook her head. "That took more than just integrity, Sir."

"Not as much more as I'd like to take credit for." Theisman's smile was off-center but genuine.

"No?" Michelle cocked her head. "Let's just say thatI wouldn't have wanted to be the officer who stood up and painted a great big bull's-eye on her own chest when I knew a senior officer corps full of Legislaturalists was going to be looking for a scapegoat for a busted operation."

"That thought did cross my mind," Theisman admitted. "Then again, the fact that the Masadans really are the lunatics you just called them didn't hurt. In a way, my testimony only underscored the fact that it was their idiocy in seizing 'Thunder of God' that really blew the operation wide open. Well, that and Lady Harrington. Besides," he smiled again, "Alfredo Yu made a much better—and more senior—scapegoat than I could have."

"I suppose. Oh, and while I'm at it, I should probably say that Admiral Yu's also been one of the senior officers on our side who's spoken well of you."

"I'm glad." Theisman's face softened at the mention of his old mentor. Then it tightened again. "I'm glad," he repeated, "but I wouldn't have blamed Lady Harrington for changing any positive impression she might have had of me when I just stood there and watched Ransom drag her off to Cerberus."

"And just what were you supposed to do to keep that from happening, Sir?" Michelle asked. He looked at her, as if surprised to hear her say that, and she snorted. "Don't forget that Warner Caslet came home from Cerberus with her, Mr. Secretary. From everything he's said, it's pretty evident Ransom was only looking for an excuse to 'make an example' out of you, as well as Admiral Tourville. And Nimitz—" she'd caught herself just in time to substitute the treecat's name for Honor's "—could 'taste' enough of your emotions to know how you felt about what was happening."

His eyes narrowed, and she watched him digesting her confirmation of the ability of the telempathic 'cats to reliably detect the emotions of those in their vicinity. She had no doubt Havenite intelligence had been passing on the revelations from the Star Kingdom's newscasts about treecat intelligence since Nimitz and his mate Samantha had learned to communicate using sign language, but that wasn't quite the same thing as firsthand, independent confirmation.

Of course, I don't imagine any of those reports have mentioned the minor fact that Honor's become an empath herself, she reflected. And I don't have any intention of telling them about that, either.

"I'm glad," he said, after a moment. "Not that knowing she understands and sympathizes makes me feel any better about the entire Navy's failure to meet its obligations under interstellar law under the old régime."

"Maybe not," Michelle replied, "but, then, you had a little bit to do with the reason that it is the 'old régime,' too. And with Chairman Saint-Just's rather abrupt . . . retirement. Or so I've heard, at any rate."

The captain standing at Theisman's shoulder stiffened, her expression more than a little outraged at the obvious reference to the reports (unconfirmed, of course) that then-Citizen Admiral Theisman had shot Saint-Just out of hand during his successful coup, but the Secretary of War only chuckled.

"I suppose you could put it that way," he acknowledged, then sobered just a bit. "On the other hand, I didn't help overthrow Saint-Just just so we could go back to shooting at one another again."

"Sir, with all due respect, I don't think that's going to be a particularly profitable topic," Michelle said, meeting his eye steadily. "I can't begin to tell you how glad I am to learn how humanely your POWs are being treated, but the accusations and actions which led to the resumption of hostilities aren't something I'm really prepared to discuss. Nor," she ended unflinchingly, "is that topic one upon which I believe you and I are likely to find ourselves in agreement."

"No?" Theisman gazed at her calmly, almost speculatively, while his aide bridled behind him. Then the Secretary of War shook his head. "Very well, Admiral Henke. If it's a topic you'd prefer not to discuss at this time, I'm entirely prepared to defer to your wishes. Perhaps another time. And," there was something odd about the look in his eyes, Michelle thought, "you might be surprised at just how close to agreement we might be able to come."

He paused, as if waiting to see if she would rise to the bait of his final sentence. And, truth to tell, she was tempted—very tempted. But one thing of which she was painfully aware was just how totally unsuited she was to the role of diplomat.

Honor might be the right woman for that, these days, at least, she thought. But the best I can say about me is that I'm smart enough to know that I'm most definitely not the right woman for it.

"Well, at any rate," Theisman resumed a bit more briskly, "I understand from the doctors that they're going to be moving you out of the hospital the day after tomorrow. I trust you'll find your new accommodations as comfortable as could be expected, under the circumstances, and I'd also like to extend a formal invitation to join me for supper before we send you off to durance vile. I promise there won't be any truth drugs in the wine, and there are a few other officers I'd like you to meet. Admiral Giscard, Admiral Tourville, and Admiral Redmont, among others."

"Admiral Redmont and I have already met, Mr. Secretary," Michelle told him.

"So I understand." Theisman smiled thinly. "On the other hand, a little more time has passed since then, and Admiral Redmont and I have had the opportunity to . . . discuss his actions at Solon."

"Sir, Admiral Redmont didn't—"

"I didn't say I didn't understand what happened, Admiral," Theisman told her. "And, if we're going to be honest, I might very well have reacted the same way if I'd thought you'd deliberately waited to abandon ship until you knew I'd sailed into your ambush. But if we're going to keep a handle on atrocities and counter-atrocities, then anytime something like this comes along, it needs to be addressed squarely. I don't doubt that Admiral Redmont acted correctly after he'd picked up your surviving people. And I don't doubt that the two of you handled yourselves with proper professional courtesy. I hope, however, that you'll accept my invitation and give all of us an opportunity to discuss the incident and our reactions to it in a less . . . charged atmosphere, shall we say?"

"Very well, Mr. Secretary," Michelle said. "Of course I'll accept your invitation."

"Excellent." Theisman rose and extended his hand to her. They shook, and he maintained his grip for a heartbeat or two afterward. Then he released her hand and nodded to his aide.

"We'd better be going, Alenka," he said.

"Yes, Sir." The captain opened the hospital room door, then stood waiting at a position of semi-attention for her superior to proceed her through it.

"Until tomorrow night, then, Admiral," Theisman said to Michelle, and he was gone.

Chapter Four

"—this morning, so I think that situation's under control, Milady."

"I see." Michelle tipped back in the chair behind the desk and contemplated Commodore Arlo Turner with a hidden smile of mingled satisfaction and exasperation.

Turner, a heavyset, fair-haired man in his mid-fifties, was, like Michelle, from the planet of Manticore itself. More than that, he was from the City of Landing, the Star Kingdom's capital, and she suspected that he'd always been one of those people who followed the daily newsfaxes expressly so he could keep up with the doings of what was still called "the rich and famous." When she first realized that, she'd been tempted to write him off as an inept, would-be social climber, but she'd quickly realized that would have been doing him a disservice he didn't deserve. He might be fascinated by the social gossip columns, and she didn't doubt he cherished a slightly wistful hope of someday attaining at least a knighthood of his very own, yet he was anything but inept. In fact, he was one of the more efficient administrators she'd ever worked with, and she had no doubt he was a competent tactician, too, despite his present residence in one of the Republic of Haven's prisoner-of-war camps. After all, she considered herself a reasonably competent tactician, and look where she'd ended up.

Her lips twitched, the hidden smile almost breaking free, as that thought flickered through her mind, but it wasn't what had awakened her exasperation. Despite his efficiency, and despite her rather pointed hints to the contrary, he simply could not forget that she was Queen Elizabeth's first cousin and the Countess of Gold Peak in her own right. It would be grossly unfair to accuse him of anything remotely like fawning, yet he insisted upon addressing her as "Admiral Gold Peak," and instead of the sturdy, serviceable naval "Ma'am" she would really have preferred, he insisted upon the technically correct "Milady" whenever he addressed her.

I suppose if that's the only thing I can find to worry about where he's concerned, I don't have any real room for complaint, she reflected, and glanced sideways for a moment at Lieutenant Colonel Ivan McGregor.

McGregor, who had been born and raised on the planet of Gryphon, less than five hundred kilometers from what had since become the Duchy of Harrington, was Turner's antithesis in almost every way. Where Turner was fair-haired and blue-eyed, McGregor had black hair, dark brown eyes, and a swarthy complexion. Where Turner was heavyset—chunky, not overweight—and stood only a little more than a hundred and sixty-two centimeters in height, McGregor had a runner's build and topped a hundred and ninety-three centimeters. And if Turner was a gossip junkie, McGregor had every bit of the native Gryphon's distrust for the majority of the Star Kingdom's aristocracy, and his eyes reflected an echo of Michelle's own exasperation with Turner's choice of address at the moment.

Despite which, the two men were fast friends and worked smoothly together.

Until her own unanticipated arrival, Turner had been the senior officer of Camp Charlie-Seven, and McGregor, as the senior Marine officer in the camp, had been his adjutant and the commander of Camp Charlie's internal police service. He continued to hold both of those posts, and Turner had become Michelle's executive officer.

If she were going to be completely honest, she had to admit her own duties consisted primarily of standing back and letting the two of them get on with the smoothly oiled partnership they'd built up during their thirteen months in captivity. Both of them had been captured in the opening stages of Operation Thunderbolt, and she was impressed by their joint refusal to allow the fact that they had been captured so early in the war, through no fault of their own, to embitter them.

There's a lesson there I'd probably better learn for myself, the way this war seems to be going. Her temptation to smile disappeared with the thought.

"So you're satisfied, then, Arlo?"

"Yes, Milady." The commodore nodded. "It was only a misunderstanding. The kitchens screwed up their records—it looks like a simple data-entry error. According to them, we still had plenty of fresh vegetables. I think Captain Bouvier's a little ticked that he didn't realize the reports had to be in error, given the delivery schedule, and he assures me we can expect delivery within the next few hours."

"Good." Michelle nodded.

Captain Adelbert Bouvier was the Republican Navy's designated "liaison officer" to its prisoner-of-war camps here on the Republic's capital world. Frankly, she found the Havenites' arrangements a bit . . . peculiar. Technically, Bouvier should probably have been considered Camp Charlie-Seven's commanding officer, although he wasn't called that. He was the Havenite officer with command authority over the camp and its inhabitants, at any rate, but he and his superiors seemed prepared to allow Camp Charlie to function with a sort of semi-autonomy which had astounded Michelle when she first encountered it.

Right off the top of her head, she couldn't think of another example of a star nation which didn't bother to post its own personnel on the ground, as it were, to at least keep an eye on a camp full of prisoners of war, all of whom could be presumed to be trained military personnel with a distinct interest in being elsewhere. On the other hand, it wasn't exactly as if they needed to put a lot of boots on the ground here at Charlie-Seven.

Reminds me a little of what Honor had to say about Cerberus, she reflected, glancing out the window of her office in the camp's main administration building. Not that it has anything in common with the way those motherless StateSec bastards treated their prisoners, thank God! But the Peeps—no, Honor was right about that, too; the Havenites—do seem to have a thing about islands.

Camp Charlie-Seven occupied the entirety of a relatively small, somewhat chilly island in the planet of Haven's Vaillancourt Sea. It was almost eight hundred kilometers to the nearest body of land in any direction, which provided what Michelle had to concede was a reasonably effective moat. And if there were no guards actually on the ground, everyone in the camp knew their island was under permanent, round-the-clock surveillance by dedicated satellites and ground-based remote sensors. Even assuming that anyone on the island had been able to cobble up some sort of boat that actually stood a chance of crossing to the mainland across all that water, the sensor nets and satellites would have detected the attempt to launch said boat quickly, and Republican Marines could be on the ground on the island within fifteen minutes, if they really needed to.

With that sort of security available, Secretary of War Theisman had opted to allow his prisoners to manage their own affairs, subject to a sort of distant oversight by officers like Captain Bouvier, as long as they kept things running relatively smoothly. It might be an unheard-of technique, but it appeared to be an effective one, and it was about as far as it was possible to get from the horror stories Michelle Henke heard from Manticorans unfortunate enough to fall into Havenite custody in the previous war.

Which is undoubtedly the reason he did it. She shook her head mentally. There's a man who still thinks he has a lot to make up for. And not for anything he did, either. Honor was right—he is a decent man.

In fact, she'd come to the conclusion that most of the Havenites she'd met were decent people. In a way, she wished that weren't the case. It was always simpler when one could think of the enemy as the scum of the galaxy. Reflecting on the fact that the people who were firing missiles at you—and who you were firing missiles back at—were just as decent as anyone you knew on your side could be . . . uncomfortable.

She thought about Theisman's dinner party. As promised, Admiral Redmont had been present, and under Theisman's watchful eye, Redmont had actually unbent to the point of telling a few modest jokes over the post-dinner wine. Michelle realized she still wasn't very high on his list of favorite people—not surprisingly, when Ajax had killed almost six thousand of his personnel—and he wasn't exactly likely to become her lifetime pen pal, either, given what had happened to her flagship. But at least the two of them had acquired a sense of mutual respect, and she was a bit surprised by how little bitterness there truly was in her feelings where he was concerned.

She hadn't had that sort of baggage with the other dinner guests. Admiral Lester Tourville had been something of a surprise. According to all of the reports she'd ever seen, he was supposed to be something of a loose warhead—one of those colorful, larger-than-life people who would always be far more at home on the command deck of a single battlecruiser fighting a ship-to-ship action somewhere (assuming he couldn't find the eyepatch, cutlass, and flintlock pistols he really wanted) rather than commanding a task force or a fleet. She should have realized those reports could scarcely be accurate, given his string of successes commanding those task forces and fleets. In fact, the only person who'd ever bloodied his nose was Honor, and as nearly as Michelle could tell, honors were about even between the two of them. A point which became much easier to understand when she finally had the opportunity to look into his eyes and see the shrewd, cool, calculating tactician hiding behind what she'd come to suspect was a carefully cultivated façade. In fact, she'd discovered she rather liked him, which she hadn't really expected to.

All things being equal, she was just as happy that she hadn't heard—then—about the masterful job Tourville had done of thoroughly trashing the Zanzibar System and its defenses.

Theisman's other two dinner guests—Vice Admiral Linda Trenis and Rear Admiral Victor Lewis—had also been pleasant enough dinner companions, although she'd found herself feeling definitely grateful for Theisman's promise the meal's beverages would be truth-drug-free. She was reasonably confident the Navy's anti-drug protocols would have worked, but even without that, Trenis and Lewis—especially Lewis—would have made formidable interrogators if Theisman hadn't quietly reminded them this was a social occasion. Given the fact that Trenis commanded the Republican Navy's Bureau of Planning, which made her the equivalent of Second Space Lord Patricia Givens, the commander of the Manticoran Navy's Office of Naval Intelligence, and that Lewis commanded the Office of Operational Research, the Bureau of Planning's primary analysis agency, their ability to put even small fragments together shouldn't have surprised her, she supposed. It was still impressive, though. In fact, pleasant though the evening had been, she'd come to the conclusion that the Republic of Haven's senior command staff had a depressingly high level of general competence.

Most of the time, it was hard to believe that dinner party had been a full six weeks ago. She managed to stay busy here on the island—with a total prisoner population of almost nine thousand, there was always something that needed her attention, despite Turner's efficiency—which kept boredom at bay most days. And Charlie-Seven's island home was far enough north to provide the occasional interesting storm, now that this hemisphere's autumn was well advanced. Some of the POWs, she knew, found those storms less than reassuring. She wasn't one of them, however. The camp's sturdy, storm-tight buildings stood up to the howling wind without any particular difficulty, and the surf on the island's rocky southern beaches was truly spectacular. In fact, she found the local storms invigorating, although McGregor insisted they were mere zephyrs compared to a real Gryphon storm.

Still, there were days when the fact of her captivity, however little like the brutality of StateSec from the last war it might be, ground down upon her. When she looked out the window of her office and saw not sky and sea, but an enemy planet, where she was held prisoner, powerless, unable to protect the Star Kingdom she loved. And that, she knew, was going to get only worse in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

Before too long, I'm probably going to be grateful for the distraction of snafus in the vegetable deliveries, she reflected. Golly! Isn't that something to look forward to?

"Excuse me, Ma'am."

Michelle twitched and looked up quickly from her reverie as a head poked in through her office door. The head in question belonged to one of the very few men she'd ever met who'd probably been in the Service as long as—and, she suspected, racked up more demerits in his youth as—Chief Warrant Officer Sir Horace Harkness.

"Yes, Chris?" Michelle's tone was pleasant, although she felt an inner pang every time she looked at Master Steward Chris Billingsley.

Her steward of many years, Clarissa Arbuckle, had never cleared Ajax. Billingsley had been provided as Clarissa's replacement once Michelle arrived at Charlie-Seven. The good news was that, physically, Billingsley reminded her as little as anyone possibly could of Clarissa. He was about James MacGuiness' age, and—like MacGuiness—a first-generation prolong recipient. And, unlike Clarissa, he was not simply male but solidly, if compactly, built with a rather luxuriant beard he'd grown since his capture. That would have been more than enough to differentiate him from Clarissa in Michelle's mind even without . . . certain other differences. Obviously, as a prisoner-of-war, his personnel file hadn't followed him to Charlie-Seven, which was probably not a bad thing in his case, since he was undoubtedly what the Service had always described as A Character.

Actually, the Service had a great many serviceable—and quite probably more accurate—terms for describing someone like Master Steward Billingsley. It was just that he was far too likable for Michelle to have the heart to apply them to him. And, in all fairness, he seemed to have mostly reformed his more questionable ways. To be sure, Michelle suspected that he had, upon occasion, during his stay here on Nouveau Paris, supplied certain minor but highly desired luxuries to his fellow POWs by way of not quite legal transactions with the Peeps. And if there were a game of chance—especially one involving dice—within a half light-year, Master Steward Billingsley knew where it was, knew who was playing, and had a reserved seat. Then there was that minor matter of the distillery he'd once been involved with, purely as a part of his social responsibility to help provide the camp medical staff with medicinal alcohol.

Despite his various shenanigans, and what Michelle was sure a novelist fond of clichés would have described as "a checkered past," he was one of those people who was always popular with the officers he served under and the enlisted personnel he served with. Almost despite herself, Michelle had found herself warming to his undeniable charm, despite the fact that the mere fact of his presence reminded her of Clarissa's absence, like a wound which refused to truly heal. That wasn't even remotely Billingsley's fault, though, and Michelle more than suspected that he'd figured out what she felt, and why, for he was surprisingly sensitive and considerate of her wounds.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Ma'am," he said now, "but there's an air car inbound, ETA twenty minutes, and we've just received a message from Captain Bouvier's office. For you, Ma'am."

"What sort of message?" Michelle's eyes narrowed speculatively.

"Ma'am, Captain Bouvier presents Secretary Theisman's compliments and requests that you make yourself available to the Secretary at your earliest convenience."

The eyes which had narrowed widened abruptly, and she glanced quickly at Turner and McGregor. They looked as surprised as she felt.

"And may I presume," she said, turning back to Billingsley, "that the imminent arrival of the air car you mentioned has something to do with my 'earliest convenience'?"

"I'd say that's a fairly safe conclusion, Ma'am," Billingsley said gravely. "Especially since the same message from Captain Bouvier specifically requested that I pack a bag for you, and one for myself."

"I see." Michelle looked at him for a moment longer, then inhaled. "All right, Chris. If you'll see to that, Commodore Turner and Colonel McGregor and I have a few details we should probably discuss before I go haring off to wherever it is we're going."

"Yes, Ma'am."

The air car arrived almost exactly on schedule, and under the circumstances, Michelle felt she and Billingsley were doing rather well to keep her chauffeur waiting for less than ten minutes. She didn't know if the air car's pilot was aware of just how little notice she'd had of his impending arrival, but he and the neatly uniformed Navy commander accompanying him—and the two well armed Marines who'd been sent along to help discourage any of the POWs' temptation towards hijacking the vehicle—waited respectfully for her. She limped across to the hatch (her injured leg was still well short of completely recovered), and the commander came to attention as she approached.

"Secretary Theisman instructed me to apologize for the lack of warning, Admiral Henke," he said as he opened the hatch courteously for her. Michelle nodded her thanks and settled into her seat while Billingsley stowed the luggage in the cargo compartment. The steward climbed into the rearmost seat at the commander's gesture. Then the Havenite officer followed, closing the hatch and settling into the seat facing Michelle's as the car leapt back into the air.

"The Secretary also instructed me to tell you that he believes you'll understand the reason for his haste in arranging this after you and he have had an opportunity to talk, Ma'am," he added.

"May I conclude from that, Commander," Michelle said, cocking her head with a slight smile, "that we are even now bound to meet the Secretary?"

"Yes, Ma'am. I believe the Admiral may safely conclude that," the commander replied.

"And the flight to this meeting will take about how long?"

"Ma'am," the commander glanced at his chrono, then back at her, "I believe our ETA is approximately forty-three minutes from now."

"I see." Michelle nodded. Forty-three minutes wasn't long enough for a return flight clear to Nouveau Paris, which presented several interesting questions. Not that it seemed likely the courteous young commander knew the answers to those questions. Or, at least, that he was prepared to admit it, if he did.

"Thank you, Commander," she said, then leaned back in the comfortable seat, gazing out through the armorplast canopy as the wind-ruffled blue and white water of the Vaillancourt Sea rushed past below them.

Despite the courtesy with which she had been treated since her capture, Michelle felt her nerves tightening as the air car settled onto a landing pad on the grounds of a large, sprawling estate perched on a craggy headland above the Vaillancourt. Surf pounded at the headland's sheer face, sending geysers of white surging far up its steepness while seabirds—or their local analogues, at least—wheeled and darted on the brawny breeze. It wasn't the surf, or the seabirds, which set her nerves on edge, however. No, it was the sting ships parked to one side, and the light armored vehicles positioned to keep a watchful eye on the estate's landward approaches.

As the air car touched down with delicate precision, she looked up through the canopy and realized that in addition to the pair of sting ships on the pad, there was at least one more of them in the air above the estate, hovering watchfully on counter-grav. That degree of ostentatious security would have been enough to make anyone nervous, she decided, even if the anyone in question hadn't happened to be a prisoner of war.

"If you'll follow me, please, Admiral," the commander murmured as the air car hatch opened and the boarding ramp extended itself.

"And Master Steward Billingsley?" She was pleased to note that there was no nervousness in her tone, at least.

"My understanding, Ma'am, is that you'll probably be spending at least the evening here, and Master Steward Billingsley will be escorted to your assigned quarters to see that everything is properly settled by the time you get there. If that will be convenient, Ma'am?"

He managed to ask the question as if she actually had a choice, Michelle noticed, and smiled slightly.

"That sounds quite convenient, Commander. Thank you," she said gravely.

"Of course, Admiral. This way, please?"

He gestured gracefully towards the main building of the estate, and she nodded.

"Lead the way, Commander," she said.

The commander led her across a carefully manicured lawn, through a pair of old-fashioned, unpowered double doors—watched over by an obviously competent security guard in civilian clothing, not uniform—and down a short hallway. He paused outside another set of double doors—this one of some exotic, hand-polished wood which Michelle had no doubt was native to Haven—and rapped gently.

"Yes?" a voice inquired from the other side of the door.

"Admiral Henke is here," the commander replied.

"Then ask her to come in," the voice said.

The voice didn't belong to Thomas Theisman. It was female, and although it was muffled by the closed door, it sounded vaguely familiar. Then the door opened, Michelle stepped through it, and found herself face to face with President Eloise Pritchart.

Surprise made Michelle hesitate for a moment, but then she shook herself and continued forward into the room. She was aware of at least one more civilian-clothed bodyguard, this one female, and given Pritchart's presence, all of the security around the estate suddenly made perfectly good sense. That thought ran through the back of Michelle's brain as Pritchart extended her hand in greeting and Thomas Theisman rose from a chair behind the standing President.

"Madame President," Michelle murmured, and allowed one eyebrow to arch as she gripped the offered hand.

"I'm sorry about the minor deception, Admiral," Pritchart replied with a charming smile. "It wasn't really directed at you so much as at anyone else who might be wondering where you were, or who you might be talking to. And, in all honesty, it probably wasn't really necessary. Under the circumstances, however, I'd prefer to err on the side of caution."

"I trust you'll forgive me, Madame President, if I point out that all of that sounds suitably mysterious."

"I'm sure it does." Pritchart smiled again and released Michelle's hand to wave invitingly at the pair of comfortable armchairs arranged to face the one Theisman had just climbed out of. "Please, sit down, and I'll try to make things at least a little less mysterious."

Michelle obeyed the polite command. The chair was just as comfortable as it had looked, and she leaned back into its embrace, looking back and forth between Theisman and Pritchart. The President returned her gaze for a few moments, then turned her head to look at the bodyguard standing behind her.

"Turn off the recorders, Sheila," she said.

"Madame President, the recorders have already—" the bodyguard began, but Pritchart shook her head with a smile.

"Sheila," she said chidingly, "I know perfectly well that your personal recorder is still switched on." The bodyguard looked at her, and the President waved a gently admonishing finger in her direction. "I don't believe for a moment that you're a spy, Sheila," she said dryly. "But I do know SOP for the Detachment is to record everything that happens in my presence so there's a record just in case I happen to be killed by a stray micro-meteorite or some crazed, rampaging seagull manages to get past my intrepid guardians and hurl itself ferociously upon me. In this case, though, I think we'll dispense with that."

"Yes, Ma'am," the bodyguard said after a moment, with manifest reluctance. She touched a spot on her lapel, then folded her hands behind her and settled into a position the military would have called parade rest.

"Thank you," Pritchart said, and turned back to Michelle.

"If your object was to make sure you have my full attention, Madame President, you've succeeded," Michelle said dryly.

"That wasn't really the reason I did it, but I'm not going to complain if it had that effect," Pritchart replied.

"Then may I ask exactly what this is all about?"

"Certainly, but I'm afraid it's going to be just a little bit complicated."

"Somehow, I'm not terribly surprised to hear that, Madame President."

"No, I suppose you aren't." Pritchart settled back in her own chair, topaz-colored eyes intent while she gazed at Michelle for another few seconds, as if organizing her thoughts. Then she gave herself a little shake.

"I hope you remember our conversation in your hospital room, Admiral," she began. "At the time, if you'll recall, I told you I'd like to think we might somehow find an end to the fighting short of one side killing everyone on the other side."

She paused, and Michelle nodded.

"Well, I think it may be possible for us to do that. Or that there's a chance we can do that, at least," the President said quietly.

"I beg your pardon?" Michelle sat forward in her chair, her eyes suddenly very narrow.

"Admiral Henke, we've recently received certain reports about events in the Talbott Cluster." Michelle's expression showed her confusion at Pritchart's apparent non sequitur, and the President shook her head. "Bear with me, Admiral. It's relevant, I assure you."

"If you say so, of course, Madame President," Michelle responded a bit doubtfully.

"As I say, we've received certain reports about events in the Talbott Cluster," Pritchart resumed. "I'm afraid they aren't exactly pleasant news, from your perspective, Admiral. I'm sure that, prior to your capture, you were far better aware than any of us of the so-called 'resistance movements' springing up on two or three of the planets in the Cluster. We've been doing our best to monitor the situation, of course, since anything that distracts your Star Kingdom's attention and resources has obvious benefits for us. It hasn't had the priority other intelligence-gathering activities have had, though, and we don't have complete information, by any stretch of the imagination. Our priorities have shifted rather dramatically in the last few days, however."

"And that would be because—?" Michelle prompted obediently when the President paused.

"That, Admiral, would be because according to the information sources we have been able to cultivate, one of your captains has uncovered evidence which he believes demonstrates that someone outside the Cluster has been manipulating and supplying those 'resistance movements.' Apparently, he believes the Union of Monica is directly implicated in that manipulation, and he's launched an unauthorized preemptive operation against Monica to bring it to an end."

Michelle stared at the other woman, unable to conceal her astonishment.

"Despite the fact that our information is so incomplete," Pritchart continued, "a few facts are quite clear to us. One, of course, is that Monica has a long history of acting as a proxy for the Office of Frontier Security, which strongly suggests OFS is also directly implicated in whatever is going on. Assuming, of course, that your captain's suspicions prove accurate, that is. And the second, I'm afraid, is that if, in fact, he launches some sort of preemptive strike against Monica, your Star Kingdom will find itself facing the very real prospect of a shooting incident with the Solarian League Navy."

The President paused, crossed her legs, and sat back, head cocked to one side, obviously giving Michelle time to get past the worst of her initial shock and absorb the implications of what she'd just said, and Michelle forced herself not to swallow as those implications went through her. She couldn't imagine what sort of evidence chain could have sent any reasonably sane captain in the Royal Manticoran Navy into what could so readily turn into an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the most powerful navy in the history of mankind.

Well, the biggest, at any rate, a stubborn little voice said in the back of her mind. ONI's reports all insist the SLN still doesn't have the new compensators, FTL coms, decent missile pods or pod-layers, or—especially—MDMs. But what they do have is something like twenty-one hundred superdreadnoughts in active commission, a reserve fleet at least two or three times that size, the biggest industrial and technological base in existence . . . and something like two thousand fully developed star systems. Plus, of course, the entire Verge to exploit at will.

She was well aware that some of the RMN's more . . . enthusiastic tactical thinkers had been arguing for years that the advances in military technology produced by the Star Kingdom's half-century and more of arms race and open warfare with Haven had rendered the entire League Navy hopelessly obsolete. Personally, she was less confident than the majority of those enthusiasts that Manticore's clear advantages in many areas translated into advantages in all areas. Even so, she was entirely confident that any Manticoran task force or fleet could handily polish off any comparable Solarian force, probably without even breaking a sweat. Unlike those enthusiasts, however, she strongly doubted (to put it mildly) that all of Manticore's tactical advantages put together could possibly overcome the enormous strategic disadvantage of the difference between the Manticoran and Solarian populations and resource and industrial bases.

There's nothing wrong with the Sollies' general tech base, either. We probably have a slight edge overall, thanks to the way the war's pressurized every area of R&D for the last fifty years or so, but if we do, it's fingernail-thin. And once their navy wakes up and smells the coffee, they've got lots of people to put to work closing the gap. Not to mention the building capacity, if they ever get organized. For that matter, some of the League members' system defense forces have been a lot more innovative than the SLN's senior officer corps for as long as anyone can remember. There's no telling what some of them have been up to, or how quickly any little surprises one of them may have developed for us could be gotten into general service once we bloodied the SLN's nose a time or three. And some of the SDFs are damned near as big—or bigger—in their own right than our entire Navy was before Uncle Roger started his buildup.

She felt herself coming back on balance as the first shock of Pritchart's information began to ease just a bit. Still, what sort of lunatic—?

"Excuse me, Madame President," she said after a moment, "but you said one of our captains was involved in this. Would you happen to know which captain?"

"Thomas?" Pritchart looked at Theisman, one eyebrow arched, and the Secretary of War smiled a bit tartly.

"According to our reports, Admiral, I suspect it's a name you'll recognize as well as I did. It's Terekhov—Aivars Terekhov."

Despite herself, Michelle felt her eyes widen once again. She'd never actually met Aivars Aleksovitch Terekhov, but she certainly did recognize the name. And she wasn't a bit surprised Theisman had, either, given Terekhov's performance in the Battle of Hyacinth and the Secretary of War's personal apology for the atrocities State Security had perpetrated against Terekhov's surviving personnel after their capture. But what could possibly have possessed a man with Terekhov's record and experience to court active hostilities with the Solarian League?

"I think, given the fact that it's Captain Terekhov," Theisman continued, as if he'd read her mind, "we have to assume first, that he thinks his evidence is absolutely conclusive, and, second, that his assessment of that evidence has convinced him that only quick, decisive action—presumably intended to nip whatever is happening in the bud—can prevent something even worse. From your perspective, that is."

Oh, thankyou for that little qualifier, Mr. Secretary! Michelle thought tartly.

Pritchart gave Theisman a moderately severe glance, as if rebuking him for the boorishness of his last sentence. Or, Michelle thought, as if she wanted her "guest" to think she was rebuking the Secretary of War for a carefully preplanned comment. None of which affected the accuracy of anything he'd said, assuming they were both telling her the truth. And any questions about their prewar diplomatic exchanges aside, she couldn't imagine any possible advantage they might see in lying to a prisoner of war.

"May I ask exactly why you're telling me this?" she asked after a handful of seconds.

"Because I want you to understand exactly how grave the Star Kingdom's strategic position has just become, Admiral," Pritchart said levelly, looking back at her. Michelle bristled slightly internally, but Pritchart continued in that same, level tone. "I strongly suspect, Admiral Henke, that an officer of your seniority, serving directly under Duchess Harrington and with your close family relationship to your Queen, has access to intelligence reports indicating the numerical superiority we currently possess. I fully realize that your Manticoran Alliance's war fighting technology is still substantially in advance of our own, and I would be lying if I told you Thomas and I are completely confident our advantage in numbers is sufficient to offset your advantage in quality. We believe it is, or shortly will be; both of us, however, have had entirely too much personal and distinctly unpleasant experience of your Navy's . . . resilience, shall we say.

"But now this new element has been added to the equation. Neither you nor I have any idea at this time what consequences—long term or short term—your Captain Terekhov's actions are going to produce. Given the general arrogance quotient of the Solarian League where 'neobarbs' like the Star Kingdom and the Republic are concerned, however, I believe it's entirely possible local League administrators and admirals are likely to react without any concept of just how devastating your Navy's quality advantage would prove where they were concerned. In other words, the potential for Manticore to find itself in an ultimately fatal confrontation with the League is, in my judgment, very real."

"And," Michelle said, trying very hard to keep an edge of bitterness out of her tone, "given the distraction potential of all this, no doubt your calculations about your numerical superiority have revised your own prospects upwards, Madame President."

"To be perfectly honest, Admiral," Theisman said, "the first reaction of most of my analysts over at the New Octagon was that the only question was whether or not we should press the offensive immediately or wait a bit longer in hopes a worsening situation in Talbott will force you to weaken yourself still further on our front and then hit you."

He met her gaze unflinchingly, and she didn't blame him. In the Republic's position, exactly the same thoughts would have occurred to her, after all.

"That was the analysts' first thought," Pritchart agreed. "And mine, for that matter, I'm afraid. I spent too many years as a People's Commissioner for the People's Navy under the old régime not to think first in those terms. But then another thought occurred to me . . . Lady Gold Peak."

The abrupt change in the President's chosen form of address took Michelle offguard, and she sat back, pushing herself deep into her chair's physically comforting embrace, while she wondered what it portended.

"And that thought was, Madame President—?" she asked after a moment, her tone wary.

"Milady, I was completely candid with you in your hospital room. I want a way to end this war, and I would genuinely prefer to do it without killing any more people—on either side—than we have to. And because that's what I would prefer to do, I have a proposal for you."

"What sort of 'proposal'?" Michelle asked, watching her expression narrowly.

"I've already told you we've been considering proposing the possibility of prisoner exchanges. What I have in mind is to offer to release you and return you to the Star Kingdom, if you're willing to give us your parole to take no further part in active operations against the Republic until you are properly exchanged for one of our own officers in Manticoran custody."

"Why?" Michelle asked tersely.

"Because, frankly, I need an envoy your Queen might actually pay attention to. Someone close enough to her to deliver a message she'll at least listen to, even if it comes from me."

"And that message would be?"

Michelle braced herself. Her cousin Elizabeth's temper was justly famous . . . or perhaps infamous. It was one of her strengths, in many ways—part of what made her as effective as she was, part of what had won her her treecat name of "Soul of Steel." It was also, in Michelle's opinion, her greatest weakness. And Michelle had few illusions about how Elizabeth III was going to react when the Republic of Haven politely pointed out that her position had just become hopeless and it was time for her to consider surrendering.

"That message would be, Milady, that I wish to formally propose, as the Republic's head of state, a summit meeting between the two of us. A meeting to be held at a neutral location, to be chosen by her, for the purpose of discussing both possible ways to end the current conflict between our two star nations and also, if she so desires, the circumstances and content of our prewar diplomatic correspondence. In addition, I will be prepared to discuss any other matter she wishes to place upon the agenda. I will declare an offensive stand down of the Republic's forces, to begin the moment you agree to carry our message to the Queen, and I will not resume offensive operations, under any circumstances, until your Queen's response has reached me here in Nouveau Paris."

Somehow, Michelle managed to keep her jaw from dropping, but something very like a faint twinkle in the President's striking eyes suggested to her that she shouldn't consider a career change to diplomat or professional gambler.

"I realize this has come as . . . something of a surprise, Milady," Pritchart said with what Michelle considered to be massive understatement. "Frankly, though, I don't see that you have any option but to agree to take my message to Queen Elizabeth, for a lot of reasons."

"Oh, I think you can safely take that as a given, Madame President," Michelle said dryly.

"I rather thought I could." Pritchart smiled slightly, then glanced at Theisman and looked back at Michelle.

"For the most part, Her Majesty should feel free to include anyone she chooses in our meetings. I hope we'll be able to restrict staff and advisers to a manageable number for the direct, face-to-face conversations I hope to hold. We do, however, have one specific request in regard to the advisers she might choose to bring with her."

"Which is, Madame President?" Michelle asked just a bit cautiously.

"We would like to stipulate that Duchess Harrington be present."

Michelle blinked. She couldn't help it, although she managed—somehow—to keep her eyes from darting to Theisman to see his reaction to what the President had just said. At that moment, Michelle Henke wished, with a burning intensity, that she were a treecat, able to peek inside Eloise Pritchart's mind. From her own conversation with Theisman, it was evident to her that the Republic of Haven—or its intelligence services, at least—had, indeed, been aware for some time of the Manticoran media's reports about the 'cats and their recently confirmed abilities. And they must know that even if Elizabeth would be willing to leave her Ariel home, Honor most definitely would not agree to leave Nimitz home. Indeed, Theisman had personally seen just what the level of attachment between Honor and Nimitz was. Which meant Pritchart was deliberately inviting someone with a living lie detector to sit in on her personal conversations with the monarch of the star nation with which she was currently at war. Unless, of course, Michelle wanted to assume that someone as obviously competent as Pritchart, with advisers as competent as Thomas Theisman, was somehow unaware of what she'd just done.

"If the Queen accepts your proposal, Madame President," Michelle said, "I can't imagine that she would have any objection to including Duchess Harrington in her official delegation to any such talks. For that matter, while this is only my own opinion, you understand, I think Her Grace's unique status in both the Star Kingdom and Grayson would make her an ideal candidate for any such summit."

"And do you think Her Majesty will accept my proposal, Admiral Gold Peak?"

"That, Madame President," Michelle said frankly, "is something about which I'm not prepared even to speculate."

Chapter Five

The face in Aivars Terekhov's mirror was thinner and gaunter than the one he remembered. In fact, it reminded him of the one he'd seen when he'd been repatriated to Manticore as a returning prisoner-of-war. The last few months might not have been as bad as that nightmare experience, but they—and especially the six weeks since leaving Montana—had still left their imprint, and his blue eyes searched their own reflection as if seeking some omen of the future.

Whatever he was looking for, he didn't find it . . . again. His nostrils flared as he snorted in mordant amusement at his own thoughts, and he splashed cold water across his face. Then he straightened, dried his face, and reached for the fresh uniform blouse Chief Steward Joanna Agnelli had laid out for him. He slid into it, feeling the sensual warmth of it as it slid across his skin, then sealed it and examined himself in the mirror one more time.

No change, he thought. Just a man with a shirt on this time.

But the man in the mirror wasn't really "just a man with a shirt on," and Terekhov knew it. He was once again Captain Terekhov, commanding officer of Her Manticoran Majesty's heavy cruiserHexapuma.

For now, at least, he reminded himself, and watched his mirror's lips twitch in a brief almost-smile.

He turned away from the mirror and stepped out of his private head into his sleeping cabin. The door to his day cabin was slightly open, and he could just see Commander Ginger Lewis, his acting executive officer, and Lieutenant Commander Amal Nagchaudhuri,Hexapuma's communications officer, waiting for him. He paused for just a moment longer, then drew a deep breath, made sure his "confident CO" expression was in place, and went out to meet them.

"Good morning," he said, waving for them to remain seated when they started to rise.

"Good morning, Sir," Lewis replied for both of them.

"I assume you've both had breakfast already?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Well, I'm afraid I haven't, and Joanna gets cranky if I don't eat. So if the two of you don't mind, I'm going to nibble like an obedient little captain while we go over the morning reports."

"Far be it from me to try to get between Chief Agnelli and her notion of the proper feeding of captains, Sir," Lewis said, and grinned broadly. So did Nagchaudhuri, although not every acting exec would have been comfortable making jokes at what could have been construed as the captain's expense, and Terekhov chuckled.

"I see you're a wise woman," he observed, and sat down behind his desk. The terminal was folded down, giving him a level work surface or—in this case—a surface for something else, and Chief Steward Agnelli appeared as quickly and silently as if the captain had rubbed a lamp to summon her.

With a brisk efficiency that always reminded Terekhov of a stage magician bedazzling his audience, Agnelli whisked a white linen cloth across the desktop, added a plate with a bowl of cold cereal and fruit precisely centered upon it, set out a small pitcher of milk, a plate of steamy hot muffins, a butter dish, a tall glass of chilled tomato juice, a coffee cup, a steaming carafe, silverware, and a snowy napkin. She considered her handiwork for a moment or two, then minutely readjusted the silverware.

"Buzz when you're finished, Sir," she said, and withdrew.

Terekhov found himself once more searching for the puff of smoke into which his resident djinn had just disappeared. Then he shook his head, reached for the milk, and poured it over the waiting cereal.

"With all due respect, Sir, that doesn't look like a particularly huge breakfast to me," Lewis observed.

"Maybe not," Terekhov acknowledged, then gave her a sharp glance. "On the other hand, this is about what I usually have for breakfast, Ginger. I'm not exactly off my feed, if that's what you were subtly asking."

"I suppose I was, actually."

If Lewis felt particularly abashed, she showed no signs of it, and Terekhov shook his head. Ginger Lewis looked a great deal like a younger version of his wife, Sinead, whose portrait hung on the wall behind the commander even now. She was just as self-confident as Sinead, as well. In fact, Terekhov sometimes felt as if she were channeling Sinead, and he more than suspected that she'd decided it was more important than ever that someone aboard Hexapuma be willing to admit she was mother-henning the captain.

Although, between her and Joanna, it's not likely I could miss the point, now is it?

"Well, consider yourself not so subtly answered," he said aloud, his tone making it obvious that it was not a rebuke. "And while I crunch away at my modest—but healthy, very healthy—repast, why don't the two of you get started telling me all the things I need to know?"

"Yes, Sir."

Lewis pulled out her personal minicomp and called up the first of the several memos to herself which she had composed.

"First," she said, "there's the sick report. Lieutenant Sarkozy still has twenty-seven patients in sickbay, but she expects to discharge three more of them today. That will be . . . eight of our own people and twelve more fromWarlock andAria who've returned to duty so far. And she says that Lajos should be returning to duty in the next two or three days."

"Good," Terekhov said. Surgeon Lieutenant Ruth Sarkozy had been HMS Vigilant's ship's surgeon before the brutal Battle of Monica.Vigilant was one of the six ships Terekhov had lost in that engagement, but Sarkozy had survived, which had turned out to be an extraordinarily good thing for a lot of reasons, including the fact that Surgeon Commander Lajos Orban,Hexapuma's own surgeon, had been one ofHexapuma's thirty-two wounded. Sarkozy had turned out to be an outstanding substitute for him—a point Terekhov had emphasized in the post-battle reports he'd already drafted—but like all too many of his surviving personnel, she was obviously feeling the strain of doing too many people's duty. She had to be even more relieved than anyone else to see Orban recovered enough to leave sickbay! It was fortunate that his injuries, while messy, had been less severe than they'd originally appeared. With quick-heal, Sarkozy had gotten him back on his feet (although he'd remained very shaky) in less than a week, which made him far luckier than people like Naomi Kaplan,Hexapuma's tactical officer, who was still conscious only intermittently.

And Lajos was a hell of a lot luckier than the seventy-four members of the ship's company who'd been killed in action, Terekhov thought grimly.

"Ansten isn't going to be back on his feet again for a while, according to Sarkozy's current reports," Lewis continued. "Of course, he claims he'll be ready to resume his duties 'any time now.' " She glanced up and looked Terekhov in the eye. "Despite any rumors to the contrary, I'm not so drunk with power that I want to stay on as acting XO any longer than I have to, but somehow I don't think that's going to happen. Lieutenant Sarkozy's let him move out of sickbay and back to his own quarters, but I think that was only because she needed the bed. And probably partly because he was driving her towards raving lunacy." Her lips twitched. "He's not exactly . . . the best patient in the recorded history of the galaxy."

Terekhov was drinking tomato juice at that particular moment, and his involuntary snort of amusement came very close to sparking sartorial catastrophe. Fortunately, he managed to get the glass lowered in time without quite spraying juice all over his uniform blouse.

Calling Ansten FitzGerald "not the best patient" was one of the finest examples of gross understatement to come his way in quite some time.Hexapuma's executive officer was constitutionally incapable of taking a single moment longer from his duties than he absolutely had to. He was also one of those people who deeply resented the discovery that in the face of sufficient physical trauma his body was prepared to demand he take some time to recover while it got itself back into proper running order.

"Part of it," Terekhov said as severely as he could as he wiped his lips with the napkin, "is that Ansten is aware of how shorthanded we are. How shorthanded all of us are. And, of course," he lowered the napkin and smiled crookedly, "he's also got enough sheer, bullheaded stubbornness for any three people I could think of right offhand."

"Should I take that as an indication that you don't want me handing the job back over to him this afternoon, Sir?"

"Frankly, nothing would please me more than to have you hand it over to him," Terekhov told her. "Believe me, Ginger, I know you've got plenty to do down in Engineering without adding this to the load. But I'm not prepared to put Ansten back into harness until Sarkozy—or Lajos—is ready to sign off on it, whatever he thinks."

"I can't pretend I wouldn't rather go back to Engineering full-time," Lewis said, "but I agree with you where Ansten is concerned. Do you want me to break it gently to him, Sir, or will you tell him yourself?"

"The cowardly part of me wants to leave it to you. Unfortunately, I believe they told me at Saganami Island that there were certain responsibilities a commanding officer wasn't allowed to shuffle off on to a subordinate. I suspect facing Ansten under these circumstances qualifies."

"I stand in awe of your courage, Sir."

"And well you should." Terekhov said with an air of becoming modesty, then turned to Nagchaudhuri.

"Anything new from the Monicans this morning, Amal?"

"No, Sir." The tall, almost albino-pale communications officer grimaced. "They've repeated their demand that we evacuate the system immediately right on schedule, but that's about all. So far."

"Nothing more about that 'medical necessity' civilian evacuation of Eroica they trotted out yesterday?"

"No, Sir. Or not yet, at least. After all, the day's still young in Estelle."

Terekhov smiled in sour amusement, although it wasn't really particularly funny.

There was no doubt in his mind that he was the most hated man in the Monica System, and with good reason. He and the ten warships under his command had killed or wounded something like seventy-five percent of the total personnel strength of the Monica System Navy. They'd also destroyed the Monicans' main naval shipyard, killed several thousand yard workers, and wiped out at least two or three decades of infrastructure investment in the process. Not to mention destroying or permanently disabling twelve of the fourteen Solarian battlecruisers with which Monica had been supplied. He still wasn't certain exactly how those ships had factored into the elaborate plans someone had worked out to sabotage the Star Kingdom's annexation of the Talbott Cluster, but all the evidence he'd so far been able to collect from the wreckage of Eroica Station only served to further underscore the fact that those plans had required a sponsor with very deep pockets . . . and very few scruples against killing people in job lots.

At the moment, however, he and Roberto Tyler, President of the Union of Monica, were both rather more preoccupied, although from different perspectives, with a more pressing concern. Aivars Terekhov had lost sixty percent of his hastily improvised squadron, and more like three-quarters of his personnel, in destroying those ships and the military component of Eroica Station. His four surviving ships were all severely damaged. Only two of them remained hyper-capable, at least until they'd been able to make major repairs, and those two offered far too little life-support capacity for all of his surviving personnel. Which meant he couldn't pull out of Monica, even if he'd been inclined to do so. Which he wasn't, since he had no intention of allowing Tyler and his people to "vanish" any inconvenient evidence before someone arrived from Manticore to examine it more fully and systematically than Terekhov's own resources permitted.

So far, there was no reason to believe Tyler suspected that half of the Manticoran intruders were too crippled to withdraw. And, fortunately, there was also no evidence to suggest he intended to push Terekhov into making good on his threat where the remaining pair ofIndefatigable-class battlecruisers were concerned. Those two ships had been moored in civilian shipyard slips on the far side of Eroica Station's sprawling industrial complex. Terekhov had declined to target them in his initial attack, given the horrendous number of civilian casualties that would have entailed. But when the surviving units of the Monican Navy had demanded he surrender or face destruction, he'd given them back an ultimatum of his own.

If his ships were attacked, he would destroy those remaining battlecruisers with a saturation nuclear bombardment . . . and he would not permit the evacuation of civilians from Eroica Station first.

It was entirely possible some members of Tyler's administration thought he was bluffing. If so, however, the President remained unwilling to call that bluff. Which was a very good thing for everyone concerned, Terekhov thought grimly, since the one thing he wasn't doing was bluffing.

"Do you think there's any truth to Tyler's 'medical emergency' claims, Sir?" Lewis' question pulled Terekhov back up out of his thoughts and he gave himself a mental shake, followed by a physical shake of his head.

"I won't completely rule out the possibility. If it is a genuine emergency, though, it's a very conveniently timed one, don't you think?"

"Yes, Sir." Lewis rubbed the tip of her nose for a moment, then shrugged. "The only thing that struck me as just a bit odd about it is that he's waited this long to trot it out."

"Well, he's already used the running-out-of-food argument, and the life-support-emergency claim, and the damaged-power-systems claim, Ginger," Nagchaudhuri pointed out. "That old fairytale about the boy that cried wolf comes to mind now."

"That it does," Terekhov agreed. "On the other hand, this one is a bit different in that we can't verify—or disprove—his claims as easily as we did the others."

Nagchaudhuri nodded, and Terekhov busied himself spreading butter across a warm muffin while he pondered.

It had been relatively simple to dispose of most of the Monicans' so-called emergencies. AlthoughHexapuma's shipboard sensors had been severely mauled, Terekhov still had more than enough highly capable remote reconnaissance platforms to keep an eye on everything happening in the Monica System. Those same platforms had been able to monitor the surviving components of Eroica Station and disprove Tyler's claims about things like power spikes or atmospheric leaks caused by collateral damage from the bombardment of the station's military component. But claims of disease among the station's inhabitants were something else.

"I think we're going to have to arrange an examination of some of these conveniently sick Monicans," he said after a moment. "Which probably means it's a good thing Lajos is just about fit for duty again."

"Sir, with all due respect, I'm not sure offering the Monicans hostages of their own is the best move," Lewis said, rather more diffidently than usual. "Once we send—"

"Don't worry, Ginger."

Terekhov's voice was a bit indistinct as he spoke around a bite of buttered muffin. He chewed, swallowed, and cleared his throat.

"Don't worry," he repeated in a clearer tone, shaking his head. "I'm not about to send Lieutenant Sarkozy or Lajos aboard Eroica Station. If they're prepared to put some of their deathly ill patients aboard a shuttle and send it out to us, we'll examine them here. And if they aren't willing to, I'll take that as evidence they know we'd see through their bogus claims."

"Yes, Sir." Lewis nodded.

"In the meantime, what's the latest from Commander Lignos aboutAegis' fire control?"

"They're making at least some progress, Sir," Lewis said, accessing another of her memos. "It's not anything the yard dogs back home would be ready to sign off on, but by swapping out those components withAria, Commander Lignos should be able to get at least her forward lidar back on-line. That's still going to leave—"

"So Tyler turned down your invitation to offer his sick citizens free medical care, did he?" Bernardus Van Dort said dryly. He and Terekhov sat in the captain's briefing room later that morning, chairs tipped back, nursing cups of coffee, and Terekhov snorted.

"You might say that." He shook his head. "There are times I wish I hadn't stopped you from presenting your credentials as Baroness Medusa's personal representative. If I had, at least all of this diplomatic crap would be landing on your plate, instead of mine."

"If you think—" Van Dort began, but Terekhov shook his head again, harder.

"Forget it. I didn't spend all those years in Foreign Office service without learning a little bit about how the game's played, Bernardus! The minute you open your mouth as Medusa's officially accredited representative, this stops being a case of a single rogue officer Her Majesty can disavow if she has to. We can't afford to give Tyler and his crew any basis to attack the notion that I acted independently of any orders from any higher authority. Especially since I did!"

Van Dort started to open his mouth, then closed it. Much as he hated to admit it, Terekhov was right. Van Dort's own experience in the politics of his home system of Rembrandt, his decades of work as the founding CEO of the multi-system Rembrandt Trade Union, and his experience working to set up the annexation plebiscite for the entire Talbott Cluster all supported the same conclusion.

Which didn't mean he had to like it.

He sipped from his own coffee cup, savoring its rich, strong taste, and hoped Terekhov couldn't see how worried he was becoming. Not over the political and military situation here in Monica, although either of those would have provided ample justification for two or three T-years' worth of normal anxiety, but over Terekhov himself. The captain was the glue which held the entire squadron together, and the burden of command pressed down on him like a two or three-gravity field. It didn't go away, either. It was always there, always weighing down upon him, and there was nothing any of his officers—or Van Dort—could do to relieve that constant, grinding pressure, however much they might have wished to. Not that knowing they couldn't kept anyone from trying, of course.

"What about Bourmont's units?" he asked after a moment.

Gregoire Bourmont was the Monican Navy's chief of naval operations. He was the one who'd issued the demand for Terekhov's surrender after the Battle of Monica, and from the tone of the handful of messages which had passed between the two sides since, his continued inability to compel that surrender was only making him more belligerent.

Unless, of course, it's all an act, Van Dort reminded himself.Aivars isn't the only one who understands "plausible deniability," after all. If Tyler lets Bourmont play the part of the saber-rattling military hard ass, then he can play the role of conciliating statesman. Or try to, anyway. And if anything goes wrong in the end, he can always try to head off the consequences by offering Bourmont up to Aivars as a sacrificial lamb and sacking the "hothead" who pushed things ever so much further than his civilian superiors would ever have authorized.

"All of his ships—such as they are and what there are of them—are still sitting in orbit around Monica," Terekhov said. "From all appearances, they plan to go right on sitting there, too."

"Have there been any more departures from the system?" Van Dort's tone was almost painfully neutral, but Terekhov snorted again, more harshly than before.

"No," he said. "Of course, that's not a lot of comfort, given how many ships definitely did 'depart from the system' before I sent my little explanatory note to Admiral Bourmont."

Van Dort nodded. That was the real source of the anxiety gnawing at the nerves of every surviving man and woman of Terekhov's battered squadron. The truth was that Terekhov's threat to nuke Eroica Station wasn't actually necessary any longer.Hexapuma, the light cruiserAegis, and the older (and even more heavily damaged) Star Knight-class heavy cruiserWarlock had managed to restore enough of their fire control to manage several dozen of the Royal Manticoran Navy's new "flat pack" missile pods, and the ammunition shipVolcano had delivered over two hundred of them to the squadron. With those pods full of MDMs, Terekhov could have annihilated Bourmont's entire remaining naval strength long before those ships were able to get into their own range of his units.

Unfortunately, Bourmont might not realize that. Or, for that matter, believe it, despite the evidence of what similar pods had done at Eroica Station. The fact that no one outside Eroica Station appeared to have seen any of the tracking or tactical data from the opening phase of the engagement actually worked against Terekhov in that respect. Bourmont literally hadn't seen any hard evidence of what the Manticoran squadron had done, or how. In fact, it very much looked as if the only people who really had seen any of that evidence were either dead or among the tiny handful of survivors Terekhov's small craft had plucked from the shattered ruins of the station's military component and the hulked wreckage of two of the battlecruisers his squadron had engaged.

Personally, Van Dort had come to the conclusion that Terekhovprobably wouldn't nuke the civilian portion of the station no matter what happened. Or not any longer, at least. Given his range and accuracy advantage, he was far more likely to settle for picking off Bourmont's cruisers and destroyers, instead. In fact, Van Dort thought, the threat against Eroica's civilians had actually become the way Terekhov was avoiding the necessity of killing any more of the Monican Navy's uniformed personnel, since it prevented Bourmont from pushing him into doing just that.

Of course it does, Bernardus, the businessman-turned-statesman told himself. And one reason you want it to be true is that you don't really want to think your friend Aivars really would kill all of those civilians.

But the truth of the matter was that Bourmont and the entire surviving Monican Navy had never posed the real threat. No, the real threat, the one which menaced not just Terekhov's squadron but the entire Star Kingdom of Manticore, lay in that handful of ships which had fled into hyper-space in the aftermath of the short, brutal battle. What had made the Union of Monica a viable threat to the annexation of the Talbott Cluster in the first place was its status as a client of the Solarian League's Office of Frontier Security. Neither Van Dort nor anyone else in Terekhov's squadron knew the actual content of any of the treaties or formal agreements defining Monica's relationship with Frontier Security. It was more than likely, however, that those agreements included a "mutual defense" clause. And if they did, and if one of those fleeing starships had headed for Meyers, where the local Frontier Security commissioner hung his hat, it was entirely possible that a Solarian squadron—or even a light task force—was headed for Monica at this very moment.

And a Solly flag officer, especially one working for OFS, isn't going to shed a lot of tears over the deaths of a few hundred—or even a few thousand—neobarbs, Van Dort thought grimly. Even if those neobarbs are citizens of the star nation he's supposedly there to support. Can't make an omelet without cracking a few eggs, after all. And he's not going to believe any wild stories about Manticoran "super missiles," either. So if a Frontier Fleet detachment does turn up, Aivars is either going to have to surrender after all . . . or else start a shooting war directly with the Solarian League.

"So the situation's pretty much unchanged," he said out loud, and Terekhov nodded.

"We did let the pregnant workers from Eroica return to the planet," he said, and made a face. "I can't imagine what these people were thinking about letting them work in an environment like that in the first place! Every extra-atmospheric work contract in the Star Kingdom contains specific provisions to prevent exposing fetuses to the sorts of radiation hazards aboard a station like that."

"Rembrandt, too," Van Dort agreed. "But a lot of the star nations out here, especially the poorer ones, don't seem to think they have that luxury."

"Luxury!" Terekhov snorted. "You mean they aren't going to enforce proper liability laws against their local employers, don't you? After all, insurance drives up overhead, right? And if they aren't going to be liable—legally, at least—anyway, then why should any of them worry about a little thing like what happens to their workers or their workers' children?"

Van Dort contented himself with a nod of agreement, although Terekhov's vehemence worried him. It wasn't because he disagreed with anything the captain had just said, but the raw anger—and the contempt—glittering in Terekhov's blue eyes was a far cry from the Manticoran's normal demeanor of cool self-control. His anger was one more indication of the pressure he was under, and Van Dort didn't even want to think about what would happen if Aivars Terekhov suddenly crumbled.

But that isn't going to happen, he told himself.In fact, the way you're worrying about it is probably an indication of the pressure you're under, when you come right down to it. Aivars is one of the least likely to crack people you've ever met. In fact, the real reason you're worrying about him is because of how much you like him, isn't it?

"Well, letting them go back dirt-side ought to earn us at least a little good press," he observed out loud.

"Oh, don't be silly, Bernardus." Terekhov waved his coffee cup. "You know as well as I do how it's going to be presented. President Tyler's tireless efforts on behalf of his citizens have finally borne at least partial fruit in convincing the heartless Manticoran tyrant and murderer Terekhov to allow these poor, pregnant women—the women the wicked Manties have been callously exposing to all the threats of a space station environment, along with the rest of their hostages, as part of their barbarous threat to massacre helpless civilians—to return to safety." He shook his head. "If there's any 'good press' going around, trust me, Tyler and his toadies will see to it that all of it focuses on him."

"After reaching his hand into a trash disposer like this one, he probably needs all the good press he can get!" Van Dort replied.

"Assuming he ever stops playing the victimized total innocent and admits that's what he did. Which he doesn't seem to be in any hurry to do."

"No, but—"

"Excuse me, Sir."

Both men turned their heads to look at the briefing room hatch as the youthful voice spoke. Midshipwoman Helen Zilwicki, one ofHexapuma's "snotties," looked back at them, and Terekhov arched an eyebrow.

"And just which 'sir' are you asking to excuse you, Ms. Zilwicki?" he inquired mildly. Under most circumstances, there wouldn't have been any question who a midshipwoman under his command was addressing, but Helen had been assigned as Van Dort's personal aide, in addition to her other duties, ever since he'd come aboard ship.

"Sorry, Sir." Helen's smile was fleeting, but genuine. "I meant you, Captain," she said, and her smile disappeared as quickly as it had come. "CIC's just detected a hyper footprint, Sir. A big one."

Chapter Six

Hexapuma's bridge was fully manned when Terekhov stepped onto it. The ship's casualties left her short of all the officers she truly needed, but the damage to Auxiliary Control and the backup bridge there had been far too severe to be repaired out of Hexapuma's shipboard resources. That meant there was no tactical crew to take over if anything happened to the bridge proper, but it also meant there was no need for an entire backup set of officers, either, which at least eased the pressure on the survivors. And that there was no reason Ginger Lewis shouldn't man her customary battle stations position in Engineering rather than haring off as acting exec to take charge of AuxCon.

Midshipwoman Zilwicki stepped around Terekhov and walked quickly to her own position at missile defense. She seated herself at the elbow of Lieutenant Abigail Hearns, the Grayson born (and extremely youthful) young woman who had replaced Naomi Kaplan as Hexapuma's tactical officer.

I wonder if any other heavy cruiser in the entire Queen's Navy's ever had a pair that young in charge of its tactical section? a corner of Terekhov's mind wondered. They can't have much more than forty-five T-years between them!

Maybe not, he reflected, but the job that youthful pair had already done during the Battle of Monica left him without any qualms about relying on them now.

"Any IDs?" he asked.

"Not yet, Sir," Abigail replied without ever looking up from her own displays while her long, slender fingers played across her console, working to refine the data. "Whoever it is, they opted for an almost polar approach, and we don't have any platforms in position for a close look at them. We're redeploying now, but it's going to take a while."

"Understood."

Terekhov crossed to his own command chair, settled into it, and deployed its displays. There were several possible explanations for why someone might have opted to approach a star system from well above the ecliptic, but aside from gross astrogational error, very few of those explanations would have applied to merchant shipping. Most of a merchant ship's likely destinations in any star system lay in the plane of the system's ecliptic, so translating into hyper in that plane and on the same side of the system as the destination in question required the shortest normal-space flight to reach it. Then, too, crossing a star's hyper limit from significantly above or below the plane of the ecliptic also imposed greater wear and tear—which equated to higher maintenance and replacement costs—on a freighter's hyper generator and alpha nodes. That was true for warships, too, of course . . . but maintenance costs ran a poor second to tactical considerations where they were concerned.

The most likely reason for a polar approach by a warship or a squadron of warships would be to avoid any nasty little surprises a defender might have attempted to arrange on a more conventional approach vector. The fact that it also gave better sensor coverage of the entire system (or, at least, of the entire ecliptic) wasn't anything to sneer at, either. A defender could still hide on the far side of the system's central star, or in the shadow of one or more of its planets or even moons, but it got harder against someone looking down—or up—from system north or south.

"Sir," Abigail said after several more tense moments, "CIC's managed to isolate a count on the footprints. They make it ten. Best estimate is that five of them are in the four million-plus tonnage range."

"Thank you." Terekhov's tone was calm, almost absent, as he studied his own repeater displays, and no one else had to know how difficult it was for him to keep it that way.

If CIC's estimate was accurate, then five of the unknowns fell squarely into the tonnage bracket for ships of the wall. And if that was what they actually were, their arrival could be nothing but bad news for HMS Hexapuma and the rest of her squadron, because there weren't fiveManticoran wallers in the entire Talbott Cluster. So if five of them were turning up now, they had to belong to someone else . . . like the Solarian League.

Although, now that I come to think about it, just what the hell would Solly wallers be doing way out here? This is Frontier Fleet's bailiwick, not Battle Fleet's, so they shouldn't have anything bigger than battlecruisers in the vicinity, either. On the other hand, none of the local systems have anything the size of a dreadnought or a superdreadnought in inventory. So . . .

"Bring the Squadron to readiness, Mr. Nagchaudhuri," he said.

"Aye, aye, Sir," the communications officer replied, and sent the order (which Terekhov was quite certain was thoroughly unnecessary) to the other three ships of his battered "squadron."

The good news, such as it was and what there was of it, was that the missile pods deployed about his ships contained all-up Mark 23s, not the Mark 16s which normally lived inHexapuma's magazines. The Mark 16's laser heads produced greater destructive power than almost anything else below the wall of battle, but they'd never been intended to take on superdreadnought armor. They could inflict a lot of superficial damage, possibly even cripple the heavier ship's sensor suites or rip up the vulnerable nodes of its impeller rings, but good as they were, they had far too little punch to actually stop a waller.

But the Mark 23 was a very different proposition, he thought grimly. His control links were still too badly damaged to manage more than a few dozen pods simultaneously. Certainly he couldn't come close to matching the multi-thousand-missile salvos the Manticoran Alliance and the Republic of Haven had become accustomed to throwing at one another! But he could still fire almost four hundred attack birds in a single launch, and if those were Solly dreadnoughts or superdreadnoughts, they were in for an extraordinarily unpleasant surprise when three badly mauled cruisers and a single destroyer opened fire on them with that many capital missiles from well outside their own engagement range.

And what if they are? that corner of his mind jeered. Even if you destroy all five of them outright, so what? Great! You'll begin the war with the Sollies with a resounding triumph. That should be plenty of comfort when two or three thousand ships of the wall head for Manticore with blood in their eyes!

At least he'd have four or five hours before he had to start making any irrevocable decisions. Not that—

"Sir, we're being hailed!" Nagchaudhuri said suddenly, spinning his chair to face his captain. "It's FTL, Sir!"

Terekhov twitched upright in his own chair. If the unknowns were transmitting using FTL grav-pulses, then they damned well weren't Sollies! In fact, if they were transmitting FTL, the only people they could be were—

"Put it on my display," he said.

"Yes, Sir!" Nagchaudhuri said with a huge grin, and punched in a command.

A face appeared on the small com display by Terekhov's knee. It was a dark-complexioned face, with a strong nose and chin and thinning hair, and Terekhov's eyes widened in surprise as he saw it.

"This is Admiral Khumalo," the owner of that face said. "I am approaching Monica with a relief force. If Captain Terekhov is available, I need to speak to him immediately."

"Available," Terekhov thought with a sort of lunatic glee as the first outriders of almost unimaginable relief crashed through him. Now, there's a word choice for you! He probably thinks it would have been bad for morale to say "if he's still alive," instead.

"Put me through, Amal," he said.

"Aye, aye, Sir." Nagchaudhuri punched in another command. "Live mike, Sir."

"Terekhov here, Admiral Khumalo," Terekhov said into his com pickup. "It's good to see you, Sir."

Their relative positions putHexapuma and Khumalo's flagship the better part of thirty light-minutes apart, and even with a grav-pulse com, that imposed a transmission delay of over twenty-seven seconds. Terekhov waited patiently for fifty-four seconds, and then Khumalo's eyes sharpened.

"I don't doubt that it is, Captain," he said. "May I assume there's a reason your ships are sitting where they are?"

"Yes, Sir, there is. We found it necessary to remain close enough to Eroica Station to keep an eye on the evidence and, ah, present President Tyler with an argument sufficient to prevent any hastiness on the part of his surviving navy."

" 'Surviving navy'?" Khumalo repeated the better part of a minute later. "It would appear you've been quite busy out here, Captain Terekhov." His smile was decidedly on the wintry side.

Terekhov thought about replying, then thought better of it and simply sat there, waiting.

"May I assume you've already written up your reports on this . . . incident?" Khumalo asked after several more moments.

"Yes, Sir. I have."

"Good. Let me have them now then, if you would. I should have ample time to review them, since my astrogator makes it roughly seven and a half hours for us to reach your current position. At that time, please be prepared to come aboard Hercules."

"Of course, Sir."

"In that case, Captain, I'll see you then, when we don't have to worry about transmission lag. Khumalo, clear."

Seven hours and forty-five minutes later, Aivars Terekhov's pinnace drifted out of Hexapuma's boat bay on reaction thrusters, rolled on gyros, reoriented itself, and accelerated smoothly towards HMS Hercules. The trip was short enough that there was no point bringing up the small craft's impeller wedge, and Terekhov sat back in his comfortable seat, watching the view screen on the forward bulkhead as the superdreadnought grew steadily larger.

Khumalo must have pulled out of the Spindle System literally within hours of the arrival of Terekhov's dispatch informing him of his plans. In fact, Terekhov was frankly astonished that the rear admiral had obviously responded so promptly and decisively. It was clear he hadn't waited to call in a single additional ship; he must have simply ordered every hyper-capable hull in the star system to rendezvous with his flagship and headed straight for Monica.

His scratch-built force was even more lopsided and ill-balanced than Terekhov's "squadron" had been. Aside fromHercules—which, for all her impressively massive tonnage was still one of the only two or three sadly obsolescent Samothrace-class ships lingering on in commission as little more than depot ships on distant stations—it consisted solely of the light cruisersDevastation and Intrepid, and the three destroyers Victorious, Ironside, and Domino. Aside fromVictorious, not a one of them was less than twenty T-years old, although that still made them considerably more modern and lethal than anything Monica had possessed before the sudden and mysterious infusion of modern battlecruisers.

The other four "superdreadnought-range" hyper footprints had belonged to the ammunition ships Petard and Holocaust and the repair shipsEricsson andWhite. Terekhov was relieved to see all of them, but especially the two repair ships, given the state of his own command.

Not that it's likely to be "my command" much longer, he reflected as the pinnace sped towardsHercules.

All of his reports had been burst-transmitted to Hercules within minutes of his conversation with Khumalo, but so far, the rear admiral hadn't said another word to him. Under the circumstances, Terekhov found that more than a bit ominous. There were several reasons Khumalo might have hastened off to Monica, and one of the ones that came most forcibly to mind, given the admiral's lack of combat experience and general "by The Book" attitude, was a desire to sit on Terekhov before he got the Star Kingdom into even worse trouble. In fact, Terekhov wouldn't blame him a bit if that was the reason he was here. Augustus Khumalo hadn't been assigned to the Talbott Cluster because of his brilliant combat record and demonstrated ability to think outside the box. The real reasons he'd been sent to Talbott by the High Ridge Government were his connections to the Conservative Party . . . and the fact that no one in High Ridge's cabinet had ever dreamed Talbott might turn into a critical flashpoint. They'd wanted a reliable administrator for a post of decidedly secondary importance, not a warrior, and that was precisely what Khumalo had given them.

And the truth was that Terekhov could see any number of perfectly good and valid reasons for Khumalo to repudiate Terekhov's own actions, and not just from the personal perspective of the admiral's career. Stopping whatever plot had been set in motion by the provider of those battlecruisers had been absolutely essential, but avoiding an open conflict with the Solarian League was equally vital. That was the entire reason Terekhov had set himself up to be publicly disavowed by the Star Kingdom as a sacrifice to placate the Solarians. If Khumalo was as politically aware as Terekhov suspected he was, then the admiral would no doubt recognize the advantages in disavowing him immediately. Khumalo could always stay exactly where he was, maintaining the status quo in Monica until the more powerful relief force which had undoubtedly been dispatched directly from Manticore arrived, on the grounds that the situation, while not of his own or the Star Kingdom's official making, still had to be stabilized until an impartial investigation could get to the bottom of what had really happened. If it should happen that the Queen and the Grantville Government chosenot to disavow Terekhov after all of the reports were in, there would always be time for Khumalo's repudiation to be withdrawn.

And besides all of those perfectly good and logical reasons of state, Terekhov thought with a sour grin, on a personal level, he's got to be totally and completely pissed off with me for putting him in this situation in the first place, no matter howgood my reasons turn out to've been! I know I'dbe royally pissed at me if Iwere him, anyway.

He glanced at the time display ticking steadily down in one corner of the visual display and shrugged mentally. Another eighteen minutes, and he'd have the chance to observe Rear Admiral Augustus Khumalo's reaction firsthand.

It promised to be an interesting experience.

HMSHercules' forward boat bay was considerably larger thanHexapuma's, and it seemed oddly quiet as Terekhov swam the personnel tube from his pinnace, then swung himself into the boat bay's regulation one standard gravity.

"Hexapuma, arriving!" the bay speakers intoned, and the side party came to attention as Terekhov landed just outside the painted line on the deck.

"Permission to come aboard, Ma'am?" he asked the boat bay officer of the deck.

"Permission granted, Sir," the youthful lieutenant in question replied, returning his salute, then stepped back to clear the way for Captain Victoria Saunders,Hercules's commanding officer.

"Captain," Terekhov said, saluting her in turn.

"Welcome aboard, Captain Terekhov," Saunders replied, returning the courtesy. The auburn-haired captain was a good fifteen T-years older than Terekhov, and her expression gave very little indication of her emotions. Her crisp, Sphinxian accent might have been just a bit more taut than usual, but her handshake, when she offered it a moment later, was firm.

"Thank you, Ma'am." Terekhov was unusually aware of the white beret which marked Saunders as the commander of a hyper-capable unit of the Royal Manticoran Navy. His own matching beret was tucked neatly under one of his epaulets, since courtesy precluded his wearing it aboard another captain's command, and he wondered if he was so aware of Saunders' because the odds were so good that he himself would never again be permitted to wear it.

"If you'll come with me, Captain," Saunders continued, "Admiral Khumalo is waiting for you in his day cabin."

"Of course, Ma'am."

Terekhov fell in beside Saunders as Hercules' captain escorted him to the lifts. Saunders made no particular effort to make small talk, for which Terekhov was grateful. There was no point pretending this was a normal courtesy call by one captain upon another, and trying to would only have twisted his own nerves more tightly.

It was odd, he reflected, as he followed Saunders into the lift car and she punched in the proper destination code. He'd thought about this moment literally for months—now it was here, and his stomach muscles were tense and he seemed preternaturally aware of every air current, every tiny scratch on the lift car's control panel. The fact that Khumalo had arrived before any Solarian response was an unspeakable relief, and he was guiltily aware that the knowledge that Khumalo's seniority would make whatever happened from here out his responsibility was an almost equal relief. But Khumalo's arrival also meant Terekhov's personal day of reckoning was at hand. He felt the consequences of his own actions race towards him, and he was far too honest with himself to pretend they didn't frighten him in a way facing the Monican Navy hadn't. This fear lacked the sharp, jagged spikes and raw terror of facing the enemy's fire, but in many ways, that only made it worse. At least in combat there was the illusion that his fate hung upon his own decisions, his own actions. In this case, that fate now hung upon the decisions and actions of others, and nothing he could possibly do at this point would affect those decisions one way or the other.

And yet despite the fear, he felt . . . content. That was what was so odd about it. It wasn't that he felt happy, or that he would have no regrets if it turned out his naval career was, in fact, over. It was simply that he knew, with a certainty which admitted of no doubts at all, that the decisions he'd made and the actions he'd taken were the only ones he could have taken and still been the man Sinead Terekhov loved.

And beside that, he realized, all of the other consequences in the universe were secondary.

The lift car delivered them to their destination, and Terekhov followed Saunders down a passage to the cabin door guarded by the traditional Marine sentry.

"Captain Saunders and Captain Terekhov to see the admiral," Saunders told the Marine.

"Yes, Ma'am. Thank you, Ma'am," the Marine corporal replied, as if he hadn't already known perfectly well who the two naval officers were. He reached down and keyed the bulkhead intercom switch. "Captain Saunders and Captain Terekhov to see the admiral," he announced.

The door slid open immediately, and Captain Loretta Shoupe, Augustus Khumalo's chief of staff, looked out at them.

"Come in," she invited, standing back to clear the way, and then led them across a truly stupendous dining cabin into the only moderately smaller day cabin where Khumalo awaited them.

The admiral remained seated behind his desk as the trio of captains entered.

"Find seats," he said before any formal military courtesies could be exchanged, and Terekhov and the two women settled into three of the day cabin's comfortable chairs.

Khumalo tipped back in his own chair, gazing at Terekhov with a thoughtful expression while several seconds trickled past. Then he shook his head slowly.

"What am I supposed to do with you, Captain Terekhov?" he said finally, still shaking his head. Terekhov started to open his mouth, but Khumalo waved one hand before he could speak.

"That was in the nature of a rhetorical question, Captain," he said. "It does, however, rather neatly sum up my current dilemma, doesn't it? I doubt even someone with your own obviously extraordinarily active imagination is truly up to visualizing the reactions of myself and Baroness Medusa whenEricsson delivered your, ah, missive to us. Mr. O'Shaughnessy, in particular, seemed quite . . . perturbed by your conclusions and projected course of action."

Gregor O'Shaughnessy, Baroness Medusa's senior civilian intelligence analyst, was not one of the military's most uncritical admirers, Terekhov knew.

"Frankly, despite any past differences of opinion with Mr. O'Shaughnessy, I found it just a bit difficult not to sympathize with his reaction," Khumalo continued. "Let's see now. First, there was that little act of piracy in the Montana System when you stoleCopenhagen—from no less than Heinrich Kalokainos—to use as your forward scout here in Monica. Kalokainos has never been particularly fond of the Star Kingdom, and he has quite a few Solarian assemblymen and, even more importantly, Frontier Security bureaucrats in his hip pocket, as I'm sure I don't have to tell an officer with your own Foreign Service background. Then there was the way you induced President Suttles to incarcerateCopenhagen's entire crew so you could steal their ship. Somehow, I don't think Frontier Security will be exactly enthralled with his actions when news of this little escapade gets back to Commissioner Verrochio, which could still have unfortunate consequences for Montana.

"And let's not forget the fashion in which you completely demolished my own deployment plans by appropriating control of every unit of the Southern Patrol which was supposed to be covering the Cluster's entire flank. Or the fact that you deliberately chose to inform me—who, if memory serves, is your superior officer, nominally, at least—of your plans in a manner which would completely preclude any attempt on my part to countermand your intentions.

"Which brings me to the consequences of those intentions."

He smiled thinly.

"According to your report, you've destroyed an even dozen Solarian-built battlecruisers in the service of a Solarian client state without benefit of any orders to do so or of any formal declaration of hostilities between the Star Kingdom and the client state in question. In the course of accomplishing that destruction, you've also killed several thousand Monican military personnel and an as yet undetermined—but undoubtedly very large—number of Solarian and Monican shipyard techs, many of whom were undoubtedly civilians. You've lost six of Her Majesty's warships, along with sixty-odd percent of their ship's' companies, and suffered crippling damage to the only four survivors of your original force. And, according to both your own report and the rather vociferous complaints I've already received from President Tyler, not content with all of that, you've used the threat of destroying the civilian components of Eroica Station—and, just incidentally, killing all of the civilians aboard those components—to hold the surviving Monican Navy at bay and prevent the removal of any personnel or possibly incriminating evidence from the two remaining battlecruisers."

He rocked his chair gently from side to side, contemplating Terekhov for several more seconds, then raised one eyebrow.

"Would that seem to you to constitute a reasonably accurate summation of your energetic activities over the last two or three T-months, Captain?"

"Yes, Sir," Terekhov heard his own voice reply with unreasonable steadiness.

"And would you care to offer any . . . explanations or justifications for those actions, other than those contained in your reports?"

"No, Sir," Terekhov said, meeting the admiral's eyes levelly.

"Well."

Khumalo studied his face without speaking for perhaps ten seconds, then shrugged.

"I can't say I'm incredibly surprised to hear that, Captain," he said. "Under the circumstances, however, I thought you might care to be present when I record my official response to President Tyler's demands that I immediately disavow your actions, relieve you of command, place you under arrest pending a well-deserved court-martial, apologize to the sovereign Union of Monica, and agree to submit this entire matter to the 'impartial' investigation and arbitration of the Office of Frontier Security."

Terekhov wondered if the admiral actually expected a response. Under the circumstances, making one didn't strike Terekhov as the wisest possible course of action, even if he did.

Khumalo produced another of those thin smiles at Terekhov's silence, then tapped a key at his workstation.

"Communications," a voice said. "Lieutenant Masters."

"This is the admiral, Lieutenant. I need to record a message to President Roberto Tyler."

"Yes, Sir. Just a moment." There was a brief pause, then Masters spoke again. "Live mike, Admiral. Go ahead."

"President Tyler," Khumalo said, looking into the com pickup at his terminal, "I apologize for not getting back to you more promptly. As you know, the current one-way transmission lag to Eroica Station is well over forty minutes. Given that inevitable delay in our communications loop, I judged it would be wiser to speak directly to Captain Terekhov and hear his version of the unfortunate events here in Monica in person before speaking to you again."

Hear my version of events, is it? Terekhov thought with a mental snort.

"Obviously, I am deeply distressed by the loss of life, both Monican and Manticoran," Khumalo continued gravely. "The destruction of so many ships, and so much damage to the public property of the Union, are also deeply distressing to me. And I must inform you that Captain Terekhov, by his own admission to me in his formal reports, acknowledges that his actions were completely unauthorized by any higher authority."

The rear admiral shook his head, his expression solemn.

"I have carefully considered your requests that I disavow his actions, remove him from his command, formally apologize to your government for his actions, and agree to submit this entire tragic affair to the investigation and arbitration of the Office of Frontier Security. And I am certain my Queen could desire very few things more than a speedy, just, and fair resolution to all of the myriad questions, accusations, and claims and counter-claims arising from events here in Monica."

Khumalo's eyes glanced sideways at Terekhov's masklike, impassive features, then went back to the pickup.

"Unfortunately, Mr. President," he said, "while all of that is true, I am also of the opinion that what my Queen would even more stronglydesire is for you and your government to explain to her why you have been directly assisting efforts to recruit, support, encourage, and arm terrorist organizations engaged in active campaigns of assassination, murder, and destruction against the citizens of other sovereign star nations who have requested membership in the Star Kingdom of Manticore. I am further of the opinion that she would argue that my first responsibility is to protect those citizens from future attack and determine precisely who supplied those responsible for the attacks already carried out with the several tons of modern Solarian weapons Captain Terekhov confiscated in the Split System. Moreover, I fear Her Majesty is unlikely to repose the most lively possible confidence in the impartiality of any investigation by the Solarian League's Office of Frontier Security, and that she would be most displeased if the two surviving battlecruisers obviously provided to you by Solarian interests should mysteriously disappear before that investigation could be completed to everyone's satisfaction."

Terekhov felt his jaw trying to drop and restrained it firmly.

"Obviously, at this great distance from Manticore, I cannot know for certain what Her Majesty will ultimately decide when she considers these weighty matters," Khumalo continued. "It is my judgment, however, as the senior officer present of the Queen's Navy, that until I do know what her decision is, it is my duty and responsibility to maintain the status quo in this star system pending the arrival of the substantial reinforcements I have requested from Home Fleet, which will undoubtedly arrive with dispatches directly from Manticore. At that time, should my Queen instruct me to comply with your requests, I will, of course, be only too happy to do so. Until that time, however, I must unreservedly endorse Captain Terekhov's actions and inform you that I concur entirely in his conclusions and have every intention of continuing the policy and the military stance he has adopted since the unfortunate engagement with your naval units.

"It is my earnest hope that this entire situation can be resolved as amicably as possible, between the diplomatic representatives of two civilized star nations, with no further loss of life or damage to property, public or private. If, however, you should choose—as is your undoubted right—to use the military force remaining under your command against any unit of the Royal Manticoran Navy, or should I have any reason to believe you are taking steps to destroy, conceal, or remove evidence from Eroica Station, I will not hesitate to act precisely as Captain Terekhov has already informed you he would act."

Augustus Khumalo gazed directly into the pickup, and his deep voice was very level.

"The decision, Mr. President, is up to you. I trust you will choose wisely."

Chapter Seven

Michelle Henke made herself look up from her book reader calmly, with no sign of burning anticipation or nervousness, as Master Steward Billingsley cleared his throat politely in the open hatch.

"Yes, Chris?"

"Sorry to disturb you, Ma'am," Billingsley said gravely, dutifully allowing her to pretend she felt neither of those emotions, "but the captain asked me to tell you we'll be dropping out of hyper in another twenty minutes. He requests that you join him on the command deck at your earliest convenience."

"I see." Michelle carefully bookmarked her place, then tucked the reader away, and stood. "Please inform the captain that I'll join him there in fifteen minutes. In the meantime, I'm going to freshen up just a bit."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Billingsley disappeared, and Michelle crossed to her minuscule cabin's even tinier head and allowed herself to smile wryly into the mirror over the small lavatory.

She knew perfectly well she hadn't fooled Billingsley. For that matter, she hadn't really been trying to. She'd simply been dutifully playing the roles their respective ranks had assigned to them, and Lieutenant Toussaint Brangeard, the CO of RHNS Comet, was playing by the same rules.

And all of us are as nervous as treecats trying to sneak up on a hexapuma with a sore foot. She shook her head at the reflected admiral in the mirror. I'm damned sure I'm not the only one aboard who wishes there'd been time to set this up through the regular diplomatic channels instead of making this dramatic dash. Dropping in all unannounced is certainly one way to be sure we get Pritchart's message delivered in time to do some good, but only if we survive the experience. Under the circumstances, I wonder whether Brangeard is more nervous about being blown out of space by one of our pickets or of going down in history as the skipper who let the Queen of Manticore's cousin—and his President's diplomatic mission—get blown away along with him?

Brangeard himself probably would have found that one hard to answer. Personally, Michelle would just as soon not get anyone killed, herself included, and she'd been extremely tempted to steer Brangeard towards one of the Hermes buoys seeded around the perimeter of Trevor's Star. As yet, however, there was no indication the Havenites were aware of that particular adaptation of Manticore's superior FTL communications technology. The system was still on the Official Secrets List but she'd come very close to telling Brangeard about it on the theory that the message she carried was far more important than preserving the secret of the Hermes buoy's existence. Always assuming, of course, that it really was still a secret.

In the end, she'd decided against it for three reasons. First, it was entirely possible that seeing an unidentified hyper transit close to one of the buoys might prompt a shoot-first, ask-questions-later response from some overeager destroyer or light cruiser skipper. It wasn't supposed to, and neither Honor nor Theodosia Kuzak would be particularly pleased with the skipper in question. All of which would no doubt be very satisfying to the ghosts of the unarmed dispatch boat's passengers and crew. Second, she'd realized, was the fact that deep inside, she was still afraid to let herself believe her mission—or Pritchart's mission, perhaps, if she was going to be totally accurate—was going to succeed. It was almost as if a part of her had decided that she dared not do anything that might tempt a capricious fate into punishing her hubris. Which was undoubtedly about as dumb as it got, but was unfortunately also the truth. And, third, was the fact that the quicker communication the FTL relay would have permitted probably wouldn't really have had that much effect on the system defense forces' response to the sudden emergence of an unidentified ship from hyper. The fact that the entire star system had been declared closed military space gave any of its defenders the legal right to shoot first and try to identify the bodies—if any—afterwards, although she rather doubted any Manticoran squadron commander was likely to do anything of the sort.

You hope, anyway, she told herself dryly.

She checked her appearance carefully, making certain it was as close to perfect as humanly possible, then drew a deep breath and straightened her shoulders.

Time to stop wasting time pretending Chris would let you leave this cabin looking anything but perfect, girl.You told him to tell Brangeard you'd join him on the flight deck. Now do it.

"Good morning, Admiral Gold Peak," Lieutenant Brangeard said, standing respectfully as Michelle stepped ontoComet's thumbnail-sized command deck.

"Thank you, Captain," Michelle replied. She'd tried, for the first couple of days, to break Brangeard of the habit of addressing her by her title, but she'd met with no more success than she had with Arlo Tanner, although the reasons were quite different, she felt certain.

"You timed it pretty well, Milady," he said, and nodded to the digital display on the bulkhead which showed the remaining time until Comet dropped back out of hyper-space again. As Michelle glanced at the display, it slipped over to show exactly four minutes, and she chuckled. Brangeard raised a polite eyebrow at her, and her chuckle turned into a snort.

"I was just contemplating the perversity of the universe, Captain," Michelle told him. "A rather close friend of mine once did something very similar to this, although on a substantially grander scale."

"Oh?" Brangeard cocked his head for a moment, then snorted himself. "You mean Duchess Harrington after she got away from StateSec at Cerberus, Milady?"

"That's exactly who I mean," Michelle agreed. "As I say, though, she managed her arrival quite a bit more flamboyantly than we're about to. For one thing, she wasn't a paroled prisoner of war on someone else's command deck. And she had at least a half-dozen battlecruisers, which was probably enough firepower to give anyone pause long enough for her to establish communications."

"I suppose that's true, Milady. On the other hand, the fact that Comet's only a dispatch boat is probably going to keep anyone from thinking we're any kind of significant threat. Which ought to keep any fingers off the launch button at least long enough to ask us what we think we're doing."

"I keep telling myself that, Captain. Fervently and often," Michelle told him only half humorously. "Of course, there was one other small difference about Her Grace's arrival and ours." Brangeard looked at her, and she smiled. "At that point, no one had MDMs. So she had a lot more distance to play with before anyone could get into range of her ships."

"Milady, I could've gone all morning without your reminding me of that particular little difference," Brangeard said in a desert-dry tone. "Let me thank you for drawing it to my attention."

Michelle laughed and started to reply, but before she could, a soft tone chimed and Comet dropped back into normal-space just outside the Trevor's Star hyper limit.

"Skipper, we've got an unscheduled hyper footprint at six million kilometers!"

Captain Jane Timmons, CO, HMS Andromeda, spun her command chair towards her tactical officer. Six million kilometers was inside single-drive missile range!

She opened her mouth to demand more information, but the tac officer was already providing it.

"It's a single footprint, Ma'am. Very small. Probably a dispatch boat."

"Anything from it?" Timmons asked.

"Not FTL, Ma'am. And we wouldn't have anything light-speed for another—" he glanced at the time chop on the initial detection "—another couple of seconds. In fact—"

"Captain," the com officer said in a very careful voice, "I have a communications request I think you'd better take."

"Excuse me," the extremely suspicious looking woman in the uniform of a Royal Manticoran Navy captain of the list said from the smallish com screen onComet's command deck, "but you're going to have to do a bit better than that, Captain . . . Brangeard, was it? There are proper channels for diplomatic exchanges. Ones that don't let Havenite dispatch boats into sensor range of sensitive installations. So I recommend you try a bit harder to convince me not to open fire."

"All right, Captain," Michelle said, stepping into the range of the visual pickup. "Let's see if I can't just do that little thing for the captain."

Michelle hadn't realized just how badly the Manticoran Alliance's FTL com had spoiled her until she found herself forced to put up once again with the limitations of purely light-speed communications at such piddling little ranges. She stood there, waiting while her transmission crossed the twenty light-seconds to the other ship, then for another twenty seconds while the response from the other end crossed back toComet.

In the end, she decided, it was worth the wait.

Forty seconds after she'd first spoken, a spike of heightened suspicion flashed across the face on Comet's com display as the other woman saw Michelle's immaculate Manticoran uniform on someone speaking to her from aboard a Havenite vessel. But thenAndromeda's captain looked past the uniform, and the suspicion turned into something very different. Michelle knew from personal experience that the RMN didn't exactly pick people it expected to be easily confounded to command its battlecruisers, but the other woman's jaw actually dropped.

Well, Michelle thought, I do have the Winton nose. And aside from the fact that my complexion's about twelve shades darker than Beth's, we really do favor. Or so I've been told, anyway.

"I suppose this is all a bit irregular," she said dryly as recognition flared across the captain's face, "but I have a message for Her Majesty from the President of the Republic of Haven."

Michelle made herself sit very still as thrusters flared, easingAndromeda's number one pinnace into the boat bay of the stupendous superdreadnought. It was hard. Too many emotions, too many conflicting tides of relief, surprise, hope, and anxiety were washing through her. The last time she'd seen this ship's icon on a tactical display, she'd known she would never see it or the admiral whose lights it flew again. Yet here she was, turning up once again, like the proverbial bad penny.

And with such an . . . interesting message to deliver, too, she reflected. But it's really not fair. When Honor came back from the dead, I was nowhere in the vicinity. At least we'd both gotten a chance to get our emotions back under control before we came face-to-face again.

The pinnace settled into the docking arms, and the personnel tube and service umbilicals ran out and mated with the access points on its hull. The flight engineer checked the hatch telltales.

"Good seal, Flight," he reported to the flight deck. "Cracking the hatch."

The hatch slid open, and the petty officer who'd opened it stood aside and braced to attention.

"Welcome home, Admiral," he said with an enormous smile, and Michelle smiled back at him.

"Thank you, PO Gervais," she said, reading his name off the nameplate on the breast of his uniform. The petty officer's smile grew even broader, and then she nodded to him and launched herself into the personnel tube's zero-gravity.

The distance from the pinnace's passenger compartment to HMS Imperator was no more than a few meters, but she relished the brief zero-gee passage. Her leg hadn't been simply broken when Ajax was destroyed. "Shattered" would have been a more accurate choice of verb, or even "pulverized," and quick-heal always slowed down on bone repairs, anyway. The leg was perfectly capable of supporting her weight now, at least as long as she took it easy, but it still tended to ache most unpleasantly if she pushed it too hard.

She reached the inboard end of the tube, caught the red grab bar, and swung herself back out of the tube's microgravity and into the standard one-gravity field of Eighth Fleet's flagship. She landed more than a bit gingerly—sudden impacts pushed the nerve messages from her broken leg beyond unpleasant to acutely painful—and came to attention and saluted through the twitter of bosun's pipes.

"Battlecruiser Squadron Eighty-One, arriving!"

The announcement she'd expected never to hear again came over the bay's speakers, and the side party snapped to attention, returning her salute sharply.

"Permission to come aboard, Sir?" she requested from the lieutenant who wore the black brassard of the boat bay officer of the deck.

"Permission granted, Admiral Henke!"

Both hands fell from the salute, and Michelle stepped past the BBOD, trying not to limp too noticeably as she found herself face-to-face with the tall, almond-eyed woman in the uniform of a full admiral and the cream and gray treecat riding on her shoulder.

"Mike," Honor Alexander-Harrington said, very quietly, taking her offered hand in a firm clasp. "It's good to see you again."

"And you, Your Grace." Michelle tried to keep her voice from wavering, but she knew she hadn't quite pulled it off, and Honor's grip on her hand tightened ever so briefly. Then Honor released her and stepped back a bit.

"Well," she said, "I believe you said something about a message?"

"Yes, I did."

"Should I get Admiral Kuzak out here?"

"I don't believe that will be necessary, Ma'am." Michelle had her voice back under control, and she kept her tone formal, aware of the spectators surrounding them.

"Then why don't you accompany me to my quarters?"

"Of course, Your Grace."

Honor led the way to the lift shaft, and Colonel Andrew LaFollet, her personal armsman, followed alertly behind them in his Harrington green uniform. No one else accompanied them, however, and Honor personally pressed the button, then smiled faintly and waved Michelle through the opening door. She and LaFollet followed, and as the door slid shut behind them, she reached out and gripped Michelle's upper arms.

"My God," she said softly. "It is good to see you, Mike!"

Michelle started to reply, but before she could think of something suitably flippant, Honor swept her suddenly into a bear hug. Michelle's eyes widened. Honor had never been one for easy embraces, and even now, Michelle hadn't really expected one. Nor, she thought an instant later, had she ever truly appreciated just how strong Honor's genetically-engineered, Sphinx-bred muscles actually were.

"Easy! Easy!" she gasped, returning the embrace. "The leg's bad enough, woman! Don't add crushed ribs to the list!"

"Sorry," Honor said huskily, then stood back and cleared her throat while Nimitz buzzed a happy, welcoming purr from her shoulder.

"Sorry," she repeated after moment. "It's just that I thought you were dead. And then, when we found out you weren't, I still expected months, or years, to pass before I saw you again."

"Then I guess we're even over that little Cerberus trip you took," Michelle replied with a smile.

"I guess we are," Honor acknowledged, then chuckled suddenly. "Although you at least weren't dead long enough for them to throw an entire state funeral for you!"

"Pity." Michelle grinned at her. "I would've loved to watch the HD of it."

"Yes, you probably would have. You always have been just a bit peculiar, Mike Henke."

"You only say that because of my taste in friends."

"No doubt," Honor agreed as the lift doors opened on the passageway outside her quarters. Spencer Hawke, the junior member of her permanent personal security team, stood guard just outside them, and she paused and looked back at LaFollet.

"Andrew, you and Spencer can't keep this up forever. We've got to get at least one other armsman up here to give the two of you some relief."

"My Lady, I've been thinking about that, but I haven't had the time to select someone," LaFollet replied. There was something odd about his tone, something Michelle had never before heard in it when he spoke to Honor. It wasn't a note of disagreement, or even of evasiveness—not quite—and yet . . .

"I'd have to go back to Grayson, My Lady," LaFollet continued, "and—"

"No, Andrew, you wouldn't," Honor interrupted with a moderately stern look. "Two points," she continued. "First, my son will be born in another month. Second, Brigadier Hill is quite capable of selecting a suitable pool of candidates back on Grayson and sending them to us for you and me to consider together. I know you have a lot on your mind, and I know there are aspects of the situation you don't really like. But this needs to be attended to."

He looked back at her for a few seconds, then sighed.

"Yes, My Lady. I'll send the dispatch to Brigadier Hill on the morning shuttle."

"Thank you," she said, and touched him lightly on the arm, then turned back to Michelle.

"I believe someone else is waiting to welcome you back," she said, and the hatch slid open to show a beaming James MacGuiness.

"Mac," Michelle said, reaching out to grip McGuinness' hand. Then she decided that wasn't enough, and swept him into an embrace almost as crushing as the one Honor had just inflicted upon her. The older man's eyes widened very briefly. Technically, Michelle supposed, a rear admiral wasn't supposed to go around hugging mere stewards, but she really didn't give much of a damn. She'd known MacGuiness for almost twenty years, and he'd become part of Honor's extended family—just as Michelle herself had—long ago. Besides, there were stewards, and then there were stewards, and there was nothing in the least "mere" about James MacGuiness.

"May I say, Admiral, that it's one of the greatest pleasures of my life to welcome you home," he said as the strength of her embrace eased and he stood back a few centimeters. "Indeed, it's given me almost as much pleasure as it did to welcome someone else home, some years ago."

"And who could that possibly have been, Mac?" Michelle asked, rounding her eyes innocently.

The steward chuckled and shook his head, then looked across at Honor.

"I've taken the liberty of preparing a few snacks, Your Grace," he told her. "I've set them out in your day cabin. If you should require anything else, just buzz."

"Mac, it's the middle of the night," Honor pointed out with fond exasperation. "I realize Admiral Henke is still on a Nouveau Paris time schedule, but we aren't. So go back to bed. Get some sleep!"

"Just buzz, Your Grace," he told her with a slight smile and withdrew.

LaFollet did the same thing, leaving Honor and Michelle alone, and Michelle quirked an eyebrow.

"Andrew is leaving me alone with you?" she asked quizzically as Honor led the way into her day cabin and waved her into one of the comfortable chairs.

"Yes, he is," Honor confirmed.

"Are you sure that's wise?" Michelle's voice was entirely serious, and Honor arched an eyebrow of her own as she settled into a facing chair. Nimitz flowed down from his person's shoulder and curled his long, sinuous body length around behind her on the armchair's upholstered back.

"I just got back from a stint as a Havenite prisoner-of-war," Michelle pointed out. "I don't think their medicos did anything except take really good care of me and all my survivors, Honor, but Tim didn't think anything had been done to him before he tried to kill you, either. And given the fact that it was almost certainly the Peeps who programmed him, however the hell they did it . . ."

She let her voice trail off, and Honor's nostrils flared. She didn't—quite—snort, but her body language and expression gave the impression she had.

"First," she said, "you aren't armed, unless they also managed to tuck some sort of weapon away inside you, and the scans aboard Andromeda would have picked that up. And, with all due respect, Mike, I'm not really concerned about your managing to kill me with your bare hands before Andrew gets back in here to rescue me."

Despite her own genuine concern, Michelle's lips twitched. Unlike her, Honor Alexander-Harrington had spent the better part of fifty T-years training in coup de vitesse. Even without the hidden pulser Michelle knew her father had built into Honor's artificial left hand, Honor wouldn't find it particularly difficult to fend off any bare-handed assault Michelle might launch.

"And, second," Honor continued, "both Nimitz and I know what to watch for now. I feel fairly confident we'd realize something was taking over at least as quickly as you did, and this time, Mike," she looked directly into Michelle's eyes, "I am not going to kill another friend as the only way to stop her. Nor am I going to take a chance on Andrew's doing the same thing. So if it should happen that anyone on the planet of Haven slipped any new lines of code into your programming, the sooner it kicks in, the better, as far as I'm concerned.

"Besides," she grinned suddenly, breaking the tension of the moment, "I can't believe anyone in the Republic would be crazy enough to deliberately send another programmed assassin after me, especially after releasing the aforesaid assassin from prison and providing her with transportation home! I think they must have a pretty shrewd notion of how Elizabeth would react to that."

"If you're sure," Michelle said.

"Positive," Honor replied firmly, and reached for the coffee pot on the tray MacGuiness had set up. She poured a cup for Michelle, poured a cup of hot, steaming cocoa from a second carafe for herself, then settled back in her chair.

For several minutes, neither of them spoke. They only sat there, sipping their beverages of choice while Honor nibbled idly on a sandwich—taking the opportunity to stoke her genetically-modified metabolism—and handed Nimitz a stick of celery. The 'cat chewed blissfully—and messily—on the treat, and the crunching sound of his dining sounded unnaturally loud in the day cabin's quiet.

It was odd, Michelle reflected. She supposed most people in their position would have been busy filling the silence with small talk, or at least telling one another all over again how glad they were to see each other. But neither she nor Honor felt the need to do that. They'd known each other much too long to need to manufacture chatter just to be saying something, after all.

Besides, Michelle thought with an internal flicker of amusement, we've already done this once before, from the other side. We're all practiced up!

"So, Mike," Honor said finally, "just what induced the Havenites to send you home?"

"That's an interesting question." Michelle cradled her cup in both hands, gazing at Honor across it. "I think mostly they picked me because I'm Beth's cousin. They figured she'd have to listen to a message from me. And, I imagine, they hoped the fact that they'd given me back to her would at least tempt her to listen seriously to what they had to say."

"Which is? Or is it privileged information you can't share with me?"

"Oh, it's privileged all right—for now, at least," Michelle told her wryly. She kept her expression suitably solemn, although she was perfectly well aware that Honor's empathic sense could taste her impish amusement. "But I was specifically told I could share it with you, since it also concerns you."

"Mike," Honor informed her, "if you don't come clean with me and quit tossing out tidbits, I'm going to choke it out of you. You do realize that, don't you?"

"Home less than an hour, and already threatened with physical violence." Michelle shook her head sadly, then shrank back into her chair as Honor started to stand up and Nimitz bleeked a laugh from his chair-back perch.

"All right, all right! I'll talk!"

"Good." Honor settled back. "And," she added, "I'm still waiting."

"Yes, well," Michelle straightened in her own chair, "it's not really a laughing matter, I suppose. But put most simply, Pritchart is using me as her messenger to suggest to Beth that the two of them meet in a face-to-face summit to discuss a negotiated settlement."

Honor's eyes flickered. That was the only sign of surprise Michelle saw out of her, but that very lack of expression was its own revelation. Then Honor drew a deep breath and cocked her head to one side.

"That's a very interesting offer. Do you think she really means it?"

"Oh, I think she definitely wants to meet with Beth. Just what she intends to offer is another matter. On that front, I wish you'd been the one talking to her."

"What sort of agenda did she propose?" Honor asked.

"That's one of the odd parts about the offer." Michelle shook her head. "Basically, she left it wide open. Obviously, she wants a peace treaty, but she didn't list any specific set of terms. Apparently, she's willing to throw everything into the melting pot if Beth will agree to negotiate with her one-on-one."

"That's a significant change from their previous stance, at least as I understand it," Honor said thoughtfully, and Michelle shrugged.

"I hate to say it, but you're probably in a better position to know that than I am," she admitted. "I've been trying to pay more attention to politics since you tore a strip off me, but it's still not really a primary interest of mine."

Honor gave her an exasperated look and shook her head. Michelle only looked back, essentially unrepentant, even though she had to admit Honor's annoyance was amply justified. For a moment, she thought Honor was going to read her the riot act all over again, but then her friend only shrugged for her to continue.

"Actually," Michelle told her, "it's probably a good thing you are more interested in politics and diplomacy than I am."

"Why?"

"Because one specific element of Pritchart's proposal is a request that you also attend the conference she wants to set up."

"Me?" This time Honor's surprise was evident, and Michelle nodded.

"You. I got the impression the original suggestion to include you may have come from Thomas Theisman, but I'm not sure about that. Pritchart did assure me, however, that neither she nor anyone in her administration had anything to do with your attempted assassination. And you can believe however much of that you want to."

"She'd almost have to say that, I suppose," Honor said. Clearly, she was thinking hard. Several seconds passed in silence before she cocked her head again. "Did she say anything about Ariel or Nimitz?"

"No, she didn't . . . and I thought that was probably significant. They know both you and Beth have been adopted, of course, and it was obvious that they have extensive dossiers on both of you. I'm sure they've been following the articles and other presentations on the 'cats' capabilities since they decided to come out of the closet, too."

"Which means, in effect, that she's inviting us to bring a pair of furry lie detectors to this summit of hers."

"That's what I think." Michelle nodded. "I guess it's always possible they haven't made that connection after all, but I think it's unlikely."

"So do I." Honor gazed off into the distance, once again clearly thinking hard. Then she looked back at Michelle.

"The timing on this is interesting. We've got several factors working here."

"I know," Michelle said. "And so does Pritchart." Honor's eyebrows rose, and Michelle snorted. "She made very certain I knew about that business in Talbott. She made the specific point that her offer of a summit is being made at a time when she and her advisers are fully aware of how tightly stretched we are. The unstated implication was that instead of an invitation to talk, they might have sent a battle fleet."

"Yes, they certainly could have," Honor agreed grimly.

"Have we heard any more from the Cluster?" Michelle asked, unable to keep the anxiety she'd felt ever since Pritchart told her about the initial reports out of her voice.

"No. And we won't hear anything back from Monica for at least another ten or eleven days. And that's one reason I said the timing on this was interesting. On the chance that the news we get may be good, I've been ordered to update our plans for Operation Sanskrit—that's the successor to the Cutworm raids—with a tentative execution date twelve days from tomorrow. Well, from today, actually, now."

"You're thinking about the way Saint-Just derailed Buttercup by suggesting a cease-fire to High Ridge," Michelle said, shaking her head. After all, the same thought had crossed her own mind more than once, although the strategic momentum seemed to be on the other side, this time around.

"Actually," Honor replied, shaking her own head, "I'm thinking about the fact that Elizabeth is going to remember it. Unless they've got a lot more penetration of our security than I believe they do, they can't know what our operational schedule is. Oh, they've probably surmised that Eighth Fleet was just about ready to resume offensive operations, assuming we were going to do that at all, when Khumalo's dispatch arrived. And if they've done the math, they probably know we're about due to hear back from him. But they must have packed you off home almost the same day word of our diversions from Home Fleet could have reached them. To me, that sounds like they moved as quickly as possible to take advantage of an opportunity to negotiate seriously. I'm just afraid it's going to resonate with Buttercup in Elizabeth's thoughts."

"She's not entirely rational where Peeps are concerned," Michelle agreed.

"With justification I'm afraid." Honor sighed, and Michelle looked at her in mild surprise. Honor, she knew, had been a persistent voice of moderation in the Queen's inner circle. In fact, she'd been just about the only persistent voice of moderation, after the surprise attack with which the Republic of Haven had recommenced hostilities. So why was she suggesting that Elizabeth's fiery intransigence might be justified?

Michelle thought about asking exactly that, then changed her mind.

"Well, I hope she doesn't get her dander up this time," she said instead. "God knows I love her, and she's one of the strongest monarchs we've ever had, but that temper of hers—!"

She shook her head, and Honor grimaced.

"I know everyone thinks she's a warhead with a hairtrigger," she said with more than a hint of annoyance. "I'll even acknowledge that she's one of the best grudge-holders I know. But she isn't really blind to her responsibilities as a head of state, you know!"

"You don't have to defend her to me, Honor!" Michelle raised both hands, palms towards her friend in a warding off gesture. "I'm just trying to be realistic. The fact is that she's got a temper from the dark side of Hell, when it's roused, and you know as well as I do how she hates yielding to pressure, even from people she knows are giving her their best advice. And speaking of pressure, Pritchart was careful to make sure I knew she knew the goings on in the Cluster have given the Republic the whip hand, diplomatically speaking. Not only that, she told me to inform Beth that she's releasing an official statement tomorrow in Nouveau Paris informing the Republic and the galaxy at large that she's issued her invitation."

"Oh, lovely." Honor leaned back. "That was a smart move. And you're right, Elizabeth is going to resent it. But she's played the interstellar diplomacy game herself—quite well, in fact. I don't think she'll be surprised by it. And I doubt very much that any resentment she feels over it would have a decisive impact on her decision."

"I hope you're right." Michelle sipped from her coffee cup, then lowered it. "I hope you're right, because hard as I tried to stay cynical, I think Pritchart really means it. She really wants to sit down with Beth and negotiate peace."

"Then let's hope she manages to pull it off," Honor said softly.

Chapter Eight

"Lieutenant Archer?"

Lieutenant Gervais Archer turned quickly from his contemplation of the luxuriantly bright beds of terrestrial flowers on the far side of the picture window to the even more luxuriantly bearded master steward in the doorway.

"Yes, Master Steward?"

"The admiral will see you now, Sir."

"Thank you."

Archer suppressed an urge to straighten his beret nervously as he followed the steward through the doorway and down a tastefully—and expensively—furnished hallway. He also attempted, less successfully, to suppress the thought of how his parents, and especially his mother, would have reacted to an invitation to this Landing townhouse. And how unlikely it was that they would ever receive one.

The steward glanced back over his shoulder at him as they approached another, open doorway, then coughed gently, in an attention-gathering sort of way.

"Yes, Chris?" a throaty, almost furry-sounding contralto responded.

"Lieutenant Archer is here, Ma'am."

"I see. Ask him to step in, please."

"Yes, Ma'am."

The bearded steward stepped to one side and nodded courteously for Archer to step past him. Which, with a certain trepidation, the lieutenant did.

The room beyond the door was a combination library and office. It was a large room, and he felt his eyes widen very slightly as he saw towering shelves filled with what certainly appeared to be old-style printed books. For most people, that sort of collection would have been pure ostentation, or at least window dressing, at best. These books, though, weren't. He couldn't have said exactly how he knew that, but he did. Perhaps it was the fact that their spines had that slightly worn, almost matte-polished look that human hands left on things they actually handled.

In sharp contrast to the archaic books, the room also boasted a sleekly modern and efficient workstation. It was the woman seated at that workstation Archer had come to see, and he crossed to it, then braced to attention.

"Lieutenant Archer, Ma'am," he said.

"So I see, Lieutenant," she said, standing and extending her hand through the insubstantial holo of the display she'd been perusing when he arrived.

He took the hand, which gripped his firmly, and let his spine and shoulders relax at the handshake's unstated command to settle into a more comfortable stance.

"Have a seat," she invited, and he settled into the indicated chair just a bit gingerly.

She sat down behind her own desk again, this time deactivating the holo display, and leaned back slightly, regarding him intently. He looked back, hoping he didn't look nervous . . . especially since he was nervous.

"So," she said after a moment or two, "you were in Necromancer at Solon."

Her tone made the statement a question, although he wasn't certain exactly what the question was. Still . . .

"Yes, Ma'am. I was."

His voice came out sounding level, he noted with a certain almost distant surprise. Surprise because it didn't feel level. Nothing felt "level" whenever he thought about Solon. Thought about the screaming hurricane of missiles, about the way his ship had heaved and twisted indescribably under the pounding of the bomb-pumped lasers. Remembered the howling alarms, the screams over the intercom, the sudden silences where voices used to be, the bodies of two of his best friends . . .

"Pretty bad, wasn't it?"

His eyes snapped back into focus, and he blinked in surprise. Surprise that she should broach the subject so openly when everyone else had tried so hard to avoid talking about it at all. And surprise at the understanding—the sympathy born of mutual experience, not saccharine pity—in her quiet question.

"Yes, Ma'am, it was," he heard himself say, equally quietly.

Michelle Henke gazed at the young man on the other side of her desk. She'd had her doubts when Honor had recommended young Archer as her new flag lieutenant. Of course, part of that was because she'd wondered whether she'd even need a new flag lieutenant.

Getting just a bit ahead of yourself going ahead and interviewing candidates when the Admiralty hasn't even told you it's going to find you a command, aren't you, girl? she reflected. On the other hand, it's not like good flag lieutenants are a-dime-a-dozen, either. And even an admiral who doesn't have a command needs a good aide.

Indeed they weren't, and indeed she did. And it wasn't many lieutenants who were likely to gain the recommendation of someone like Honor Harrington without ever having served directly under her.

"He's been through hell, Mike," she remembered Honor saying, reaching up to touch Nimitz's ears. "His efficiency reports are top-notch, and I know Captain Cruickshank thought the world of him. He 'tastes' a lot like another Tim Meares, to be honest. But there's a lot of pain locked up inside him at the moment, too. I think part of its probably survivor's guilt." Those almond-shaped eyes had bored into Michelle's. "Almost like he did something wrong surviving when his ship didn't. Sound familiar?"

Yeah, Honor, she thought now. Yeah, it does.

"Well, Lieutenant," she said aloud, "when that kind of thing happens, it leaves marks. They don't go away, either. Believe me, I know firsthand. The question is whether or not we let it change who we are."

Gervais twitched. He'd come here expecting to answer the standard questions, to summarize his experience, demonstrate his expertise. He hadn't expected to find an admiral he'd never even met before talking about memories. About the bleak sense of loss, the gnawing question of why he'd survived when so many others hadn't.

"Change who we are, Ma'am?" he heard himself reply. "I'm not sure that's the right question. Isn't 'who we are' the result of everything that does change us? I mean, if we don't change, then we don't learn, either, do we?"

Whoa! Didn't see that one coming, Michelle thought. She managed not to blink or to narrow her eyes in surprise, but she did tip her chair back a bit further and purse her lips thoughtfully.

"That's an excellent point, Lieutenant," she conceded. "And I'm not usually guilty of such imprecise language. What I meant, I suppose, is that the question is whether or not we allow the changes to deflect us from who we want to be, change what we want to accomplish with our lives. Do we let them . . . diminish us, or do we accept the scars and continue growing?"

She's not talking just to me. Gervais had no idea where that flash of insight could come from, but he knew, without question, that it was true.She's talking to herself. Or, no, that's not quite right either. . . . She's talking about us. About all of us survivors. And she's talking to both of us about it.

"I don't know, Ma'am," he said. "Whether or not it's going to deflect me, I mean. I don't want it to. I don't think it's going to. But, I have to admit, it hurts so much sometimes that I'm not sure about that."

Michelle nodded slowly. She didn't need Honor's empathic sense to recognize the painful honesty behind that response, and she respected young Archer for it. In fact, a part of her was astonished that he could confront it that openly and honestly in front of a total stranger.

Maybe Honor was right about this one's metal, she thought, then chuckled silently to herself. Wouldn't exactly be the first time she'd been right about something, would it?

"That's something I'm not always as confident about as I'd like to be, either, Lieutenant," she said, returning honesty for honesty. "And, unfortunately, I only know one way for either of us to find out. So, tell me, are you game to climb back onto the horse?"

The young man gazed at her for several seconds, then nodded back to her, as slowly as she'd nodded to him.

"Yes, Ma'am," he said. "I am."

"And would you be interested in doing that as my flag lieutenant?" she asked. He started to reply, but her raised hand stopped him. "Before you answer that question, understand that at this particular point in time, I don't even know if I'm going to have a command. The doctors still haven't officially cleared me to return to duty, and I understand Admiralty House is having a fairly lively internal debate about exactly what the terms of my parole require. So it's entirely possible that if you do sign on as my flag lieutenant, we're not going to be offered any horses to climb back onto any time soon."

"Ma'am," Archer felt his lips trying to twitch into a half-smile, "somehow I don't really see that being a big problem. I don't know what the terms of your 'parole' were, but I'd be really surprised if the Admiralty wasn't willing to be fairly . . . creative in its interpretation, if that's what it takes to get you back on a flag deck."

"Obviously, Lieutenant, you have a high opinion of my abilities," Michelle said dryly.

She also watched Archer's expression carefully as she said it, but she saw neither surprise, nor chagrin, nor sycophancy. Nor, for that matter, did he appear to feel any compulsion to reply just to be replying or to explain—which she was confident would be completely honest—that he'd had no intention of flattering her. A most self-possessed young man, Lieutenant Archer, she reflected.

"I see from your file," she continued in a deliberately brisker tone, "that you and I are related, Lieutenant."

"Ah, not really—" he began, then stopped himself. For the first time since he'd entered her office, he sounded genuinely flustered, Michelle thought with a carefully hidden mental smile. "What I meant to say, Ma'am," he resumed after a moment, "is that the relationship is . . . very distant."

He really hadn't had to tell her that, Michelle thought with another silent chuckle, looking at his flaming red hair, green eyes, and snub nose. Anything less like the Winton genotype would have been difficult to imagine. In fact, young Archer was at best an exceedingly remote cousin. A point of which his mother appeared to have been unaware when it came time to name her infant son.

"I see." Despite herself, her lips twitched very slightly, and when she glanced up, she saw something she hadn't really expected. A sparkle of amusement of his own had displaced at least some of the shadows in those green eyes.

Gervais saw her tiny smile, and felt his own mouth trying to smile back. Somehow, especially after all of his mother's childhood tales about the Wintons, he hadn't expected the woman who stood fifth in line for the crown to be quite so approachable, so . . . human. For the first time, almost to his own surprise, he found himself looking forward to the possibility of this assignment in something more than merely professional terms.

"My mother always thought of the relationship as being just a bit closer than my father ever did, Ma'am," he heard himself saying. "That's how I ended up with my name. If you noticed, of course."

His last sentence came out so demurely that Michelle chuckled out loud this time, and shook her head at him.

"Actually, I did notice," she told him in a moderately reproving tone. Then she grinned. "Gervais Winton Erwin Neville Archer. Now that's a mouthful. Almost as bad as Gloria Michelle Samantha Evelyn Henke. There's a reason my friends call me Michelle or Mike, Lieutenant."

"I'm not surprised, Ma'am," he replied, and she chuckled again.

"No, I don't imagine you are," she agreed, tapping the record chip on her desk which contained his personal file. "I noticed that you were nicknamed 'Gwen' at the Academy—from your initials, as my keen intellect speedily deduced."

"Yes, Ma'am," Gervais agreed. "Mom never did understand why I preferred it to Gervais, either. Don't get me wrong—I love my mother, and she's a brilliant woman. One of the Star Kingdom's top molecular chemists. There's just this one point where she's . . . well, 'marching to another drum' is the way Dad's always put it."

"I see." Michelle regarded him for several more seconds, then reached a decision. She stood once more, holding out her hand again.

"Well, 'Gwen,' I suppose that since every flag lieutenant is part of his admiral's official family, our relationship is going to get a bit closer. Welcome aboard, Lieutenant."

Chapter Nine

Michelle accepted her beret from Master Steward Billingsley and started to turn towards the door and the waiting Admiralty air car when she paused suddenly.

"And what, Master Steward, might that be?" she asked.

"I beg the Admiral's pardon?" Billingsley said innocently. "What 'that' would the Admiral be referring to?"

"The Admiral would be referring tothat 'that,' " Michelle replied, one forefinger indicating the broad, prick-eared head which had just poked itself exploringly around the corner of a door.

"Oh,that 'that'!"

"Precisely," Michelle said, folding her arms and regarding him ominously.

"That's a cat, Ma'am," Billingsley told her. "Not a treecat, a cat—an Old Earth cat. It's called a 'Maine Coon.' "

"I'm well aware of what an Old Earth cat looks like, Chris," Michelle said repressively, never unfolding her arms. "I don't believe I've ever seen one quite that large, but I do know what they are. What I don't know is what it's doing in my mother's townhouse."

Actually, the townhouse and its landscaped grounds belonged to Michelle now, not to her mother, but it was Caitrin Winton-Henke's home, even if Michelle did have most of a wing reserved for her private use whenever she was on Manticore.

"Well, actually, Ma'am, he's mine," Billingsley said with the air of someone making a clean breast of it.

"And just when did this monumental change in your status as a parent take place?" Michelle inquired just a bit acidly as the rest of the impressively large feline ambled into the foyer.

"Day before yesterday," Billingsley said. "I . . . found him wandering around over near the Master Chiefs' Club. He looked like he needed a home, and he walked right up to me, and I couldn't just leave him there, Ma'am!"

"I see," Michelle said, looking into his guilelessly wide and innocent eyes. "And would it happen that this hulking menace to all mice, hamsters, chipmunks, and unwary small children has a name?"

"Yes, Ma'am. I call him 'Dicey.' "

" 'Dicey,' " Michelle replied with long-suffering resignation. "Of course."

Billingsley continued to look as if butter would not melt in his mouth, but the name was a dead giveaway of how his new pet had really come into his possession, Michelle thought, looking at the enormous cat. It was the first terrestrial cat she'd ever seen who looked like he probably came close to matching Nimitz's mass. Not only that, but 'Dicey' was a good twenty centimeters shorter overall than Nimitz, and although he was definitely a long hair, he was nowhere near as fluffy as a treecat, which made him substantially bulkier. One ear had a notch that looked like someone else had taken a bite out of it, and a scar across the back of his burly neck left a visible furrow in his fur. There were a couple of more of those on the left side of his face, as well, she noticed. Obviously, he'd been to the wars, yet there was something about him that reminded her irresistibly of Billingsley himself, now that she thought about it. A certain endearing disreputability, perhaps.

She glanced at her new flag lieutenant, who was observing the entire scene with a laudably professional and serene expression. There was, however, a certain almost subliminal twinkle in Lieutenant Archer's green eyes. One that boded ill, she decided. Clearly "Gwen" was already succumbing to Billingsley's incorrigible charm.

Much like a certain admiral you know, perhaps? she reflected.

"You do realize how many regulations there are against having a pet on board one of her Majesty's starships?" she inquired out loud after a moment.

"Regulations, Ma'am?" Billingsley repeated blankly, as if he'd never heard the word before.

Michelle started to open her mouth again, then gave up. A wise woman knew when to cut her losses, and she didn't begin to have the time it would take to make a dent in Billingsley's bland innocence. Besides, she didn't have the heart for it.

"As long as you understand that I'm not going to put any pressure on anyone to allow you to bring that beast along on our next deployment," she said, trying womanfully to sound firm.

"Oh, yes, Ma'am. I understand that," Billingsley assured her without a trace of triumph.

They'd managed to arrive almost twenty minutes early.

Not exactly the best way to look like I'm not champing at the bit for another assignment, I suppose, Michelle had mused as she and Archer were ushered into the waiting room. On the other hand, it's probably a little late to try to convince anyone I'm not doing exactly that. Besides, she looked around the spacious waiting room, it gives me more time to appreciate the "new air car smell," doesn't it?

Admiralty House's latest expansion project had been authorized less than a month after the High Ridge Government took office. The previous one had been completed—on time and under budget—just over a T-year before that by a subsidiary of the Hauptman Cartel. Obviously, an administration which had based its domestic policies so firmly on the time-honored, well-tested device of the support-buying boondoggle couldn't have such a potentially lucrative avenue for . . . creative capital flow sitting around unutilized, however. So another expansion had promptly been authorized . . . despite the fact that the Janacek Admiralty had been so busily downsizing the Navy. This one was going to add another forty floors when it was finished sometime in the next few months, and Michelle didn't like to think about how much it had contributed to the bottom line of Apex Industrial Group.

I probably wouldn't mind as much if Apex didn't belong to a bottom-feeder like dear, dear Cousin Freddy, she thought.

There'd never been any real likelihood that someone as strongly and openly opposed to High Ridge as Klaus Hauptman was going to get the contract for this expansion. Aside from his political views, Hauptman was known for a certain ruthless concentration on holding down little things like creative cost overruns, and his accountants were sudden death on anything that even looked like kickbacks or "comfortable" little relationships with corrupt politicians.

The Honorable Frederick James Winton-Travis, CEO and majority stockholder of the Apex Industrial Group, was a far smaller fish than Hauptman, but he'd been much more to the High Ridge crowd's taste. First, he was a card-carrying member of the Conservative Association who'd contributed in excess of three million Manticoran dollars to the political coffers of one Michael Janvier, also known as the Baron of High Ridge. There was no law against his doing that, of course, as long as the contributions were a matter of public record, and there was no doubt—unfortunately—that the contributions had reflected Winton-Travis' actual political convictions. Such as they were and what there was of them. Michelle would have found the political convictions in question distasteful enough on their own merits, however. The fact that the most recent Admiralty House "renovation project" had obviously been a way for High Ridge to pay back the contribution—with hefty interest—had simply added a particularly repulsive taste to the entire transaction, as far as she was concerned.

Being related to the scummy bastard doesn't help, either, she admitted to herself. Still, I don't think I'd mind quite as much if it wasn't something everyone knows about but no one can prove. If there was at least a chance of sending dear Freddy to prison for a decade or two, I'd be able to think about this much more philosophically. It's not even as if we didn't really need the extra space, because we do. But that doesn't make it any less of a boondoggle, because no one involved in deciding to build it could possibly have believed we actually ever would. And every time I think about the way the contracts were handled my blood pressure goes—

"Excuse me, Admiral."

Michelle turned from her study of the streets and green belts of the City of Landing, two hundred floors below her crystoplast window viewpoint, as the Admiralty yeoman spoke.

"Yes, Chief?"

"Sir Lucian is ready for you now, Ma'am."

"Thank you, Chief."

She managed to restrain the almost overpowering impulse to let nervous fingers check her appearance one last time, nor did she lick her lips anxiously or whistle a merry tune to disguise her nervousness. Despite which, unusually large butterflies seemed to be waltzing about in her midsection as the yeoman pressed the button which opened the door to Sir Lucian Cortez's palatial Admiralty House office.

She nodded her thanks and stepped through the waiting portal, with Archer on her heels.

"Admiral Gold Peak!"

Cortez was a smallish man who wore the uniform of an admiral of the green. In many ways, he looked more like a successful schoolteacher, or perhaps a bank bureaucrat, than a naval officer, despite the uniform. And in many ways, Michelle supposed, he was a bureaucrat. But he was a very important bureaucrat—the Royal Manticoran Navy's Fifth Space Lord and the commanding officer of the Bureau of Personnel. It was his job to meet the unending appetite of the frantically expanding, brutally overworked Navy, and no one—including Michelle—quite knew how he had done that so well, for so long. Under the prewar system of rotating senior officers regularly through fleet commands and then back to desk jobs in order to see to it that they stayed operationally current, Cortez would have been replaced in his present position long since. No one in her right mind was going to suggest replacing him under wartime conditions, however.

Now he came to his feet, smiling in welcome, and extended his hand to her across the desk as the other man, a commander wearing the insignia of the Judge Advocate's Corps, who'd been sitting beside the office's coffee table also stood respectfully.

"Good morning, My Lord," Michelle responded to Cortez's greeting, and clasped his hand firmly. Then she quirked one eyebrow politely at the waiting commander, and Cortez smiled.

"No, you're not going to need legal representation, Milady," he assured her. "This is Commander Hal Roach, and he is here because of you, but not because of anything you've done. Unless, of course, you have a guilty conscience I didn't know anything about?"

"My Lord, my conscience is as pure as the driven snow," she replied, holding out her hand to Roach, and the commander smiled in appreciation as he took it. He was a solidly built fellow, with dark hair, and probably somewhere in his mid-forties, Michelle estimated.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Milady," he assured her.

"A lawyer, and tactful, too," Michelle observed, and nodded her head at Lieutenant Archer. "My Lord, Commander, this is Gervais Archer, my flag lieutenant."

"Lieutenant," Cortez said, acknowledging him with another nod, and then gestured at the comfortable chairs which faced his desk.

"Please," he said. "Have a seat. Both of you."

"Thank you, My Lord," Michelle murmured, and settled herself in the indicated chair. Archer, with a junior aide's unfailing instincts, took another one, set slightly behind and to the left of Michelle's, and Roach resumed his own chair after Cortez seated himself behind his desk once more. Then the admiral tipped back slightly and cocked his head to one side as he regarded Michelle with deep-set dark eyes gleaming with intelligence.

"I understand you've been pestering Captain Shaw, Milady," he said.

"I'd hardly call it 'pestering,' My Lord," she replied. "I may have contacted the captain a time or two."

Captain Terrence Shaw was Cortez's chief of staff, which made him the ultimate keeper of the keys where BuPers was concerned.

"Captain Shaw didn't call it that, either," Cortez said with a twinkle. "On the other hand, Milady, seven com calls in eight days does seem just a tad . . . energetic."

"Did I really screen him that many times?" Michelle blinked, honestly surprised by the total, and Cortez snorted.

"Yes, Milady. You did. One would almost think that you were eager to get off-world again. Surely there's something you could think of to do with your convalescent leave?"

"Probably, My Lord," Michelle conceded. "On the other hand, I really wasn't gone all that long, and it wasn't particularly difficult to get things sorted back out after I got home. And," a smile softened her expression, "I made it in time for the one thing I really wanted to do."

"The birth of Lady Alexander-Harrington's son, Milady?" Cortez asked in a considerably gentler tone.

"Yes." Michelle's nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply, remembering that moment, once again seeing Honor's transcendent happiness and reliving her own joy as she shared that joyous experience with her best friend.

"Yes, My Lord," she repeated. "Mind you, I missed the wedding, along with all the rest of the Star Kingdom, but at least I did make it home for Raoul's birth."

"And then promptly began hounding BuMed again," Cortez observed. "So, tell me, Milady—how's the leg?"

"Fine, My Lord," she replied just a bit warily.

"BuMed agrees with you," he said, swinging his chair gently from side to side. "In fact, they've endorsed your fitness report in very positive terms." Michelle began to exhale a surreptitious sigh of relief, but amusement flickered in Cortez's eyes as he continued, "Although Captain Montoya did point out that you've been persistently . . . less than completely candid, shall we say, about the amount of physical discomfort you're continuing to experience."

"My Lord," she began, but Cortez shook his head.

"Believe me, Milady," he told her, his eyes now deadly serious, "Montoya would have to be reporting something a lot more serious than a case of someone who's too stubborn to take the convalescent leave to which she's entitled before we worried about it at this point."

"I'm . . . relieved to hear that, Sir," Michelle said frankly, and Cortez snorted.

"I'm going to assume that what you mean is that you're relieved we have a command for you, rather than that we're so desperately pressed for personnel we're cutting corners where medical considerations are concerned, Milady."

Well, there's something there's no good response to, Michelle thought, and Cortez chuckled.

"Forgive me, Milady. I'm afraid my sense of humor has gotten itself a bit skewed over the last T-year or so."

He gave himself a shake and let his chair come fully back upright once again.

"In fact," he told her, "the real reason I've been ducking your calls—and I have been, if I'm going to be honest—is that we've had quite a problem deciding exactly what to do about that parole of yours. No one here at Admiralty House has any qualms about your having given President Pritchart your parole, especially under the circumstances that obtained," he said quickly, as she started to open her mouth. "It's more a matter of our needing to figure out which precedents apply. Which is what Commander Roach is here to explain to you."

He looked at Roach and raised one hand. "Commander?"

"Of course, My Lord," Roach replied, then turned his attention to Michelle.

"For fairly obvious reasons, Milady, there weren't any paroles during the last war, and I'm afraid we've never set up the proper channels between us and the Repulic since the fall of the Committee of Public Safety, either. An oversight we ought to have rectified long since, once we were rid of StateSec. Unfortunately, it would appear the previous government had other things on its mind, such as it was and what there was of it, and we've been just a bit busy ourselves since Baron High Ridge's . . . departure. So, frankly, we've been going around in circles over in the JAG's office, trying to decide how to handle your case."

"Not just over at the JAG's office, either," Cortez added. "Public Affairs has been dithering about it, too, I'm afraid, because of all of the interstellar news coverage this whole summit meeting proposal has spawned. Given your close relationship to Her Majesty and the glare of publicity which has accompanied your return, it's particularly important that we get it right, as I trust you understand."

"Yes, Sir. Of course," Michelle agreed.

"There was a minority opinion," Roach told her when Cortez nodded for him to resume, "that the exact wording of your parole technically disqualifies you from active service anywhere until you've been properly exchanged, on the basis that allowing you to serve somewhere besides directly against Haven would still free up another officer for that service. That's a very strict interpretation of the Deneb Accords, however, and it's one the Star Kingdom has never formally accepted. It was also, frankly, an interpretation that Admiral Cortez didn't much care for, so I was asked to do some additional research, probably because I'm currently the executive officer over at the Charleston Center for Admiralty Law."

Michelle nodded. The Charleston Center was recognized as one of the galaxy's premier authorities on interstellar admiralty law. Its original reason for being when it was initially established a hundred and sixty T-years ago had been to deal specifically with the military implications of the customary legal practices which had grown up over the centuries of the Diaspora. But despite the fact that it remained a Navy command, the sheer size of the Star Kingdom's merchant marine gave its decisions enormous impact where civilian interstellar traffic was concerned, as well.

"Like any good lawyer, I went looking for the precedents most favorable to my client's case—the stronger and more specific the better—and I found what I was looking for in a decision from the old Greenbriar-Chanticleer War. In 1843, they agreed to submit a dispute over officers' paroles for Solarian League binding arbitration. The decision of the arbitrator was that any legally paroled officer could be utilized for any duty in which he or she was not personally and directly engaged against the enemy who had paroled him or her. Staff, logistic, and medical services assignments for any unit directly committed against the enemy who had paroled him or her were held to be unlawful, but service in another astrographic area, or against another opponent, was specifically held to be a lawful employment of paroled officers. In other words, Milady, as long as you aren't actively shooting at the Peeps or helping someone else do the same thing, the Admiralty can send you anywhere it wants."

"Which is exactly what he told us, in considerably more detail, when he wrote the final decision that we can legally and honorably employ you in either Silesia or the Talbott Cluster, even if that does let us send some other rear admiral to go beat on Haven in your place," Cortez said. "And, frankly, it's a damned good thing we can, too, under the circumstances."

"I understand, My Lord," Michelle said when he paused, and she did.

It didn't seem possible that she'd been back in the Star Kingdom for the better part of two T-months. News of Captain Aivars Terekhov's stunning—and costly—victory at the Battle of Monica had arrived only nine days after she had, and the entire Star Kingdom had experienced a spasm of almost unendurable relief. The price his scratch-built squadron had paid might have been agonizing, but no one had any illusions about what would have happened if he'd failed to demolish the battlecruisers which had been supplied to the Union of Monica. Nor did anyone doubt that those ships had been supplied by someone who clearly did not have the Star Kingdom's best interests at heart, although just what the full ramifications of that "someone's" plans might have been was still being unraveled. Frankly, Michelle was one of those who doubted that even Patricia Givens would ever manage to dig all the bits and pieces of the plot out from under their concealing rocks. But the intelligence people reporting to Rear Admiral Khumalo, Vice Admiral O'Malley, and Special Minister Amandine Corvisart had already dug out enough to validate all of Terekhov's suspicions . . . and actions.

Unfortunately, anyone who thought the Star Kingdom was out of the woods probably enjoyed only intermittent contact with reality, she thought grimly. True, the Monican Navy had been completely removed from the board, but Monica had never been the true threat, anyway. It had always been Monica's status as a client state of the Solarian League which posed the real danger, and it was still far too early to predict how the League was going to react. The government of Baron Grantville and the Navy's officer corps had always realized that, and over the last month, that same awareness had begun sinking in for the average woman-in-the-street, as well.

It's a hell of a galaxy when Frontier Security can use a bunch of criminals like Manpower and come this damned close to getting us into war with the most powerful star nation in existence, she thought. And it's even more of a pain in the ass when we can't be certain they won't succeed in the end anyway, even after we've started turning over the rocks and exposing the slime underneath them. No wonder everyone's so relieved by the thought that we're at least going to be talking to Haven again!

"I know you've been briefed by Admiral Givens and her people," Cortez continued. "Since they've brought you up to date on the basic political and deployment aspects of the overall situation, I'm going to concentrate on the nuts and bolts of our manning requirements and the problems directly related to them.

"You may not be aware that the first wave of our emergency superdreadnought construction programs will be commissioning over the next several months," he said, and Michelle's eyes narrowed. He saw it, and snorted. "I see you weren't. Good. They've worked some not so minor miracles in the shipyards—and, to be frank, cut some corners in ways we would never have accepted in peacetime—to telescope construction times, and we're substantially ahead of schedule on most of the ships. We've done our best to conceal the extent to which that's true, and we sincerely hope Haven hasn't picked up on it yet, either. But, to be perfectly honest, that's one reason everyone here at Admiralty House heaved such a huge sigh of relief when Her Majesty agreed to meet with Pritchart and Theisman. Obviously, we'll all be delighted if some sort of peace settlement emerges from this summit. But, frankly, even if nothing at all comes of it in that regard, we should be able to string the talks out for at least a couple of months, even after Her Majesty and Pritchart reach Torch. And that doesn't even consider all the messages which are going to have to be sent back and forth to set something like this up in the first place. Just all of the physical coming and going involved is going to buy us time. Time enough for us to get a lot of those new wallers into service. And that, Admiral Gold Peak, coupled with the new weapons and control systems which are also coming into service, means the Republic's numerical advantage is going to be a lot less crushing than anyone in Nouveau Paris thinks it is."

He smiled thinly at her, but then the smile vanished, and he shook his head.

"That's all well and good where Haven is concerned, of course. But if we find ourselves at war with the Solarian League, it's going to be a very different story. As my mother always used to warn me, every silver lining has a cloud, and that's certainly true in this case. Given the situation vis-a-vis the League, we have no choice but to continue to tweak our recruiting, training, and building programs whenever and wherever we can, despite the summit and any respite it might offer on the Haven front. And despite all of the advances in automation and reductions in manpower requirements, crewing that much new construction is stretching our personnel strength right to the breaking point. For example, most of the new superdreadnoughts are close enough to completion at this point that we're already assembling cadre and assigning them to their new ships. Fortunately, we've been able to decommission many of the old-style ships of the wall we were forced to put back into service after Grendelsbane, and that's freed up a lot of trained manpower. And we've recovered from Janacek and High Ridge's build-down. But we're still short of all the people we need, and the situation is even worse for our lighter units. Like—" he gave her a sharp, level look "—the new battlecruisers."

He paused, and Michelle nodded. The most urgent priorities of the new war emergency construction programs had focused on producing as many ships of the wall, pod-laying superdreadnoughts like Honor's Imperator, as was physically possible. It couldn't have been any other way, given the overwhelming primacy the new "podnoughts" had attained. Because of that emphasis, lighter ships, like cruisers and destroyers, had been assigned a much lower building priority. Large numbers had been projected, and, indeed, laid down, but only after the needs of the superdreadnought-building programs had already been met. And only after additional dispersed yards in which to do the laying down could be thrown together, as well. As a result, construction had been much slower to begin on those smaller, lighter units.

On the other hand, it took much less time to build a destroyer or a cruiser—or even one of the new battlecruisers—than it did to build a ship of the wall. Which meant there'd been time to refine their designs and get classes like the new Nike-class battlecruisers and Roland-class destroyers into the pipeline. And it also meant that, despite their later start, truly enormous numbers of brand-new ships "below the wall" were already in the process of working up for service. But although the adoption of such vastly increased automation meant the once vast gulf between the absolute numbers of noncommissioned and enlisted personnel required by a superdreadnought and a mere battlecruiser had shrunk substantially, a battlecruiser still required almost as many officers as a superdreadnought. And while the new LACs might free up large numbers of starships which might once have been tied down on picket, patrol, or anti-piracy system security, each of them required its own slice of officers and enlisted, as well, which, in turn, put an even greater strain on the available supply of trained personnel.

"Here's what we have in mind, Milady," Cortez said, leaning forward and folding his hands on his desk blotter. "Initially, we'd earmarked somewhere around two thirds of the new cruisers and battlecruisers for Admiral Sarnow's command in Silesia. That, unfortunately, was before the situation in Talbott blew up in our faces. So now it looks as if we're basically going to be reversing the proportions we'd originally projected and sending two thirds of them to Talbott, instead. Including you, Admiral."

"Me, My Lord?" she asked when he paused as if to invite comment.

"You," he confirmed. "We're giving you the 106th."

For a moment, it failed to register. Then her eyes flared in astonishment. He couldn't be serious! That was her first thought. And on its heels, came another.

"Sir Lucian," she began, "I don't—"

"We're not going to have that particular discussion, Milady," Cortez interrupted her. She closed her mouth, sitting back in her chair, and he gazed at her sternly. "You've been not-pestering Captain Shaw for a billet, and now you've got one, and this decision has nothing to do with the fact that you're the Queen's cousin. It has to do with the fact that you are a highly experienced officer, who has just returned from demonstrating exactly how capable you are, and who—to be frank—we can't use where we'd most like to use you. But if we can't give you a superdreadnought division or squadron and send you back to Eighth Fleet, the 106th is, in the Admiralty's considered opinion, absolutely the next best use we can make of you."

Michelle bit her tongue rather firmly, remembering a conversation with Honor on this same topic. Despite Cortez's explanation, she remained less than fully convinced favoritism had played no part at all in the Admiralty's decision. Still, she had to admit Honor had also had a point. The fact that Michelle had spent so long guarding against even the appearance of playing the patronage game which had so bedeviled the prewar Manticoran officer corps might, indeed, have made her overly sensitive in some respects.

"Having said that, however," Cortez continued, "and to be completely honest, there are some factors in your orders which don't relate directly to your demonstrated capabilities as a combat commander. Not to the decision to give you the 106th, but to the decision as to where to send you—and it—after giving it to you."

Michelle's eyes narrowed as she sensed the impending fall of the second shoe, and Cortez smiled a bit crookedly.

"No, Milady, we didn't make any deals with Mount Royal Palace," he told her. "But the fact is that we've known from the beginning that we couldn't permanently leave Vice Admiral O'Malley in Talbott, for a lot of reasons. Among them, the fact that he's just about due for his third star. Another is that we have a task group of Invictus-class SD(P)s waiting for him when he gets it. So, as soon as possible, we need to recall him to the Lynx Terminus and get Admiral Blaine's screening units back to the rest of his task force. But we're going to need someone to replace O'Malley in Talbott proper, and we're going to be recalling the pod battlecruisers we borrowed from Grayson when we deployed him in the first place. We're replacing them with the 106th, and we're replacing him with you . . . Vice Admiral Gold Peak."

Michelle stiffened in her chair, and Cortez's smile grew broader.

"You were already on the list before Solon," he told her. "In fact, the promotion board had acted before Ajax was lost, although the paperwork was still being processed. And then things got a little complicated when we thought you were dead, of course. That's been straightened out, however, and some of those factors other than your combat skills are coming into play here, as well. For one thing, it's been decided Admiral Khumalo will also be promoted. In fact, he's already been notified of his promotion to vice admiral. His date of rank precedes your own, so he'll still be senior to you, and he'll be staying on as the Talbott Station commander."

Michelle kept her mouth shut . . . not without difficulty, and this time Cortez allowed his smile to slide over into a chuckle. Then he sobered.

"I'm sorry, Milady. I shouldn't have laughed, but your expression . . ."

He shook his head.

"No, My Lord, I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean—"

"Milady, you aren't the only one who's been . . . under-impressed by Augustus Khumalo over the years. To be honest, there'd been serious consideration of recalling him from Talbott before this situation with Monica blew up. And, the truth is, he's always been more of an administrator than a combat officer. But he demonstrated a lot of moral courage—more, to be honest, than I, for one, ever really thought he had, I'm a bit ashamed to admit—when he backed Terekhov to the hilt. His instincts turned out to be very sound in that instance, and he really is a superior administrator. Hopefully that's going to be more important than tactical acumen, assuming we can avoid a war with the League. And his and Terekhov's response to what every Talbotter is convinced was an OFS plot to annex the entire Cluster has made both of them extremely popular in Talbott. A lot of people would be very unhappy if we recalled him and replaced him with someone else at this particular time.

"All of that's true, but it still seems to us here at Admiralty House that he's going to need someone as his second-in-command who has the combat experience he lacks. Given your availability—and the fact that you aren't available for service with Eighth Fleet any longer—you're well suited to provide that for him. And, quite frankly, the fact that you stand so high in the succession, not to mention the fact that he's directly related to you through the Wintons, should give you an extra handle for influence with him. Not to mention the fact that your relationship to Her Majesty should also help to underscore the Government's support for the Cluster under the new constitution."

Michelle nodded slowly. In a sense, what Cortez had just said demonstrated that politics and her birth had, indeed, helped to dictate the Admiralty's policy. On the other hand, she couldn't disagree with a single one of the points he'd made, and little though she might like politics, she'd always known political and military strategy were inextricably entwined. As that ancient Old Earth military historian Honor was so fond of quoting had put it, the setting of national goals was a political decision, and war represented the pursuit of those same political goals by nonpolitical means.

"I know this doesn't constitute much warning," Cortez continued. "And I'm afraid you aren't going to have time to assemble your own staff. For that matter, you're not going to have time to properly work up your new squadron, either. From the last report I received, I'm not even sure all of your ships will have completed their acceptance trials before you have to depart. I've done my best to pull together as strong a team for you as I could, however."

He took a document viewer from his desk drawer and passed it across to her. She keyed it and pursed her lips thoughtfully as she scanned the information. She didn't recognize many of the names, but she did recognize some of them.

"Captain Lecter became available almost as unexpectedly as you did, Milady," Cortez said. "At least a half-dozen flag officers requested her services, but I felt she'd fit best as your chief of staff."

Michelle nodded in mingled understanding and gratitude. Captain Cynthia Lecter—only she'd been Commander Cynthia Lecter, at the time—had been the best executive officer Michelle had ever had. She was delighted Cynthia's promotion had come through, and she had no qualms at all about her suitability for the chief of the squadron command staff she'd had no idea she was about to inherit.

"I don't believe you've ever served with Commander Adenauer," Cortez continued, "but she's compiled a very impressive record."

Michelle nodded again. As far as she was aware, she'd never even met Commander Dominica Adenauer, much less served with her, but the bare synopsis of the combat record appended to the file Cortez had handed her was impressive. Not every skilled tactical officer worked out well as a squadron operations officer, but at first glance, at least, Adenauer looked promising. And Cortez did have that knack for putting the right officer into the right slot.

"I think you'll be pleased with Commander Casterlin and Lieutenant Commander Edwards, as well," Cortez told her.

"I know Commander Casterlin," Michelle said, looking up from the document. "Not as well as I'd like to, under the circumstances, but what I do know about him, I like. I don't know anything about Edwards, though."

"He's young," Cortez replied. "In fact, he just made lieutenant commander about two months ago, but I was impressed when I interviewed him. And he's just finished a stint with BuWeaps as one of Admiral Hemphill's assistants. He's too junior to hold down the ops officer's slot, and even if he wasn't, he's a communications specialist, not a tac officer. That's why Adenauer got Operations and Edwards got Communications. But he's been hands-on with both laser head development and the new command and control systems, and I think you—and Commander Adenauer—will find his familiarity with the admiral's newest toys very useful."

"I'm sure we will," Michelle agreed.

"I'm still trying to find you a good logistics officer, and I still need a staff EW expert for you. Edwards' experience could probably be helpful in that area, as well, but, again, it's not something he's really trained for. Hopefully, I'll have both Logistics and Electronic Warfare covered by the end of the day. Obviously, all of these are suggestions at this point, and if you do have any serious reservations or objections to my nominations, we'll do everything we can to accommodate you. I'm afraid, however, that time's so short we may not have a lot of flex."

"Understood, My Lord," Michelle said in a voice that sounded more cheerful than she actually felt. The Manticoran tradition had always been that BuPers tried hard to meet any flag officer's reasonable requests for staffers, and no squadron or task force commander was ever happy to find herself stuck with someone else's choices for her own staff officers. She couldn't pretend she was exactly delighted to find herself in that position, but she suspected that quite a few other flag officers were finding themselves in very similar circumstances at the moment.

With Cindy to ride herd on them, we should be all right, she told herself. I wish I'd ever at least met Adenauer, though. Her record looks good, from what I've been able to see of it so far, at least, but that's all on paper as far as I'm concerned. And Edwards looks like he'd be happier as a research weenie somewhere. God, I hope appearances are deceiving in that respect, anyway! But Casterlin's a good, solid choice for astrogator. Between them, he and Cindy should at least be able to keep things running on an even keel. And if there are any problems, it'll just be my job to make sure they . . . go away.

"I understand, My Lord," she said again, a bit more firmly. "I do have one additional question, however."

"Of course, Milady."

"From everything you've said, I assume you're planning on deploying the squadron as soon as possible."

"Actually, Milady, I'm planning on deploying the squadron even sooner than that," Cortez said with a tight smile. "That's what I meant when I said you might even be pulling out for Talbott before all of your ships have completed their acceptance trials. You do remember what I said about the shipyards cutting corners to streamline production, don't you? Well, one of the things we've dispensed with is the full spectrum of acceptance trials and pre-trial testing."

Michelle's eyes widened in the first real alarm she'd felt since entering Cortez's office, and he shrugged.

"Milady, we're between the proverbial rock and the hard place, and we've simply had no choice but to make some . . . accommodations. I won't pretend anyone's delighted by it, but we've tried to compensate by putting even more emphasis on quality control in the construction process. So far, we haven't had any major component failures, but I'd be misleading you if I didn't admit we have had some minor to even moderately severe problems which had to be worked out using on-board resources after a ship left the yard. I hope that won't be the case where your squadron is concerned, but I can't guarantee it. And if we have to deploy you with builder's reps still on board, we will. So, in answer to the question I'm sure you were about to ask, your deployment date is one T-week from today."

Despite herself, Michelle's lips tightened. Cortez saw it, and shook his head.

"I'm genuinely sorry, Milady. I fully realize one week isn't even long enough for you to complete straightening out the details of your personal affairs, far less long enough to develop any feel for your ship commanders, or even the members of your own staff. If we could give you longer, we would. But whatever may be happening where Haven is concerned, the Talbott Cluster is still a powder keg waiting for a single spark in the wrong place. A powder keg someone's already tried their damnedest to touch off for reasons we're still only guessing at. We need a powerful, sustained presence there, and we need it in place before any Solarian redeployments in response to events in Monica shift the balance. God knows there are enough arrogant Solly COs and squadron commanders out there, even without the little matter of the fact that we're still trying to figure out exactly who—besides Manpower—was doing what to whom until Terekhov spoked their wheel. I hope we'll all breathe a sigh of relief when we do figure that out, but I'm not planning on putting down any bets on that outcome. And one thing we don't need while we work on that little problem is for some Solly commodore or admiral to decide he has a big enough advantage in combat power to do something stupid that we'll all regret."

"I understand, Sir," Michelle said yet again. "I can't say I expected any of this when I walked into your office, but I understand."

Chapter Ten

A concealed door slid silently open, and three men stepped through it into the luxurious office. They looked remarkably like younger versions of the fourth man, already sitting behind the desk in that office. They had the same dark hair, the same dark eyes, the same high cheekbones, and the same strong nose, and for good reason.

They crossed to the chairs arranged in a loose semicircle facing the desk and settled into them. One of them selected the chair in which one of the two women who'd just left had been seated, and the older man behind the desk smiled at them with remarkably little humor.

"Well?" Albrecht Detweiler said after a moment, tipping back his own chair as he regarded the newcomers.

"It would appear," the one who'd chosen the previously occupied chair said, in a voice which sounded eerily like Albrecht's, "that we've hit an air pocket."

"Really?" Albrecht raised his eyebrows in mock amazement. "And what, pray tell, might have led you to that conclusion, Benjamin?"

Benjamin showed very little sign of the sort of apprehension Albrecht's irony evoked in most of the people who knew of his existence. Perhaps that was because his own last name was also Detweiler . . . as was the last name of both of his companions, as well.

"That was what's known as a prefatory remark, Father," he replied.

"Ah, I see. In that case, why don't you go ahead and elucidate?"

Benjamin smiled and shook his head, then leaned back in his chair.

"Father, you know as well as I do—better than I do—that at least part of this is the result of how thoroughly we've compartmentalized. Personally, I think Anisimovna might have done a marginally better job if she'd known what our real objectives were, but that may be because I've been arguing for years now that we need to bring more of the Strategy Council fully inside. As it is, though, I think her and Bardasano's analysis of what went wrong in Talbott is probably essentially accurate. No one could have allowed for the sort of freak occurrence which apparently led this Terekhov into stumbling across the connection to Frontier Security and Monica. Nor, I think, could anyone have legitimately expected him to launch some sort of unauthorized preemptive strike even if they'd expected him to uncover whatever it was he uncovered. And, unlike us, Anisimovna didn't have our latest appreciation on Manty capabilities. Let's be honest—what they did to Monica's new battlecruisers surprised even us, and she didn't have as much inside information as we did to begin with. Besides that, she didn't know that what we really wanted all along was for Verrochio and Frontier Fleet to get reamed, even if we did plan for it to happen considerably later in the process. If Bardasano had been allowed to tell her everything, it's possible—not likely, but possible—that the two of them could have designed in a fallback position for something like this."

He shrugged.

"Things like this happen sometimes. It's not exactly as if it's the first time it's happened to us, after all. The fact that Pritchart was able to turn what happened into an opening wedge for this summit of hers is a lot more painful, of course, but we've had at least a few other setbacks which have been just as severe. The thing that makes this one smart as much as it does is that we're moving into the endgame phase, and that reduces our margin to recover from missteps. Which," he added just a bit pointedly, "is one reason I think we may need to reconsider how tightly we do compartmentalize things."

Albrecht frowned. It was a less than fully happy expression, yet it was a thoughtful frown, not an angry one. His reputation (among those who knew he existed at all) for ruthlessness was well-deserved, and he'd carefully cultivated a matching reputation for the shortness and ferocity of his temper. That second reputation, however, was more useful than accurate.

"I understand what you're saying, Ben," he said, after a moment. "God knows you've said it often enough!"

A grin robbed his last sentence of any potential air of complaint, but then the grin faded back into thoughtfulness.

"The problem is that the onion's served us so well for so long," he said. "I'm not prepared to just throw all of that away, especially when the consequences could be so severe if anyone we decide has the need to know screws up. It's one of those 'if it isn't broken, don't fix it' sorts of things."

"I'm not suggesting 'throwing it away,' Father. I'm only suggesting . . . peeling it back a little for the people trying to coordinate and carry out critical operations. And I agree with you that we shouldn't fix things that aren't broken, as a general rule. Unfortunately, I think there's a possibility that it is broken—or, at least, sufficiently inefficient to be getting dangerous—in this regard," Benjamin pointed out respectfully but firmly, and Albrecht grimaced at the validity of the qualification. It was entirely possible Benjamin was right, after all.

The problem with a conspiracy embracing a multi-century schedule, he reflected, was that nobody, however gifted at skulduggery and paranoia they might be, could operate on that scale for that long without having the occasional operational faux pas stray into sight. So the approach which had been adopted by the Mesan Alignment all those centuries ago had been to establish what one of Albrecht's direct ancestors had christened the "onion strategy."

So far as the galaxy at large was aware, the planet Mesa was simply an outlaw world, home to ruthless and corrupt corporations from throughout the Solarian League's huge volume. Not a member of the League itself, Mesa nonetheless had lucrative contacts with many League worlds, which protected it and its "outlaw" owners from Solarian intervention. And, of course, the worst of the outlaws in question was none other than Manpower Incorporated, the galaxy's leading producer of genetic slaves, which had been founded by Leonard Detweiler the better part of six hundred T-years before. There were others, some of them equally disreputable and "evil" by other peoples' standards, but Manpower was clearly the standardbearer for Mesa's incredibly wealthy—and thoroughly corrupt—elite. And Manpower, equally clearly, was ruthlessly determined to protect its economic interests at any cost. Any and all of its political contacts, objectives, and strategies were obviously subordinated to that purpose.

Which was where the "onion" came in. Although Albrecht himself had often thought it would have been more appropriate to describe Manpower as the stage magician's left hand, moving in dramatic passes to fix the audience's attention upon it while his right hand performed the critical manipulation the Alignment wanted no one else to notice.

Manpower and its genetic slaves remained, in fact, immensely profitable, but these days that was actually only a happy secondary benefit of Manpower's existence. In fact, as the Alignment fully recognized, genetic slavery had long since ceased to be a truly competitive way to supply labor forces, except under highly specialized circumstances. Fortunately many of its customers failed to grasp that same point, and Manpower's marketing department went to considerable lengths to encourage that failure of understanding wherever possible. And, possibly even more fortunately, other aspects of genetic slavery, particularly those associated with the vices to which humanity had always been prey, made rather more economic sense. Not only were the profits higher for Manpower's customers, the frailties of human nature and appetites being what they were, but the various types of pleasure slave Manpower provided were enormously more profitable for it, on a per-slave basis, as well. Yet the truth was that although the vast amounts the slave trade earned remained extremely welcome and useful, the main purposes which today's Manpower truly served were quite different from anything directly related to money.

First, Manpower and its genetic research facilities provided the perfect cover for the experimentation and development which were the true focus of the Mesan Alignment and its goals. Second, the need to protect Manpower explained why Mesa, although not a member of the League itself, was so heavily plugged into the League's political and economic structures. Third, the perversions to which genetic slavery pandered provided ready-made "hooks" by which Manpower's proprietors could . . . influence decisionmakers throughout the League and beyond. Fourth, the nature of the slave trade itself turned Manpower—and thus, by extension, all of Mesa's ruling corporations—into obvious criminals, with an instinctive imperative to maintain the current system as it was so that they could continue to feed in its comfortably corrupt depths, which distracted anyone from considering the possibility that Mesa might actually want to change the current system, instead. And, fifth, it provided a ready-made excuse—or plausible cover, at least—for almost any covert operation the Alignment might undertake if details of that operation should stray into sight.

There were, however, some unfortunate downsides to that otherwise highly satisfactory state of affairs. Three of them, in fact, came rather pointedly to mind, given what he'd just been discussing with Aldona Anisimovna and Isabel Bardasano: Beowulf, Manticore, and Haven.

It would no doubt have helped, in some ways, at least, if Leonard Detweiler had fully worked out his grand concept before establishing Manpower. No one could think of everything, unfortunately, and one thing Mesa's geneticists still hadn't been able to produce was prescience. Besides, he'd been provoked. His Detweiler Consortium had first settled Mesa in 1460 PD, migrating to its new home from Beowulf following the discovery of the Visigoth System's wormhole junction six T-years earlier. The Mesa System itself had first been surveyed in 1398, but until the astrogators discovered that it was home to one of the two secondary termini of the Visigoth Wormhole, it had been too far out in the back of beyond to attract development.

That changed when the Visigoth Wormhole survey was completed, and Detweiler had acquired the development rights from the system's original surveyors. The fact that the planet Mesa, despite having quite a nice climate, also possessed a biosystem poorly suited to terrestrial physiology helped lower the price, given the expenses involved in terraforming. But Detweiler hadn't intended to terraform Mesa. Instead, he'd opted to "mesaform" the colonists through genetic engineering. That decision had been inevitable in light of Detweiler's condemnation of the "illogical, ignorant, unthinking, hysterical, Frankenstein fear" of the genetic modification of human beings which had hardened into almost instinctual repugnance over the five hundred T-years between Old Earth's Final War and his departure for Mesa. Still, however inevitable it might have been, it had not been popular with the Beowulf medical establishment of the time. Worse, the fact that Visigoth was barely sixty light-years from Beowulf had guaranteed that Mesa and Beowulf would remain close enough together (despite the hundreds of light-years between them through normal-space) to be a continuous irritant to one another, and Beowulf's unceasing condemnation of Detweiler's faith in the genetic perfectability of humanity had infuriated him. It was, after all, the entire reason he and those members of the Beowulf genetic establishment who shared his views had left Beowulf in the first place.

It was quite clear that Leonard's decision to rename the Detweiler Consortium "Manpower, Incorporated," had been intended as a thumb in the eye to the entire Beowulf establishment, and that thumb had landed exactly where he'd aimed it. And if Beowulf had been . . . upset by the Detweiler Consortium's practice of wholesale genetic modification of colonists to suit hostile environments like Mesa, it was infuriated when Manpower began producing "indentured servants" genetically designed for specific environments or specific tasks. At first, periods of indenturement on Mesa itself had been limited to no more than twenty-five T-years, although even after completing their indentures, the "genetic clients" had been denied the franchise and generally treated as second-class citizens. As they became an increasing percentage of the planetary population, however, the planetary constitution had been modified to make "indenturement" a lifelong condition. Technically, Mesa and Manpower continued to insist that there were no such things as "slaves," only "indentured servants," but while that distinction might offer at least some useful smokescreen for Mesa's allies and paid mouthpieces in places like the Solarian League's Assembly, it was meaningless to the institution's opponents.

The hostility between Beowulf and Mesa had grown unspeakably bitter over the past four and a half centuries, and the anti-slavery Cherwell Convention which had been created by Beowulf had produced enormous headaches for Manpower, Mesa, and the Mesan Alignment. That was unfortunate, and it had posed some significant problems for the Alignment's overall strategy. The ferocity with which the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the Republic of Haven harassed Manpower's operations, for example, had clearly presented a long-term threat. While both of those star nations combined constituted little more than a flyspeck compared to the Solarian League, their loathing for genetic slavery had made them implacable foes, and the Republic of Haven's vibrant economy and steady expansion had caused the Alignment considerable anxiety. Haven had been colonized over a hundred and fifty T-years before Mesa, and while it had lacked the enormous financial "nest egg" Leonard Detweiler had brought with him to Mesa, it had created a powerful, self-fueling economic base which promised to do nothing but continue to grow. And that had made the Haven Quadrant loom large in the Alignment's thinking, especially following the discovery of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction in 1585.

It was the Manticoran Junction and the way it moved the entire Haven Quadrant to within shouting distance of the Sol System itself which had made a pair of insignificant, far off neobarb star nations a matter of major concern to the Alignment. Their direct connection to the League ran through the Beowulf System, and both the Republic and the Star Kingdom had fully imbibed the Beowulfan attitudes towards genetic slavery.

Although Manpower had found the Star Kingdom's deep involvement in the League's merchant shipping made possible by the Junction inconvenient in the extreme, the Alignment had actually been much more concerned by the Republic's existence. After all, although the official Republic of Haven had consisted only of the Haven System itself and a handful of its oldest daughter colonies, its influence had pervaded the whole Haven Quadrant, making Nouveau Paris the natural leader of that entire volume, and the Quadrant had been growing steadily in both size and economic and industrial power. There'd been no doubt in the mind of the Alignment that the Republic would stand staunchly by the historic Beowulfan position in any open conflict, and it promised to form a power bloc poised to come to Beowulf's aid from well beyond Mesa's reach. Manticore, on the other hand, had been only a single star system—although it was in the process of becoming an extraordinarily rich one—with a tradition of powerful domestic opposition to territorial expansion. Which was why the Alignment's initial attention had been focused on crippling the Republic of Haven as expeditiously as possible, and the subtle encouragement of certain domestic philosophies and political machinations—and machines—had offered Mesa a pry bar.

That particular effort had worked out rather well . . . except, of course, for the unfortunate side effect it had produced where Manticore was concerned. The Legislaturalist régime and its policies had transformed Haven from a shining example into a vast, voracious, shambling, ramshackle entity, thoroughly detested by its neighbors and the majority of its involuntary citizens and perpetually hovering on the brink of outright collapse. As such, it had scarcely constituted any sort of threat . . . until, that was, it turned its sights upon Manticore, at which point, things had departed drastically from the Alignment's strategic playbook.

Manticore had declined to be absorbed. In fact, it had resisted so strongly and successfully—and had embraced so many military innovations in the process—that it had come within a hair's breadth of toppling the People's Republic, instead. In fact, it had toppled the People's Republic . . . which had not only threatened to resurrect the old Republic of Haven, but also provided both Haven and Manticore with an enormous military edge over any potential opponent. Not to mention the fact that the previously anti-expansion Star Kingdom was busily converting itself into a star empire, instead.

The thing that makes it so damned irritating, Albrecht reflected, is that everything else is going so well. In a lot of ways, Manticore and Haven shouldn't matter a fart in a windstorm, given their limited size and how far away they are. Unfortunately, not only are they both likely to grow nothing but bigger and stronger if we don't take steps, but the wormhole network gives Manticore the ability to reach almost any part of the Solarian League quickly, in theory, at least. And they aren't really that damned far away from us, either. Talbott is bad enough in normal-space terms, but the entire Manty home fleet is only sixty light-years—and two junction transits—away from Mesa by way of Beowulf. And the Manties keep right on introducing new pieces of hardware at the most inconvenient times. Not to mention pushing the damned Havenites into following their lead!

"I don't think we want to abandon the onion at this particular moment," he said finally. Benjamin started to say something more, then closed his mouth and nodded, accepting the decision, and Albrecht smiled at him.

"I understand that you're thinking about our internal arrangements and the way we compartmentalize information and operations, not the face we present to the galaxy at large, Ben," he said. "And I'm not saying I disagree with you in theory. In fact, I don't disagree with you in practice, either. It's just a matter of timing. We've always intended to bring the entire Strategy Council fully inside well before we actually push the button, after all. It may well be that we need to reconsider our decision trees and pull that moment further forward, too. I don't want to do that precipitously, without considering all of the implications—and without carefully considering which of the Council members might pose additional security risks—but I'm perfectly willing to concede that this is something we should be looking at very seriously."

"I'm glad to hear you say that, Father," Collin Detweiler said. Albrecht glanced at him, and Collin smiled a bit crookedly. "I think Ben feels his shoes pinching a bit harder than the rest of us because his emphasis is so much on the military side of things. But I have to say that my toes are feeling a little squeezed, too."

"They are?"

"Oh, yes." Collin shook his head. "I'm glad you've at least let me bring Bardasano most of the way inside. That makes coordinating covert ops a lot simpler and cleaner. But that's not quite the same thing as making them easy and efficient, and now that we're ramping up to the main event, its inconvenient as hell when the only person I've been allowed to bring that far inside has to spend so much of her time hundreds of light-years away."

"How serious a problem is that, really?" Albrecht asked, his eyes narrowing intensely.

"So far, it hasn't been all that bad," Collin admitted. "It's cumbersome, of course. And to be perfectly honest, the need to keep coming up with convincing rationales for why we're doing some of the things we're doing can get pretty exhausting. I'm talking about internal rationales, for the people we actually have doing them. You don't want idiots planning and executing black operations, and the non-idiots you need are likely to start wondering why you're doing things that don't logically support the objectives they think you're trying to accomplish. Finding ways to prevent that from happening uses up almost as much energy as figuring out what it is we really do need to accomplish. Not to mention creating all sorts of possibilities for dropped stitches or embarrassing gaffes."

"Daniel?" Albrecht looked at the third younger man. "What about your side of things?"

"It doesn't really matter very much one way or the other from where I sit, Father," Daniel Detweiler replied. "Unlike Benjamin and Collin, Everett and I have been openly involved with our R and D programs all along, and no one questions how thoroughly we compartmentalize on that side. Obviously, everyone knows some R and D has to be kept 'black,' and that helps a lot from our perspective. We can set up quiet little projects whenever we feel like it, and no one asks very many questions. At the same time, I have to agree with Collin that bringing Bardasano this far inside has been a considerable help, even for us. We can use her to handle the security on anything we need kept really well hidden while we get on with the business of coordinating the programs themselves. It would help if we could bring people like Kyprianou all the way in, though."

Albrecht nodded slowly. Renzo Kyprianou was in charge of bio-weapons research and development and a member of the Mesan Strategy Council. At the moment, however, not even the Strategy Council knew everything the Alignment was up to.

Not surprisingly, I suppose, he mused, given that the Alignment's always been so much of a . . . family business.

His lips twitched in an almost-smile at the thought, and he wondered how many members of the Strategy Council had figured out just how close he truly was to his "sons."

The official demise of the Detweiler line had been part of the strategy designed to divert the galaxy's—and especially Beowulf's—attention from Leonard Detweiler's determination to uplift human genetics in general. The Detweilers had been too strongly and fiercely devoted to that goal for too long, and the apparent—and spectacular—assassination of the "last" Detweiler heir by greedy elements on the Manpower Incorporated board of directors had punctuated the fact that the increasingly criminal Mesans no longer shared that lofty aspiration. It had also served to get Leonard's descendants safely beneath anyone else's radar, of course, but its most useful function had been to help explain and justify Mesa's switch to the full-bore exploitation of genetic slavery by Manpower. The steady, ongoing improvement of the alignment's own genomes had been buried under Manpower's R&D programs and camouflaged as little more than surface improvements in physical beauty.

But whatever the rest of humanity might have thought, the Detweiler line was far from extinct. In fact, the Detweiler genome was one of the—if not the—most improved within the entire Alignment. And Albrecht Detweiler's "sons" were also his genetic clones. Bardasano, for one, he felt certain, had figured that out, despite how closely held a secret it was supposed to be. It was possible Kyprianou had, as well, given how closely he worked with Daniel. For that matter, Jerome Sandusky might cherish a few suspicions of his own, not that any of that trio was going to breathe a word of any such suspicions to anyone else.

"All right," he said. "As soon as Everett, Franklin, and Gervais get back to Mesa, we'll all sit down and discuss this. As I say, my only reservation has to do with the timing. We all know we're getting close—very close—and I don't want last-minute impatience to push us into making a wrong decision at this point."

"None of us want that, Father," Benjamin agreed, and the other two nodded. Taking the time to think things through had always been a fundamental principle of the Alignment's operational planning.

"Good. In the meantime, though, what's your impression of Anisimovna and Bardasano's report?"

"I think Bardasano's probably put her finger on what happened," Benjamin said. He cocked an eyebrow at Collin, and his brother nodded.

"And whether she's right about what caused the operation to blow up is really beside the point," Benjamin continued, turning back to Albrecht. "We've lost Monica; Verrochio is going to pull in his horns, exactly as Anisimovna's predicted; the entire Technodyne connection's been shot right in the head, at least for now; and Manticore's accepted Pritchart's invitation. Leaving summit meetings aside for the moment, we're still going to have to rethink our entire approach to Talbott, at the very least. And we're going to have to find some other way to get through to those idiots in Battle Fleet."

"Well, Monica's not that big a loss," Albrecht observed. "It was never more than a cat's-paw in the first place, and I'm confident we can find another one of those if we need it. Having Verrochio go all gutless on us, now . . . That's more than a little irritating. Especially after all the investment we made in Crandall and Filareta."

"Why is that a problem, Father?" Daniel asked after a moment. Albrecht looked at him, and Daniel shrugged. "I know neither of them came cheap, but it's not as if we don't have fairly deep pockets."

"That's not the problem, Dan," Collin said before Albrecht could reply. "The problem is that now that we've used them, we're going to have to get rid of them."

Daniel looked at him for several seconds, then shook his head with a pursed-lip sigh.

"I know I'm only the family tech weenie, not an expert in covert ops like you and Benjamin," he said, "but usually I can at least follow your logic. This time, though, I don't really understand why we need to do that."

"Collin's right, Daniel," Albrecht said. "We can't afford to have either of them asking questions—or, even worse, shooting off his or her mouth and starting someone else asking questions." He snorted. "Both of them had the authority to choose their own training problems and deploy their squadrons where they wanted to for the exercises, so that's not a problem. But now that the entire Talbott operation's gone sour on us, we can't have anyone wondering—or, worse, actually asking—why both of them chose such obscure locations. Locations which just happened to move their task forces so close to Talbott and Manticore itself just when things were coming to a head at Monica . . . almost as if they knew something was going to happen ahead of time.

"Oh," he waved one hand, "it's unlikely anyone's even going to notice, much less ask questions. But unlikely isn't the same thing as impossible, and you know our policy about eliminating risks, however remote, whenever possible. Which means Crandall and Filareta are both going to have to suffer fatal accidents. Even if someone finds all of their hidden accounts, the money passed through enough cutouts no one will ever be able to tie it to us, but if they should happen to mention that Manpower suggested their exercise areas to them, it could start the damned Manties or Havenites asking questions of their own. Like how even Manpower could have the resources to put so many pieces into play simultaneously."

"I don't think we need to worry about acting immediately, though, Father," Benjamin said. Albrecht looked at him, and it was his turn to shrug. "Trying to get to either of them while they're still out with their fleets would be a royal pain in the ass, even if everything went perfectly. And the odds are that it wouldn't go perfectly, either. Much better to let them go ahead, carry out their planned exercises, and then head on home. Both of them are very fond of our pleasure resorts, after all. It won't be too difficult to convince them to drop by for a complimentary visit as a way of expressing our thanks for their efforts, will it? They'll take their own precautions to cover any connection between us before they avail themselves of our generosity, too. And when they do, Collin can arrange things quietly and discreetly."

"Or Bardasano can, anyway," Collin agreed.

"And it's still remotely possible we can somehow prod Verrochio into providing the shooting incident we need," Benjamin added. He saw Albrecht's expression and chuckled. "I didn't say I thought it was likely, Father. Frankly, at the moment, I can't think of anything that could possibly have that effect. But if it should happen to happen, we're going to need Crandall and Filareta in place to exploit it. And as you've always told us, never throw away an asset until you're positive it's about to become a liability."

"I can see that," Albrecht acknowledged. "But while we're on the topic of removing liabilities, Collin, what do you think about Webster and Rat Poison?"

"I agree with your decision, Father. And Bardasano's suggestion that we combine the two operations is an indication of why it's been so useful to have her so far inside. I don't know that it's going to have the effect we all hope it will, but I don't see anything else we can do in the available timeframe with a realistic chance of derailing this summit. And, frankly, I can't think of anything that would be likely to make more waves for us than having Elizabeth and Pritchart sit down across a table from each other and figure out someone's been manipulating them both. My only possible quibble would be with just how obvious we want to make the Havenite connection."

"Well, like you and Benjamin, I think Anisimovna's and Bardasano's analysis of how much Ambassador Webster is hurting us on Old Terra is reasonably accurate," Albrecht said more than a little sourly. "And, frankly, I got pissed. I know—I know! I'm not supposed to do that. But I did, and, to be honest, it felt good to vent a little. Obviously, calling the Manties 'neobarbs,' however satisfying, isn't something we want to allow to shape the way we think about them, of course. Despite which, I do think we need to make it very clear Haven was behind the assassination."

"I don't disagree with you there," Collin said. "But let me think about this. I'll call Bardasano in and discuss it with her, too. We probably do need something fairly glaring to focus the Manties' attention on Haven. Normally, they'd be inclined to do that anyway, given who they're at war with at the moment and the Havenite tradition of eliminating problems through assassination. But, like you, I'm a little anxious about their connecting it with Monica instead of Haven, now that the wheels have come off that particular operation. Rat Poison could very easily start them thinking in Manpower's direction, as well, given the target. And, frankly, however reluctantly Elizabeth may have agreed to sit down with Pritchart, she has agreed. Logically, that's likely to make them question why anyone on Pritchart's side would try something like this. Bearing all of that in mind, we probably do need something to point them rather firmly in Haven's direction. On the other hand, much as we'd prefer for them to be stupid, they aren't. In particular, Givens is especially not-stupid, and she's managed some pretty fair disinformation schemes of her own over the last couple of decades, which means she's probably especially wary of having someone else do the same thing to her. So if we do build ina direct Havenite connection, we've got to make it look like one Haven's done it's damnedest to erase or conceal."

"I'll leave the tactical decisions up to you," Albrecht said. He sat for a few more seconds, obviously thinking hard, then shrugged.

"I suppose that's just about everything for this afternoon, then. But I'd like for you and Daniel to brief me on the current status of the spider and Oyster Bay sometime in the next few days, Benjamin."

"Of course. I can tell you now, though, that we're still well short of being able to implement Oyster Harbor, Father. We've only got thirty or so of the Sharks, and they were never intended to be much more than prototypes and training ships to prove the concept. They've got decent capability for their size, but they're certainly not wallers! We're not even scheduled to lay down the first of the real attack ships for another three or four T-months."

"Oh, I know that. I just want a better feel for where we are on producing the actual hardware. But as Collin's just pointed out, it's entirely possible that we're not going to manage to short-circuit this summit of Pritchart's after all. If we can't, and if the frigging Sollies keep falling over their own feet this way, we may have to take things into our own hands earlier in the process than we wanted to. And if that looks like happening, I'll need to know our exact status when we think about timing."

Chapter Eleven

"Welcome aboard, Admiral," Captain of the List Victoria Armstrong said as Michelle stepped across the decksole line that marked the official boundary between Her Majesty's Space StationHephaestus and HMS Artemis, which had just become her flagship.

The outsized personnel tube connecting the battlecruiser's number two boat bay to the space station had been crowded when she arrived. It was amazing how that had changed when the PA had informed everyone she was headed down-tube, however. The flow in and out of the tube had stopped almost immediately, and those souls who'd been unable to get out of it had shrunk back against the tube walls as Michelle made her way down its center with Gervais Archer and Chris Billingsley at her heels.

It's good to be the admiral, she'd thought to herself, working hard at maintaining a properly solemn expression. The temptation to laugh, however, had faded abruptly as she stepped out of the tube and the bosun's pipes began to shrill. The ancient boarding ceremony's salutes and formalities had flowed around her, and she'd felt her nerves tightening in a combination of anticipation, excitement, and nervousness. Now she reached out and clasped the hand Armstrong was offering her.

"Thank you, Captain," she told her brand new flag captain . . . whom she'd never met before in her life.

Armstrong was on the tall side, somewhere between Michelle and Honor for height, with a strong face, dark green eyes, and chestnut hair, She was young for her rank, even after a half T-century of naval expansion and twenty-plus years of war—just over twenty-five T-years younger than Michelle, in fact—and no one would ever consider her beautiful, or even exceptionally pretty. But there was character in that face, and intelligence, and the green eyes looked lively.

"As you can see, Milady," the flag captain continued, waving her free hand at the bustling activity and seeming chaos which engulfed her boat bay, "we're still just a little busy." She had to raise her voice to be heard over the noise level, which had surged back up as soon as the new admiral's official welcoming was out of the way. "In fact, we've got yard dogs hanging from the deckhead, I'm afraid," she said with a smile.

"So I can see," Michelle agreed. "Is there a particular problem?"

"Tons of them," Armstrong said cheerfully. "But if you're asking if there's a problem that's going to delay our departure, the answer is no. At least, I'm pretty sure the answer is no. Engineering is the most buttoned up department, and I'm confident the ship will move when we step on the hydrogen, anyway. I may have my doubts about some of the other systems, but one way or the other, we will make our schedule, Milady. I've already warned Hephaesteus Central that if I have to, I'm taking their yard dogs with me when I go."

"I see." Michelle shook her head, smiling. Her first suspicion—that Armstrong was drawing attention to the yard workers still thronging her boat bay as a preliminary for explaining why it wasn't her fault they couldn't pull out on time—had obviously been misplaced.

"What I thought would probably be best, Milady," Armstrong continued, "was to get you onto the lift and out of this bedlam. Once we've got the doors closed and we can hear ourselves think, you can tell me where you want to go. Captain Lecter and Commander Adenauer are on Flag Deck at the moment. Cindy—I mean, Captain Lecter—asked me to tell you she knew you wouldn't be able to get anything done in the middle of all this racket, so she's waiting for you to decide where you want her. If you want her and Adenauer—and me, for that matter—in your day cabin instead of on Flag Deck, they'll be there by the time we could get there from here."

"I would like to see my quarters," Michelle admitted, "but I'd like to see Flag Deck even more." She pointed over her shoulder at Chris Billingsley, who stood beside Lieutenant Archer a respectful three paces behind her. "If you could detail a guide for Chris here, and see to it that he gets to our quarters, I'd really prefer to head on up to Flag Deck. It's one way to stay out from underfoot while he fusses around and gets everything arranged perfectly."

Armstrong glanced at the steward, one eyebrow rising as she noticed the out-sized animal carrier in his right hand, then shrugged, chuckled, and nodded.

"Of course, Milady. Would you object if I had my XO and tac officer join us there, as well?"

"On the contrary, I was just about to ask you to invite them to do that."

"Good. In that case, Admiral, I believe the lifts are on the other side of that heap of engineering spares somewhere."

It was indeed much quieter once the lift doors had closed behind them, and Michelle's nostrils flared as she inhaled the new-ship smell. There was nothing else quite like it. The environmental plants aboard the Navy's warships were extremely efficient at filtering out the more objectionable aromas a starship's closed environment generated so effortlessly. But there was a difference between air that was inoffensively clean and air that carried that indefinable perfume of newness. Before Michelle's Uncle Roger had begun his military buildup in response to the People's Republic of Haven's remorseless expansionism, some naval personnel had served their entire careers without smelling that perfume more than once. Some of them had never smelled it at all, for that matter.

Michelle, on the other hand, had actually lost track of the number of times she'd smelled it. It was a small thing, perhaps, but it was the sort of small thing that put the enormous investment in money, resources, industrial effort, and trained personnel into stark perspective. The Star Kingdom of Manticore, for its size, might well be the wealthiest political entity in the entire galaxy, yet Michelle hated to think about the deficit the Star Kingdom was running up as it strained every sinew to survive.

It's cheaper than buying a new kingdom, Mike, she told herself grimly, then gave herself a mental shake. And only you are perverse enough to go from "Gosh this ship smells wonderful!" to worrying about the national debt in point-three seconds flat. What you need is a treecat of your own. Someone like Nimitz to kick you in the ass—or bite you on the ear, or something—when you start doing crap like this.

"Despite all of the yard dogs and loose parts scattered around, she looks like a beautiful ship, Captain," she said to Armstrong.

"Oh, she is. She is!" Armstrong agreed. "And I only had to contract three murders to be sure I got her, too," she added cheerfully.

"Only three?"

"Well, there was that one other candidate," Armstrong said thoughtfully. "But he requested assignment somewhere else after I pointed out what had happened to the other three. Tactfully, of course."

"Oh, of course."

Michelle managed not to chuckle again, although it was difficult. Not many captains would have been prepared to wax quite that cheerful with a vice admiral they'd never met before. Especially not a vice admiral whose flag captain they'd just become. Armstrong, obviously, was, and that said interesting things about her. Either she was a buffoon, or else she was sufficiently confident of her own competence to be who she was and let the chips fall wherever they fell.

Somehow she didn't strike Michelle as the buffoon type.

In fact, what she strikes me as is the Michelle Henke type, she admitted to herself. God. I wonder if the squadron's going to be able to survive two of us?

"Ah, here we are," Armstrong observed as the lift slid to a halt and the door opened.

They passed two more yard dogs in the very brief walk between the lift shaft and the armored hatch protecting Artemis'flag deck, and Michelle shook her head mentally. A lot of what was being done seemed to come under the heading of "cosmetic"—closing up interior bulkheads around circuitry runs, painting, lighting fixtures, that sort of thing—but she doubted that she could have been as cheerful as Armstrong if she'd been the captain of a ship due to deploy into a potential war zone in less than one week now and still buried under such swarms of yard workers.

That thought carried her through the hatch, and the spacious, dimly lit coolness of her flag deck spread about her.

Four people had been waiting for her there, and all four of them came to attention as she appeared.

"Rule Number One," she said pleasantly. "Unless we're trying to impress some foreign potentate or convince some newsy we're really earning our lordly salaries, we all have better things to do than spend our time bowing and scraping before my towering presence."

"Yes, Milady," a trim blonde at least twelve or thirteen centimeters shorter than Michelle replied.

"Rule Number Two," Michelle continued, reaching out to shake the smaller woman's hand. "It's 'Ma'am,' not 'Milady,' unless the aforementioned foreign potentate or newsy is present."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," the other woman said.

"And it's good to see you, too, Cindy," Michelle told her.

"Thank you. Although," Captain (junior-grade) Cynthia Lecter told her, "after what happened at Solon, I didn't think I was going to be seeing you again quite this soon."

"Which makes two of us," Michelle agreed. "This," she continued, waving Archer forward, "is Gwen Archer, my flag lieutenant." She grinned as Lecter quirked an eyebrow at the first name. "Don't let that innocent expression of his fool you, either. He graduated fourteenth in his class in Tactics, and he's just finished a deployment as JTO on a heavy cruiser."

She decided against explaining exactly how and when that deployment had ended. Cindy was more than good enough at her job to discover that information—as well as the reason for Archer's nickname—without having it handed to her on a plate. Besides, the practice would do her good.

Lecter didn't seem particularly perturbed by Michelle's failure to provide the information. She only nodded and smiled at Archer, who smiled back, and Michelle looked past Lecter at a considerably taller dark-haired commander.

"And this must be Commander Adenauer," she observed.

"Yes, Ma'am," Adenauer confirmed as she shook Michelle's hand in turn. Adenauer was obviously from Sphinx, and her accent reminded Michelle strongly of Honor's, although Adenauer's voice was considerably deeper than her own contralto, far less Honor's soprano.

"I hope you don't mind me mentioning this, Commander," Michelle said, "but your accent sounds awfully familiar."

"Probably because I was raised about thirty kilometers outside Twin Forks, Ma'am," Adenauer replied with a grin. "The other side of the city from Duchess Harrington. But she's my . . . um . . . fifth cousin, I think. Something like that, anyway. I'd have to ask my mom to nail it down any closer than that, but just about everyone born in Duvalier is related to everyone else, one way or another."

"I see." Michelle nodded. "Well, I've met Her Grace's mother and father, and if their level of competence runs in the family, I think you and I should get along just fine, Commander."

"Being related to 'the Salamander' is actually something of a karmic burden, Ma'am," Adenauer said. "Especially for a tac officer."

"Really?" Michelle chuckled. "Well, so is being her tac officer or XO. Both of which positions I happen to have held in the dim shades of my own youth."

"And speaking of tactical officers," Armstrong put in, "may I introduce Wilton Diego, my tac officer?"

"Commander Diego." Michelle offered her hand once again and hoped he hadn't noticed the sharp, biting flicker of pain she'd felt when Armstrong introduced him. It wasn't Diego's fault, but simply hearing his last name reminded her of her last flag captain, Diego Mikhailov.

Fortunately, the stocky, broad-shouldered commander was as fair-skinned as Lecter and as red-haired as Archer. He didn't look a thing like Mikhailov, and if he'd noticed her tiny twitch, he gave no sign of it.

"Admiral," he said, returning her grip firmly.

"I'm sure you're looking—that you and the captain both are looking—forward to getting the yard dogs out of your hair, Commander," she said.

"You've got that right, Mil—I mean, Ma'am," Diego said fervently. "Actually, Tactical is in pretty good shape. If it weren't for the traffic passing through at the most inopportune possible moments, I'd be a lot happier, though. It sort of takes the edge off a simulation when some yard dog cuts power at the critical moment because he has to change a heating element in the air scrubbers."

"I know," Michelle said with carefully metered sympathy.

"And this," Armstrong continued, waving the fourth and final officer forward, "is Ron Larson, my exec."

"Commander Larson."

Larson's handshake was as firm as Armstrong's own, although he was half a head shorter than the flag captain. He was as dark-haired as Adenauer, but his eyes were a curious slate-gray, not brown, and he sported a luxuriant but neatly trimmed beard that made him look vaguely piratical. There was something about him that reminded Michelle of Michael Oversteegen, though she couldn't put her finger on what it was. Hopefully it wouldn't turn out to be Oversteegen's cheerfully unquenchable arrogance. Michelle had always rather liked Oversteegen, and she respected his abilities, but that didn't mean she liked everything about him.

"Admiral Gold Peak," Larson replied while that thought was still running through the back of her brain, and it became instantly obvious that whatever the similarity to Oversteegen might be, it wasn't going to be Oversteegen's aristocratic sense of who he was. Not with that highland Gryphon burr. It was strong enough Michelle could have used it to saw wood.

"Let me guess," she said with a chuckle. "Commander Adenauer was raised fifty kilometers from Duchess Harrington and you were raised fifty kilometers outside what's become the Duchy of Harrington, right?"

"No, Ma'am," Larson said, shaking his head with a smile of his own. "As a matter of fact, I was born and raised on the other side of the planet. On the other hand, it's a fairly small planet, I suppose."

"Almost neighbors, in fact," Michelle agreed. Then she released his hand and stood back, gazing at the other officers.

"In a few minutes," she told them, "I'm going to want the ten-dollar tour. I had Michael Oversteegen and the original Nike in my last squadron, briefly at least, so I'm generally familiar with the class, but I'm sure Artemis has her own brand new bells and whistles, and I want to see all of them. First, though, I'd like to say a couple of things about our mission, as I understand it at this time."

The smiles had disappeared into sober, focused expressions, and she gave a mental nod of approval as they shifted gears right along with her.

"I have another briefing scheduled with Admiral Givens' people tomorrow morning at Admiralty House," she continued. "Cindy, I'd like you and Captain Armstrong to accompany me for that one. And I have another briefing, this one with Admiral Hemphill at BuWeaps, the day after that."

"Yes, Ma'am," Lecter agreed, and Armstrong nodded.

"I don't expect any major surprises," Michelle told them. "On the other hand, I've been surprised anyway, a time or two in the past. In fact, I've been bitten right on the ass a time or two, if we're going to be honest about it. Assuming that doesn't happen in this case, however, the basic parameters of our orders are clear enough. I'm sure all of us hope the summit meeting between Her Majesty and President Pritchart will actually do some good. Unfortunately, we can't count on that. And, equally unfortunately, we're not going to be here while that happens—if that happens. Instead, we're going to be off in the Talbott Quadrant, showing the flag and generally making certain no ill-intentioned souls make any more trouble for us.

"I'm confident all of you have taken steps to keep yourself abreast of events in Talbott. In light of the domestic political changes there, I think we all need to get into the habit of thinking of the Cluster by its new name, the Quadrant, but that isn't going to change any of the unpalatable realities about the region, I'm afraid. Until the rest of the staff assembles and we receive our actual instructions, we can't really get into a lot of detailed planning, but I learned a long time ago that the more people you can involve in actually thinking about a problem, the more likely someone is to come up with something that hadn't occurred to you. So here's what I want you to be thinking about.

"Militarily, our first responsibility is going to be to secure the physical integrity of the Quadrant and the lives, persons, and property of Her Majesty's new subjects. And, ladies and gentlemen, our responsibility is to secure those things against any threat, no matter who—or where—it may have come from. And lest anyone misunderstand me, let me make it very clear that that specifically includes the Solarian League."

She met each set of eyes in turn, and there were no smiles at all on Flag Bridge any longer.

"Admiral Caparelli, Earl White Haven, and Baron Grantville have made that perfectly clear to me," she continued after a moment. "No one wants a shooting incident with the League. God knows the last thing we need is a war with the Sollies. But the Constitutional Convention in Spindle has ratified the Cluster's new constitution and enacted all of the amendments Her Majesty requested. That means the citizens represented by that convention are now Manticoran citizens, ladies and gentlemen, and they will be defended by Her Majesty's Navy as such."

She paused once more to let that sink in, then shrugged.

"Our second military responsibility will be to provide support, as directed by Vice Admiral Khumalo, if, as, and when requested by Baroness Medusa or any of the planetary governments in the Quadrant. Despite the ratification, there are strong indications that the terrorist campaign in the Split System is still with us. They've been pruned back drastically, and they've become increasingly irrelevant, but those are some very angry people. The terrorists themselves—especially their leadership and central cadre—are probably even angrier than they were, now that the constitution's been ratified by their parliament, and that's scarcely likely to make people who've already picked up guns behave themselves. On the other hand, I expect much of the anger that drove anyone outside that central cadre to begin fading once the new civil rights provisions of the constitution work their way down to the grassroots level. And, frankly, I expect the upturn the entire Quadrant's economy is going to experience in the very near future will go even further towards eroding support for Nordbrandt and her FAK lunatics among anyone in the general population who was prepared to see them as some sort of freedom fighters or liberation movement instead of cold-blooded murderers. That, however, is going to take some time, and I'm sure Her Majesty would prefer for us to arrange things so that no more of her new subjects get killed by these idiots in the meantime than we can possibly avoid.

"Our third responsibility is going to be the fulfillment of our role as Baroness Medusa's and Vice Admiral Khumalo's primary fire brigade. The good news is that we're going to see a steady increase in light units in the Cluster. Plans are already afoot to forward deploy enough LACs to provide at least one LAC group to each system in the Quadrant to provide basic security against piracy and backup for local customs efforts in light of the increase in traffic we're expecting in the area. It's going to take a while to get all of that moving, especially with the call for LAC carriers for Eighth Fleet and system defense closer to home, but as soon as the CLACs can be freed up, they'll start moving forward. In the meantime, it's going to be up to our available starships to cover the most exposed systems.

"That's almost certainly going to lead to a certain inevitable dispersal of force, but it can't be helped for the immediate future. For that matter, despite all the Navy's experience in commerce protection and system defense, we've never before been responsible for the security of a single star nation spread out over this large a volume of space, so we're making some of this up as we go. That's going to pinch our toes harder than just about anyone else's in the immediate future, but at least everyone knows it, which is why the Admiralty's trying so hard to give us the tools we'll need . . . and why we're expecting at least two full flotillas of the new Roland-class ships, as well as additional Saganami-Cs and Nikes. The Agamemnons are going to be going to Home Fleet, Third Fleet, and—especially—Eighth Fleet, but we'll be getting the Nikes in compensation."

She paused as Adenauer half-raised a hand.

"Yes, Dominica?"

"It sounds like you're saying all the Agamemnons are being retained here at the front, Ma'am."

"That's exactly what I am saying," Michelle agreed. "TheNikes were designed for this sort of duty from the beginning. We're bigger than the Agamemnons, we've got larger crews, and we've got more Marines. And we're not a pod design. Unlike us, the Agamemnons can load their pods with all-up Mark 23s, whereas we're limited to the Mark 16."

Adenauer nodded, although it was evident she didn't see exactly why that was particularly significant, given the traditional battlecruiser's role and tactical doctrine. Then again, Commander Adenauer knew even less about a fire control system called Apollo than then-Rear Admiral Henke had known prior to the Battle of Solon . . . and considerably less than Vice Admiral Henke hoped to know about it in about two days' time.

And this isn't the time to tell her about it, either, Michelle thought.

"I'm sure another aspect of the Admiralty's thinking is that the Havenites have MDMs of their own, whereas the Sollies—as far as all of our intelligence sources know, at any rate—don't. The new laser head modifications are going to turn the Mark 16 into a much heavier hitter, and if we do find ourselves in a shooting situation with the Sollies, the Mark 16 is also going to outrange anything they've got. Which, unfortunately, is not the case where Haven is concerned."

Adenauer nodded again, this time more firmly, and Michelle shrugged.

"Unless present plans change—and Lord knows they're entirely likely to do just that—we'll be seeing a total of at least two and probably three squadrons of Nikes in the Cluster within the next few months. And, also unless present plans change, those squadrons will be integrated into a new fleet, designated Tenth Fleet. My understanding is that Vice Admiral Khumalo will remain Talbott Station SO, and that the entire Cluster will be integrated into that station. Tenth Fleet will be his primary naval component, and Artemis will become Tenth Fleet's flagship when it's formally activated."

Cynthia Lecter's eyes widened, and Michelle restrained an urge to chuckle at her expression. Michele's own expression when Cortez and First Space Lord Caparelli had sprung that additional little surprise upon her had been considerably more flabbergasted than Lecter's was.

From prisoner-of-war to fleet commander in one easy jump, she thought. What would life be like without these little surprises to keep us on our toes?

"That's, ah, the first I've heard of that, Ma'am," Captain Armstrong said after a moment, and Michelle snorted softly.

"I did say plans are likely to be subject to change, Captain," she pointed out. "Despite that caveat, however, I also have to say Admiral Caparelli and Admiral Cortez made it quite clear they don't expect this particular plan to change. The reason I'm mentioning it at this point is that we all need to be thinking outside the 'single-squadron' box. That's where our thinking has to be right now, of course, for a lot of reasons, but I want all of us to remember what's coming at us from the other side of the horizon. Not just because of its implications for our own responsibilities, either. When we begin interacting with the Talbotters—and, for that matter, with any Sollies in the vicinity—it should be with the understanding that in a very short time you people are going to be the staffers and flag captain, respectively, not of a single battlecruiser squadron, but of an entire fleet. We need to be careful about the sort of relationships we establish with the Talbotters, and we need to be both firm and cautious from the outset where the Sollies are concerned."

Heads nodded soberly, and she nodded back.

"In addition to the purely military dimensions of our duties in Talbott," she continued, "there are the diplomatic dimensions. At the moment, unfortunately, our military and diplomatic responsibilities are rather . . . intimately interwoven, one might say. Not only that, but the entire Quadrant is in a transitional stage. We're still going to be involved in what are essentially diplomatic missions, even though officially all of the ratifying star systems are now member systems of the Star Empire of Manticore."

She wondered for a moment if those last four words sounded as bizarre to the others as they still did to her.

"It's going to take some time for them to settle into their new relationships with one another and with us," she went on. "While that's happening, we're still going to be acting much more in the role of someone refereeing disputes between independent entities. At the same time, however, we have to act in a fashion which clearly indicates that as far as we're concerned, the annexation is an accomplished fact. And it's just as important we indicate that to the star systems—and the navies—of anyone who hasn't ratified the new constitution. I'm thinking in particular of systems like New Tuscany, but that also applies to the Office of Frontier Security and to the Solarian League in general.

"And, of course, in our copious free time, we'll be doing all those other little things navies do. Chasing down pirates, interdicting the slave trade and generally making ourselves pains where those bastards on Mesa are concerned, updating charts, surveying for dangers to navigation, rendering assistance to ships in distress, disaster relief, and anything else that comes along.

"Any questions?"

The other five officers looked at one another speculatively for several seconds, then returned their attention to her.

"I think that's all reasonably clear, Ma'am," Armstrong told her. "Please note that I didn't say that it sounds easy, just that it's clear," she added.

"Oh, believe me, Captain, any suspicion I might have cherished that the Admiralty, in the kindness of its heart, was trying to find some simple, uncomplicated billet for a recently released prisoner-of-war to fill went right out the airlock at Admiral Givens' first briefing. And I'm sure that, after tomorrow's briefing, the rest of you are going to be just as well aware as I am of the dimensions of the job waiting for us. Mind you, getting to play with all of the new ships as they become available is going to be fun, I'm sure. Unfortunately, this time around, one other thing I'm sure of is that we're all going to be earning our pay."

Chapter Twelve

Michelle Henke leaned back in her comfortable seat beside Gervais Archer as her pinnace separated from HMSArtemis' number one boat bay, rolled on gyros and maneuvering thrusters, aligned its nose on the planet Manticore, and went to main thrusters. It had no option but to use reaction drive, since Artemis was still wedded to HMSS Hephaestus by the entire complex tapestry of personnel and equipment tubes and current traffic control regulations prohibited the use of even small craft impellers until the small craft in question was at least five hundred kilometers clear of the space station. That was many times the pinnace's impeller wedge's threat perimeter, but no one was inclined to take any chances with the Star Kingdom's premier orbital industrial node. For that matter, inbound small craft (and larger vessels) were now required to shift to thrusters while still ten thousand kilometers out.

Michelle could remember when Hephaestus had been little more than twenty kilometers in length, but those days were long gone. The ungainly, lumpy conglomeration of cargo platforms, personnel sections, heavy fabrication modules, and associated shipyards, all clustered around the station's central spine, now stretched for over a hundred and ten kilometers along its main axis. Something better than three quarters of a million people—not including ship crews and other transients—lived and worked aboard the station these days, and the hectic pace of its activity had to be experienced to be believed. Vulcan, in orbit around Sphinx, was almost as large, and just as busy. Weyland, the smallest of the Star Kingdom's space stations, orbited Gryphon, and was actually the busiest of the three, given the amount of highly classified research and development which was carried out there.

Those three space stations represented the heart and soul of the Manticore Binary System's industrial muscle. The resource extraction ships which plied the system's asteroid belts, and the deep-space smelters and refiners which processed those resources, were scattered about the system's vast volume, but the space stations housed the production lines, the fabrication centers, and the highly trained labor force who made them all work. The mere thought of what an active impeller wedge could do to something like that was enough to cause anyone the occasional nightmare. Michelle might not care very much for the way traffic control's restrictions extended her flight time, but she wasn't about to complain, and she had remarkably little sympathy for people who did moan about it.

There were some of those, of course. There always were, and some of them wore the same uniform Michelle did and damned well ought to understand why those restrictions were in place. More of them were civilians, though, and she'd heard more than one upper-level civilian executive venting about theHephaestus approach rules and Planetary Approach's new rules in general.

Idiots, she thought, gazing out the viewport as the shuttle's fusion-powered thrusters moved it Manticoreward at a steady (if pokey) ninety gravities.All we need is some lunatic, like one of those Masadan fanatics who attacked Ruth in Erewhon, to get a shuttle with an active impeller wedge into ramming range of the station! And, she added unhappily, glancing briefly at the youthful lieutenant beside her, until we can figure out how the hell Haven got to Tim Meares, we can't be sure they couldn't get to a shuttle pilot, either. Which means the poor son-of-a-bitch at the controls wouldn't even have to be a volunteer. Hell, he probably wouldn't even realize he was doing it until it was too late!

The thought had no sooner crossed her mind than her eye caught the subtle distortion of an impeller wedge a hell of a lot bigger than any pinnace's. In fact, it was at least the size of a superdreadnought's wedge . . . and it couldn't be more than a couple of hundred kilometers outside its threat perimeter from the station. She tensed internally, then relaxed almost as quickly as she saw the second ship moving steadily—and rapidly—away fromHephaestus behind whoever was generating that wedge and realized what it must be.

Well, I suppose there have to be some exceptions to any rule, she reflected. But even the tugs have been required to make a few operational changes since Haven tried to kill Honor.

The Royal Astrogation Control Service's tugs were the only type of ship which was allowed that close to a space station under impeller drive. They were also the only ships, aside from warships of Her Majesty's Navy, which were permitted to enter or leave planetary orbit under impellers. Manticoran registered and crewed merchant traffic could approach to within ten thousand kilometers of Manticore, Sphinx, or Gryphon under impellers, if their ACS certification was current. Even they were required to have reduced their closing velocity to a maximum of no more than fifty thousand KPS while still two light-minutes out, however, and no one was allowed to use impeller drive outbound until they were at least ten thousand kilometers clear of their parking orbital radius. No one else's merchant vessels—not even those of such close allies as Grayson—were allowed to approach within two and a half light-minutes without first having gone to reaction drive, however, and there had been absolutely no exceptions to that policy since the attack on Honor.

Which has led to a few pissed-off exchanges between ACS and some of the "regulars" on the Manticore-Grayson run, Michelle thought. More from our side than anybody else's, from what Admiral Grimm was saying.

Admiral Stephania Grimm was the current commanding officer of the Junction ACS. She was also ex-Navy, and her younger brother had served with Michelle aboard the old dreadnought Perseus far too many years ago. Michelle had run into her at a dinner party three or four weeks after her return from Haven, and the two of them—inevitably—had ended up in a corner talking shop.

Grimm didn't have to put up with anywhere near the crap Planetary Traffic Control did, of course, but to make up for that, she had many times the amount of traffic to keep track of. Actually, for a star nation whose preposterous wealth was so heavily based upon its merchant marine, there were usually remarkably few hyper-capable ships anywhere near Manticore or Sphinx, even under normal conditions. It made far more sense for cargoes bound in or out of the Manticore System to take advantage of the stupendous warehousing and service platforms associated with the Junction itself. It was much more time and cost effective, even for ships which weren't using the Junction—and there were some of those, headed for more local destinations—to use its facilities, which were undoubtedly the biggest, most efficient, and most capable in the entire galaxy. The ships and cargo shuttles which plied back and forth between the Junction and the star system's planets were far smaller than the leviathans which traveled between stars, and they were a far more efficient way for most shipments to complete the final transition to their destinations.

It was those freight-haulers who were complaining most vociferously about ACS' new rules and attitude, according to Grimm. After all, before a shuttle pilot or, even more, the astrogators and helmsmen aboard one of the bigger, short-haul freighters were certified for planetary approach, they had to clear dozens of certifications, background checks, and routine physical and mental evaluations, and all of those certifications and evaluations had to be kept current, as well. Given all of that, some of them seemed to deeply resent the fact that they were no longer trusted to make those approaches under impeller drive. And some of the owners of those vessels clearly resented the way the new requirement to have two fully certified planetary approach pilots on the bridge at all times was increasing their overhead.

Well, I can live with that, Michelle reflected. I think sometimes they forget just how frigging dangerous an impeller-drive ship is. Maybe it's because they spend so much time in space themselves that for them it's all just routine, but they might want to remember that even a fairly small ship could turn itself into a dinosaur-killer from hell if it really wanted to.

She shuddered inside at the thought of what a mere hundred thousand-ton short-haul freighter could do if it hit, say, Manticore, at twenty or thirty thousand kilometers per second. A ten-teraton explosion would pretty much ruin the local real estate values. Michelle was no historian herself, certainly not to the extent Honor was, but Admiral Grimm, who'd seen all the ACS threat analyses and recommendations, had told her that an impact like that represented something like sixteen times the destructive power of the meteor impact which was supposed to have killed off Old Earth's dinosaurs. Given the fact that the danger represented by her ship was pounded into the head of every ACS-certified planetary approach pilot from Day One of her training, the idiots who were complaining certainly ought to understand why the new rules—including the "two-man" rule—were in place.

Especially after what had happened to Tim Meares.

I wish we knew more—hell, I wish we knew anything!—about how they got to him. And not just because of how much I liked him, Michelle thought for far from the first time, glancing again at the young man sitting beside her and remembering all the youthful, murdered zest and promise of Honor's flag lieutenant. And I wish we knew whether or not the same "programming" could have made him do something else . . . like flying a pinnace into downtown Landing at a few thousand KPS. But until we have the answers to both of those questions, I don't think anyone's going to be venturing into or out of Manticore orbit under impellers. Or no one except Navy ships and the tugs, that is.

There never had been enough tugs, of course, and the situation was even worse now. Traditionally, three ready-duty tugs had been assigned to each of Manticore's space stations. Actually, there'd been seven—enough to keep three continually on call, three more at standby as backups, and one down for mantenance or overhaul. Despite the wear and tear on their impeller nodes, the trio of ready-duty tugs' nodes were always hot, ready for instant use. And, despite their relatively diminutive size, they had hugely powerful wedges, as well as gargantuan tractors. One of them could easily handle the unpowered mass of two, or even three, superdreadnoughts if it had to. And the reason their nodes were always hot was that one of their responsibilities was to maintain a safety watch over the space stations. Even without some sort of esoteric mind control to create a deliberate collision, there was always the possibility of an accidental collision as ships maneuvered under thrusters to dock with the station. So whenever a ship approached or departed from Hephaestus, Vulcan, or Weyland, one of the duty tugs was ready to intervene. And they were always ready to pounce on any random bits of space debris, as well.

Only the most experienced captains and helmsmen were allowed to command the ACS tugs, and they'd always used the "two-man" rule, for reasons Michelle had always found self-evident. But these days, with all of the new, additional restrictions, the demand for their services had risen astronomically.

Michelle winced internally as she recognized the word play she had just inflicted upon herself, but that didn't make the thought inaccurate. According to Grimm, her Planetary Control counterparts needed at least half again the number of tugs they actually had. The good news was that even with the press of warship construction, at least some vital auxiliaries were still being laid down, and eight new tugs were set to commission over the next couple of T-months. The bad news was that despite the newly commissioned units, the number of ships which were going to be leaving the near-Manticore dispersed building slips over the next several months meant the need for still more tugs was going to get even worse quite soon now.

Fortunately, I'm not going to be here when it does. But I do wish we could figure out how they got to Tim.

"Twenty minutes from the pad, Milady," the flight engineer informed her, and she looked up with a nod.

"Thank you, PO."

"Admiral Gold Peak!"

Admiral Sonja Hemphill held out her hand with a smile as Michelle and Gervais Archer were ushered into the Admiralty House conference room. Hemphill—who had somehow managed, Michelle reflected sourly, to avoid being addressed as "Admiral Low Delhi," despite her succession to the Barony of Low Delhi—was the Fourth Space Lord of the Royal Manticoran Navy.

There were those, and Michelle had been one of them, who'd been astounded (to put it mildly) when the First Lord of Admiralty, Hamish Alexander-Harrington (although he'd been only Hamish Alexander at the time), had selected Hemphill for her present position. Alexander-Harrington, the Earl of White Haven, and Hemphill had been bitter opponents for decades. White Haven had been the champion and leader of the "historical school," which had argued that changes in technology could only shift the relative values of strategic and tactical realities which were themselves constant. That being so, the true art of strategy and naval command had lain in understanding what those realities were and applying them in the most effective manner possible with the available tools, not in looking for some sort of magical gimmick which would make them all go away.

Hemphill, on the other hand, although substantially junior to White Haven, had been the leader of the "jeune ecole." The jeune ecole had argued that the plateau—or, as they preferred to call it, "stagnation"—in military technology over the past couple of centuries had led to a matching stagnation in strategic and tactical thinking. The answer, as far as the jeune ecole's members were concerned, was to follow the pattern established (sort of) by the introduction of the laser head and break the hardware stagnation, thus completely restructuring strategy and tactics. Or even making conventional tactics—and strategy—completely irrelevant.

The internecine warfare between the supporters of the two schools had been . . . vigorous. It had also, upon occasion, been highly personal, and possibly just a little less than professionally correct. In light of the fact that the Star Kingdom's survival had probably hinged on getting the answer right, it wasn't surprising tempers had run high, Michelle supposed. And the White Haven temper had been famous throughout the Navy even before combat was joined. Nor had Hemphill exactly been a shrinking violet, and despite the fact that the Alexanders and the Hemphills had moved in the same social circles for generations, there'd been a time when the hostesses of Landing had gone to great lengths to make sure they did not invite both of them to the same party.

In the end, they'd both turned out to be right . . . and wrong. Hemphill's near-obsession with new weapons and command-and-control systems might have left people feeling as if they'd been "run down by an air lorry without being physically injured," as one of her contemporaries had put it, but it had also led directly to the FTL com, the new missile pods, the new LACs, Ghost Rider, and, ultimately, to the multidrive missile and the podnought. Yet for all of the huge increases in lethality which those new systems had made possible, the strategic and tactical constraints faced by military commanders had not magically disappeared. At the same time, however, the historical school had been forced to admit that the new technology had fundamentally transformed the parameters of those constraints to an extent which had created a radically new tactical paradigm.

And it seemed that, along the way, White Haven and Hemphill had learned to tolerate one another again. Or, at least, to recognize that each of them had vital contributions to make.

And it probably helps that Hamish is First Lord, not First Space Lord, too, Michelle thought wryly as she gripped Hemphill's proffered hand. He's the Admiralty's political head these days. I know he hates it, feels like he's out of the loop—or even out to pasture—but it also means the two of them are a lot less likely to lock horns than they might have been. Still, the idea to move her up to the head of BuWeaps came from him, not from Tom Caparelli or Pat Givens, so maybe he really is mellowing under Honor's influence. I suppose somethingmore unlikely has to have happened somewherein the galaxy. Maybe.

"I'm glad you could make it," Hemphill continued, escorting Michelle around the conference table to the waiting chair. "I was afraid there wouldn't be time in your schedule, given your deployment date."

Archer trailed along behind, carrying the small hand case which contained his minicomp. Michelle had been more than a little surprised when neither Commander Hennessy, Hemphill's chief of staff, nor the admiral's personal yeoman had objected to the minicomp's presence. One of a flag lieutenant's normal responsibilities was to record and annotate a record of her admiral's meetings, conferences, and calendar, but the subject of this particular conference was so highly classified Michelle had half-assumed she wouldn't be permitted to tell herself about it, far less keep any notes.

Apparently, she'd been wrong.

"I'm glad there was time, too, Ma'am," Michelle replied, and shook her head with a slightly lopsided smile. "Fortunately, it's turning out that I have a pretty fair staff, so I've been able to steal the occasional few hours here and there instead of wrestling personally with all the squadron's problems. They're clubbing most of the hexapumas as they come out of the shrubbery all on their own now."

Hemphill smiled back, and gestured for Michelle to sit down, then sat in her own chair at the head of the conference table. Lieutenant Archer waited until both flag officers were seated, then sat himself, and Hemphill didn't turn a hair as the lieutenant uncased his minicomp and configured it to record mode.

"I'm glad to hear that," the admiral told Michelle, without so much as glancing in Archer's direction. "I understand Bill Edwards wound up working for you?"

"Yes, he did." Michelle nodded. "Admiral Cortez told me I was lucky to get him, and I've come to the conclusion that—as usual—the admiral was right."

"Good!" Hemphill's smile got considerably broader, and she leaned back in her chair and swung it at a slight angle to the round table so that she could face Michelle squarely.

"Bill is good, very good," she said. "I really wanted to go on hanging onto him, but I couldn't justify it. Or, rather, I couldn't justify doing that to him. He's been with BuWeaps ever since he was an ensign—as Vice Admiral Adcock's flag lieutenant, originally—and he's way overdue for a rotation. In fact, he's at the point where he needs a shipboard deployment in his File 210 if he doesn't want to get stuck dirt-side permanently. Besides, I know how badly he's wanted one for years, even if he didn't exactly sit around crying about it. And, as I say, he's always been very good at whatever we've asked him to do."

"That was my impression of him, too," Michelle agreed, but she was watching Hemphill's expression a bit more closely than she had been. The last three hectic days seemed to have confirmed her initial concern that Edwards was more of a techno-type than a combat officer. In many ways, that was fine, since the communications department was a lot less likely than others to find itself making tactical decisions, and there was absolutely no question of Edwards' outstanding competence where hardware and administration were concerned. Still, Michelle had continued to cherish a few concerns.

"I sometimes think Bill would have been happier in the tactical track," Hemphill continued, rather to Michelle's surprise, given what she'd just been thinking. "I think he probably would have done quite well there, in fact. The problem is that while he might have done well there, he's done outstandingly on the development side. He's nowhere near as strong on pure theory as some of my people are, and I don't think he'd ever have been happy at all on the research side of things. But where development is concerned, he has an absolute talent for recognizing possible applications and seeing what he calls 'the shooters' perspective' on what we need to be doing. In fact, he had quite a lot to do with what we're going to be discussing today. Which," she shook her head, her expression suddenly wry, "undoubtedly explains why he's being sent in the opposite direction from where the new systems are actually likely to get used!"

"I hadn't realized he was directly involved in developing Apollo," Michelle said. "He hasn't even twitched a muscle the time or two I've wandered a bit too close to mentioning it to the rest of the staff."

"He wouldn't have," Hemphill agreed. "One thing about Bill; he knows how—and when—to keep his mouth shut."

"So I've just discovered, Ma'am."

"Well," Hemphill shrugged, "I know Bill doesn't exactly come off looking like a classic warrior, Admiral. Not until you get to know him, at least. And, as I say, he knows how to keep his mouth shut, which means he's not going to be polishing his image by dropping hints about all of the wonderful things he did for the Fleet's tactical sorts while he was over here at BuWeaps. To be honest, though, he did do some pretty good things while he was here, which is why I took it upon myself to mention that to you. I'm sure he'd be upset if he found out I had, but, well . . ."

She let her voice trail off with another shrug, and Michelle nodded once more. Much as she despised the patronage game herself, she had no problem with anything Hemphill had just said. Making certain the admiral a subordinate who'd served you well was now serving was aware of your high opinion of the subordinate in question was light-seconds away from the kind of self-serving horse-trading of favors which had so bedeviled the prewar RMN.

"I won't mention this conversation to him, Ma'am," she assured Hemphill. "On the other hand, I'm glad you told me."

"Good," Hemphill said again, then gave herself a little shake, as if to shift mental gears.

"Tell me, Admiral Gold Peak. Just how much do you already know about Apollo?"

"Very little, really," Michelle replied. "As one of Duchess Harrington's squadron commanders, I was briefed—very generally—on what the tech people were trying to accomplish, but that was about as far as it went. Just far enough to make me really nervous about the possibility of spilling something while I was the Havenites' . . . guest, you might say."

Hemphill snorted at Michelle's wry tone and shook her head.

"I imagine I'd probably have worried about the same thing myself, in your place," she said. "On the other hand, when we're done here today, you're definitely going to know enough to be nervous about 'spilling something.' "

"Oh, thank you, Ma'am," Michelle said, and this time Hemphill laughed out loud.

"Seriously, Ma'am," Michelle continued after a moment, "I'm not at all sure that giving me any sort of a detailed briefing at this point is a good idea. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm curious as hell. But like Commander Edwards, I'm headed in the opposite direction from where it's likely to get used. Do I really have the need to know any of the details about it?"

"That's an excellent question," Hemphill conceded. "And, to be honest, I'd really like to keep this whole thing closed up in a dark little cupboard somewhere—preferably under my bed—until we've actually used it. The tests we've carried out with it have made it clear we substantially underestimated the tactical implications in our original projections, and I've had more than a few bad dreams about the secret getting out. But there actually is a method to our apparent madness in briefing you fully on the system capabilities."

"There is?" Michelle tried not to sound dubious, but she suspected she hadn't fully succeeded.

"Given the possibilities offered by this summit between Her Majesty and Pritchart, it's at least possible we're going to see a cease-fire, maybe even a long-term peace agreement, with Haven," Hemphill said. "In that case, we're not going to need Apollo against the Republic. But it's entirely possible we will need it in Talbott if the situation there turns as nasty as it still could. And you, Admiral Gold Peak, are the designated commander for Tenth Fleet. So the feeling here at Admiralty House is that if we suddenly find ourselves able to begin transferring Apollo-capable ships to Talbott, it would be nice if the Fleet commander who's going to be using them was already aware of the system's capabilities."

Michelle's eyes had narrowed while Hemphill was speaking. She hadn't really thought about that possibility, because there were no ships of the wall on Tenth Fleet's planned order of battle. Her admittedly incomplete knowledge of Apollo had suggested to her that it could be used only by Keyhole-equipped ships of the wall. The Nikes and the second-flight Agamemnons were both Keyhole-capable, but their platforms were rather smaller than those of superdreadnoughts, and her impression had been that only wallers were big enough to carry the refitted, FTL-capable Keyhole platforms the new system required. Since she didn't have any wallers, it had followed that she wouldn't be using Apollo. But now she found herself nodding in understanding.

"I hadn't thought about it that way," she admitted. "Would it happen that one reason Commander Edwards found himself available for service on my staff was that same possibility?"

"It . . . had a bearing," Hemphill replied.

"And will I be authorized to fully brief the rest of my staff on it, as well?"

"You will," Hemphill said firmly, and grimaced. "The object is for you to begin familiarizing yourself with Apollo's capabilities and tactical possibilities. To do that, you're going to have to play around with those capabilities, game them out in the simulators, at the very least. You can't do that without bringing your staff, and for that matter, your flag captain and her tactical department, fully on board. And, of course," she glanced in Archer's direction for a moment, "if an admiral and her staff know about anything, her flag lieutenant probably knew about it first."

Archer's head came up and he looked quickly at Hemphill, but the admiral only chuckled and shook her head.

"Don't worry about it, Lieutenant. You're doing exactly what you're supposed to do—assuming that minicomp is as secure as I expect it is. And it's hardly going to be the only electronic record about Apollo aboard Artemis." She looked back at Michelle. "Before your squadron actually deploys, Admiral, we'll be uploading the same sims Duchess Harrington is using with Eighth Fleet to Artemis' tactical department."

"Good," Michelle said, not even trying to hide her relief. "Of course, from the little I already know, I sort of suspect that having the sims to play around with when I don't have the actual hardware is going to get just a bit frustrating. I have to admit, Admiral—you've come up with some really neat toys."

"One tries, Milady." Hemphill waved one hand modestly, but Michelle could see the comment had pleased her. Which was fair enough, given the fact that those "neat toys" of Hemphill's were one of the main reasons there was still a Royal Manticoran Navy and a Star Kingdom for it to serve.

"It's just about time," Hemphill continued, glancing at her chrono, and tapped a brief command into the conference table console. The holo imager built into the tabletop came to life, projecting the images of a dozen or so Navy officers manning a tactical simulator's command deck. The senior-grade captain in the command chair looked up as he realized the electronic conference connection had come on-line.

"Good morning, Captain Halsted," Hemphill said.

"Good morning, Ma'am."

"This is Vice Admiral Gold Peak, Captain," Hemphill told Halstead. "We're going to be giving her the inside story on Apollo this morning."

"So I understood, Ma'am," he said, and looked respectfully at Henke. "Good morning, Ma'am."

"Captain," Michelle acknowledged with a nod.

"I think, Captain," Hemphill said, "that we should start with a general description of Apollo's capabilities. Once we've done that, we can run through a couple of the simulations for the admiral."

"Of course, Admiral." Halsted turned his command chair so his holo image was directly facing Michelle.

"Essentially, Admiral Gold Peak," he began, "Apollo is a new step in missile command and control. It's a logical extension of other things we've already been doing, which marries the existing Ghost Rider technology with the Keyhole platforms and the MDM by using the newest generation of grav-pulse transceivers. What it does is to establish near-real-time control linkages for MDMs at extended ranges. At three light-minutes, the command and control transmission delay for Apollo is only three seconds, one-way, and it's turned out that we've been able to provide significantly more bandwidth than we'd projected as little as seven months ago. In fact, we have enough that we can actually reprogram electronic warfare birds and input new attack profiles on the fly. In effect, we have areactive EW and target selection capability, managed by the full capability of a ship of the wall's computational capacity, with a shorter control loop than the shipboard systems trying to defeat it."

Despite herself, Michelle's eyebrows rose. Unlike Bill Edwards, she was a trained and experienced tactical officer, and the possibilities Halstead seemed to be suggesting . . .

"Our initial projections were based on trying to install the new transceivers in each MDM," Halstead continued. "Originally, we saw no other option, and doing things that way would have made each MDM an individual unit, independent of any other missile, which seemed to offer us the most tactical flexibility and would have meant we could fire them from standard MDM launchers and the Mark 15 and Mark 17 pods. Unfortunately, putting independent links in each bird would have required us to remove one entire drive stage because of volume constraints. That would still have been worthwhile, given the increased accuracy and penetration ability we anticipated, but the development team's feeling was that we would be giving away too much range performance."

"That was one of Bill's suggestions, Admiral," Hemphill said quietly.

"Once we'd taken up ways to deal with that particular objection," Halstead went on, "it became evident that our only choices were to either strip the drive stage out of the birds, as we'd originally planned, or else to add a dedicated missile. One whose sole function would be to provide the FTL link between the firing ship and the attack birds. There were some potential drawbacks to that, but it allowed us not only to retain the full range of the MDM, but actually required very few modifications to the existing Mark 23. And, somewhat to the surprise of several members of our team, using a dedicated control missile actually increased tactical flexibility enormously. It let us put in a significantly more capable—and longer-ranged—transciever, and we were also able to fit in a much more capable data processing and AI node. The Mark 23s are slaved to the control bird—the real 'Apollo' missile—using their standard light-speed systems, reconfigured for maximum bandwidth rather than maximum sensitivity, and the Apollo's internal AI manages its slaved attack birds while simultaneously collecting and analyzing the data from all of their on-board sensors. It transmits the consolidated output from all of its slaved missiles to the firing vessel, which gives the ship's tactical department a real-time, close-up and personal view of the tactical environment.

"It works the same way on the command side, as well. The firing vessel tells the Apollo what to do, based on the sensor data coming in from it, and the on-board AI decides how to tell its Mark 23s how to do it. That's the real reason our effective bandwidth's gone up so significantly; we're not trying to individually micromanage hundreds or even thousands of missiles. Instead, we're relying on a dispersed network of control nodes, each of which is far more capable of thinking for itself than any previous missile has been. In fact, if we lose the FTL link for any reason, the Apollo drops into autonomous mode, based on the prelaunch attack profiles loaded to it and the most recent commands it's received. It's actually capable of generating entirely new targeting and penetration commands on its own. They're not going to be as good as the ones a waller's tac department could generate for it if the link were still up, but we're estimating something like a forty-two percent increase in terminal performance at extreme range as compared to any previous missile or, for that matter, our own Mark 23s with purely sub-light telemetry links, even if the Apollo bird is operating entirely on its own."

Michelle nodded, her eyes intent, and Halstead touched a button on his command chair's arm. A side-by-side schematic of two large—and one very large—missiles appeared above the conference table, between Michelle and the simulator command deck, and he indicated one of them with a flashing cursor.

"The Apollo itself is an almost entirely new design, but, as you can see, the only modifications the Mark 23 required were relatively minor and could be easily incorporated without any break in production schedules."

The cursor moved to the very largest missile.

"This is the system-defense variant, the Mark 23-D, for the moment, although it's probably going to end up redesignated the Mark 25. It's basically an elongated Mark 23 to accommodate both a fourth impeller drive and longer lasing rods with more powerful grav focusing to push the directed yield still higher. Aside from the grav units and laser rods, this is all off-the-shelf hardware, so production shouldn't be a problem, although at the moment the ship-launched system has priority.

"With the Apollo missile itself—we've officially designated the ship-launched version the Mark 23-E, partly in an attempt to convince anyone who hears about it that it's only an attack bird upgrade—" the cursor moved to the third missile "—the situation's a bit more complicated. As I say, it's an entirely new design, and we're looking at some bottlenecks in getting it into volume production. The system-defense variant—the Mark 23-F—is another all-new design. Aside from the drives and the fusion bottle, we had to start with a blank piece of paper in each case, and we hit some snags getting the new transceiver squared away. We're on top of those, now, but we're still only beginning to ramp up production. The 23-F is lagging behind the 23-E, mostly because we've tweaked the transceiver's sensitivity even higher in light of the longer anticipated engagement ranges, which increased volume requirements more dramatically than we'd expected, but even the Echo model is coming off the lines more slowly than we'd like. When you factor in the need for the original Keyhole control platforms to be refitted to the Keyhole-Two standard, this isn't something we're going to be able to put into fleet-wide deployment overnight. On the other hand—"

Chapter Thirteen

"We're cleared for station departure, Ma'am," Captain Lecter reported.

Michelle nodded as serenely as possible and wondered if she was doing a better job of hiding her relief than Cindy was.

Go ahead, admit it—to yourself, at least. You didn't think you were going to make it on deadline after all, did you?

Of course I did, she told herself astringently. Now shut up and go away!

"Very well," she said aloud, and touched a stud on the arm of her flag deck command chair. The small com display came to life almost instantly with Captain Armstrong's face.

"Hephaestus Control says we can leave now, Captain," she said.

"Did they happen to mention anything about missing personnel, Ma'am?" Armstrong inquired in an innocent tone.

"As a matter of fact, no. Why? Is there something I should know about?"

"Oh, no, Admiral. Nothing at all."

"I'm relieved to hear it. In that case, however, I believe Admiral Blaine is expecting us at the Lynx Terminus."

"Yes, Ma'am." Armstrong's expression turned much more serious, and she nodded. "I'll see to it."

"Good. I'll let you be about it, then. Henke, clear."

She touched the stud again, and the display blanked. Then she turned her command chair, once again admiring the magnificent spaciousness of Artemis' flag deck, and moved her attention to the huge tactical plot. Normally, that was configured into a schematic representation of the volume about the ship, spangled with the light codes of tactical icons, but at the moment, it was configured for direct visual from the optical heads spotted about the huge battlecruiser's hull, instead, and Michelle watched asArtemis' bow thrusters awoke. She felt the faint vibration transmitted through the ship's two and a half million tons of battle steel, armor, and weapons, and the big ship began to back slowly and smoothly out of the docking arms.

The moment when a starship actually began her very first deployment was always special. Michelle doubted she would ever truly be able to describe that specialness to someone who hadn't actually experienced it, but for someone who had, there was no other moment quite like it. That sense of newness, of being present at the birth of a living creature, of watching the Star Kingdom's newest warrior take her very first step. A keel-plate owner understood without any need of explanations, knew that whatever fate ultimately awaited the ship, he or she was a part of it. And knew that the reputation of that ship, for good or ill, would stem from the actions and attitudes of her very first crew.

And yet, this moment was different for Michelle Henke.Artemis was her flagship, but she wasn't her ship. She belonged to Victoria Armstrong and her crew, not to the admiral who simply happened to fly her flag aboard her.

She remembered something her mother had once said—"From those to whom much is given, much is taken, as well." It was odd how accurate that had proved since Michelle had attained flag rank herself. At the Academy, she'd known flag rank was what she wanted. That squadron, task force, or even fleet command was where she wanted to apply her talents, test herself. But she hadn't known then what she'd have to give up to get it. Not really. She'd never realized how much it would hurt to realize she would never again command a Queen's ship herself. Never again wear the white beret of a starship commander.

Oh, stop being maudlin! she told herself as the gap betweenArtemis' bow and the space station widened steadily. Next thing you know, you're going to be asking them to take the squadron back!

She snorted in amusement, and leaned back in her command chair as one of the waiting tugs moved in.

Artemis' thrusters shut down, and the ship quivered again—a subtly different quiver, this time—as the tug's tractors locked onto her. Nothing happened for a moment, and then she began to accelerate again, much more rapidly, although nowhere near so rapidly as she could have accelerated under her own power if she'd been permitted to use her impeller wedge this close to the station. Or, for that matter, as rapidly as the tug could have moved her, if not for niggling little considerations like, oh, keeping the crew alive. Without the wedge, there was no handy sump for the inertial compensator, which limited the ship's protoplasmic crew to an acceleration her internal grav plates could handle. If they'd really wanted to push the envelope, and if the squadron had been prepared to secure for heavy acceleration, they could have pulled at least a hundred gravities, but there wasn't really much point in that. No one was in that big a hurry, and modern starships weren't really designed to handle heavy accelerations for any extended period of time. The ships themselves might not have minded particularly, but their personnel was another matter entirely.

At least Artemis, Romulus, and Theseus were the only ones still docked at one of the stations, so you didn't have to worry about tug availability, she reminded herself.

She tapped a control on her chair arm and her repeater plot deployed from the chair base. It configured itself into standard tactical format, and she watched the icons representing the three battlecruisers moving steadily away from the purple anchor which had been used for generations to represent space stations like Hephaestus. HMS Stevedore, the single tug towing all of them, showed as a purple arrowhead pointed directly at the five icons of the rest of the squadron, waiting under their own power for their last three consorts to make rendezvous.

Michelle didn't know whether or not the Admiralty intended to completely scrap the squadron reorganization plan the Janacek Admiralty had put into place. There were some advantages to the six-ship squadron format Janacek had adopted, much though it galled Michelle to admit that anything that ham-fisted idiot had done could possibly have any beneficial consequences. Fortunately for her blood pressure, if not for the Star Kingdom's wellbeing, there weren't very many instances in which she had to. But even though the smaller-sized squadrons offered at least some additional tactical flexibility, they also required twenty-five percent more admirals—and admirals' staffs—for the same number of ships. Personally, Michelle suspected that had been part of the attraction for Janacek and his partisans. After all, it had provided so many more flag slots into which he could plug sycophants, despite the way he'd downsized the fleet. Those of his cronies who hadn't been removed by the Havenites in the course of Operation Thunderbolt (she supposed any cloud had to have at least some silver lining) had been ruthlessly purged by the White Haven Admiralty, yet that had left a tiny problem. Finding that many competent admirals was a not so minor concern in a navy expanding as rapidly and hugely as the present Royal Manticoran Navy. Just as even the new, highly automated designs still needed complete bridge crews, complete engineering officer complements, admirals still needed staffs, and there simply weren't that many experienced staff officers to go around. For example, Michelle herself still didn't have a staff intelligence officer. At the moment, Cynthia Lecter was wearing that hat as well as holding down the chief of staff's slot, which was rather unfair to her. On the other hand, at least she'd spent a tour with ONI two deployments ago, so she knew what she was doing in both slots. And it didn't hurt that Gervais Archer was turning out to be a surprisingly competent assistant intelligence officer.

There were undoubtedly other reasons for the White Haven Admiralty's new thinking, as well, but in combination, they explained why the 106th Battlecruiser Squadron consisted of eight units, not six. And, to be perfectly frank, Michelle didn't really care what other reasons there might have been. She was too busy gloating over the possession of those two additional battlecruisers.

Not that most other navies would consider them "battlecruisers," I suppose, she told herself. At two and a half million tons, the new Nike-class ships were closing in on the size of the old battleships no one had built for the last fifty or sixty T-years, and some navies—like the Sollies, she thought sourly—still defined ship types by tonnage brackets which had become obsolete even before the First Havenite War. But even though the Nikes were the next best thing to half again the size of her dead Ajax, Artemis was capable of almost seven hundred gravities' acceleration at maximum military power. And her magazines were crammed with over six thousand Mark 16 dual-drive missiles.

I don't care how big she is, she's still a battlecruiser, though, Michelle thought.It's the function, the doctrine, that counts, not just tonnage. And by that meter stick, she's a battlecruiser, all right. One from the dark side of Hell, maybe, but still a battlecruiser. And I've got eight of her.

It was possible, she admitted to herself, watching the plot as the tugs moved her new command steadily away from Hephaestus, that flag rank did have its own compensations.

"We're being hailed, Ma'am," Lieutenant Commander Edwards reported.

"Well, that was prompt," Michelle observed dryly.Artemis had just emerged from the Lynx Terminus, a bit over six hundred light-years from the Manticore Binary System. In fact, she'd barely finished reconfiguring her Warshawski sails into a normal-space impeller wedge, and none of the other ships of the squadron had yet transited the junction behind her.

Edwards' only response to her comment was a smile, and she grinned back, then shrugged philosophically.

"Go ahead, Bill."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Edwards input the command that triggeredArtemis' transponder, identifying her to the mostly-completed forts and the two squadrons of Home Fleet ships of the wall holding station here.

"Acknowledged, Ma'am," he said a moment later.

"Good," Michelle replied. And it was good that the local picket was obviously on its toes, she reflected. To be sure, no hostile force was likely to be coming through from Manticore. Or, if one was, the Star Kingdom would have to be so well and truly screwed that it really wouldn't matter how alert anyone in the Talbott Quadrant might be. Still, alertness was a state of mind, and anyone who let herself grow slack and sloppy in one aspect of her duties was only too likely to let the same thing happen in all aspects. Not that any Manticoran admiral was likely to let that happen after the reaming Thomas Theisman's navy had given them in Operation Thunderbolt.

Or we'd better not be, at least, she thought grimly, then shook herself.Time to make our manners.

"RaiseLysander, please, Bill," she said, walking back across the bridge to her command chair. Gervais Archer looked up from his own bridge station to one side of her chair as she seated herself. "My compliments to Vice Admiral Blaine," she continued, "and inquire if it would be convenient for him to speak with me."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," Edwards replied, exactly as if he hadn't known she was going to say exactly that . . . and exactly as if there were, in fact, the remotest possibility that Vice Admiral Blaine would not find it convenient to speak to a newly arrived admiral passing through his bailiwick.

"I have Admiral Blaine, Ma'am," Edwards said a handful of minutes later.

"Put him on my display, please."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Vice Admiral Jessup Blaine was a tallish, bland-faced man with thinning hair and a thick beard. The beard was neatly trimmed, but the contrast between it and his far sparser hair made him look vaguely lopsided and scruffy, and she wondered why he'd grown it.

"Welcome to Lynx, Milady." Blaine's voice was deeper, and much more smoothly modulated than she had allowed herself to expect from his appearance.

"Thank you, Admiral," she replied.

"I'm glad to see you," Blaine continued. "For a lot of reasons, although, to be honest, the biggest one from my perspective is because it means I'll probably be getting Quentin O'Malley back from Monica sometime soon."

That's coming right to the point of things, Michelle thought dryly.

"We'll get him back to you as quickly as we can, Admiral," she assured him out loud.

"It's not that I'm not glad to see you for all those other reasons, as well, Milady," Blaine told her with a quick smile. "It's just that, technically, I'm still one of the reserve forces for the home system, and Quentin is supposed to be my screening element. I'd really like to have him back just to give me a little extra depth here in Lynx until the forts come on-line. And if things go so wrong they do call me back to Manticore, I think I can assume I'll need all the screening support I can get."

"I understand," Michelle assured him, and she did. "On the other hand, according to my last briefing at Admiralty House, there should be quite a few additional forces headed this way shortly."

"And not a moment too soon."

Blaine's fervent approval was evident, and Michelle smiled slightly. She doubted that they'd pulled Blaine's name out of a hat when they decided they had to dispatch reinforcements to Talbott, which argued that there was a very competent officer under that bland exterior. But even the most competent officer had to feel the occasional moment of . . . loneliness when he found himself hanging out at the far end of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction waiting for a possible attack by the Solarian League. No wonder Blaine wanted to see all the friendly faces he could find.

"Do you know Rear Admiral Oversteegen, Admiral?" she asked.

"Michael Oversteegen?" Blaine frowned. "Last I heard, he was a captain." He sounded a bit plaintive, and Michelle chuckled.

"And I was a rear admiral up until a week ago," she said. "I'm afraid they're going to be pushing a lot of us up quickly, with all the new construction coming out of the yards. But my point, Sir, was that they've given Michael the 108th. And assuming he makes his deployment schedule, he should be following along behind me within a couple of months or so. And the first squadron ofRolands is about ready to start working up. In fact, it may already have begun the process."

"That, Milady, is very good news," Blaine said frankly. "Now, if this cease-fire only lasts long enough to get all that new construction deployed."

"We can hope, Sir."

"Yes. Yes, we can." Blaine seemed to give himself a mental shake, then smiled. "I appear to have forgotten my manners, though. Would you and your captains have time to join me for dinner, Milady?"

"I'm afraid not," Michelle said with genuine regret. Like Honor, she believed personal, face-to-face contact was the best way for officers who might have to work together to feel confident they actually knew one another.

"I'm under orders to expedite my arrival in Spindle by all possible means, Sir," she continued. "As a matter of fact,Artemis still has over a dozen of Hephaestus' yard dogs on board, working at adjusting this and that. And Captain Duchovny has even more than that aboard Horatius."

"And the station commander let you go without opening fire, did she?" Blaine inquired with something suspiciously like a chuckle.

"I don't think she would have without Admiral D'Orville standing behind me with his energy batteries cleared away," Michelle replied.

"Actually, I don't find that particularly hard to believe. I've had my own dealings with yard dogs over the years, Milady. The stories I could tell you!"

"As could we all, Sir."

"True." Blaine smiled at her, then inhaled with an air of finality. "Well, in that case, Milady, we won't delay you. Please give my respects to Admiral Khumalo when you reach Spindle."

"I will, Sir."

"Thank you, Milady, And on that note, I'll wish you a speedy voyage and let you be on your way. Blaine, clear."

The display blanked, and Michelle looked back up at the tactical plot.

While she'd been talking to Blaine,Artemis' division mates in BCS 106's first division—Penelope, Romulus, and Horatius—had followed her through the terminus. As she watched, Filipa Alcoforado's Theseus, the flagship of Commodore Shulamit Onasis, who commanded the squadron's second division, erupted from the invisible flaw in space, radiating the blue glory of transit energy from her sails.

Not much longer, she thought, and glanced at Commander Sterling Casterlin. As she'd told Cortez, she'd met Casterlin before, although they'd never served together until now. They'd almost served on the old Bryan Knight together, but she'd just been leaving the ship when he came on board. She actually knew his cousin, Commodore Jake Casterlin, better, and from what she'd seen of Sterling already, she was willing to bet that Jake's Liberal Party sympathies drove the far more conservative Sterling bananas.

She might be wrong, though, since it looked to her as if it would probably take quite a bit to shake Commander Casterlin's equanimity. He'd been late arriving aboard, through no fault of his own, but he hadn't even turned a hair at the prospect of having less than forty hours to "settle in" with an entirely new department, aboard an entirely new ship, under an entirely new vice admiral, before departing for a possible combat deployment. Under the circumstances, he'd shown remarkable aplomb, she thought.

"It seems we'll be leaving soon," she observed.

"Yes, Ma'am," he replied without turning a hair. "I've just passed our heading and course to Commander Bouchard."

"Good," she said.

He looked over his shoulder at her, and she smiled. She'd known she wasn't going to catch him out without a course already figured, but he'd quietly one-upped her by going ahead and passing the course to Jerod Bouchard,Artemis' astrogator, before she asked.

"I believe he'd already worked out approximately the same course, Ma'am," Casterlin observed.

"No, really?" Michelle rounded her eyes in innocent astonishment, then chuckled as Casterlin shook his head.

Daedalus and Jason had followedTheseus through the Junction, now. All they still needed was Captain Esmerelda Dunne'sPerseus, and they could be on their way, and Michelle was looking forward to the voyage. It was sixteen days from the Lynx Terminus to the Spindle System, and just as Spindle had been the site of the Constitutional Convention, it had been chosen—at least provisionally—as the Talbott Quadrant's capital system. Which meant that was where she was going to find Baroness Medusa and Vice Admiral Khumalo. When she did, she'd finally be able to begin forming a realistic idea of what she was going to have to do and what she was going to do it with. Under normal circumstances, her desire to hit the ground running would have left her feeling impatient and antsy, but not this time. The sixteen days' passage would undoubtedly be welcome to her captains, even though it would be only ten days for them, given the relativistic effect, since it would give them additional time to complete bringing their ships' hardware to full readiness. And, of course, getting their ships' companies trained up to something approaching the standard expected out of a Queen's ship.

"Remind me to invite Captain Conner and Commodore Onasis to dine with me tonight, Gwen," she said.

"Yes, Ma'am," Archer replied. "Should we invite Commander Houseman and Commander McIver, as well?"

"An excellent thought, Gwen," Michelle approved with a smile. "For that matter let's get Captain Armstrong, Cindy, Dominica, and Commander Dallas and Commander Diego on the guest list, as well. And you can drop them a little hint—unofficially, of course—that we'll be talking about training schedules."

"Yes, Ma'am." Archer made a note to himself, and Michelle smiled at him. The youngster was working out even better than she'd hoped he would, and it looked as if at least some of the ghosts of Solon were fading out of the backs of his eyes. She hoped so, anyway. It was obvious that nature had intended him to be a cheerful extrovert, and she was pleased to see him shedding the . . . somberness which had been so much a part of him at their first meeting.

He was quick, too. His suggestion that Conner and Onasis bring along their chiefs of staff was an excellent one, and exactly the sort of anticipation and thinking ahead a good flag lieutenant was supposed to provide to her admiral. And it probably represented his own experience aboard Necromancer, as well. Obviously, Gervais was aware of the squadron's rough edges and recognized the need to start filing them down.

Her nostrils flared at that thought. Those rough edges weren't her captains' fault, any more than they were hers. In fact, they weren't anyone's fault. Despite which, Michelle was uncomfortably aware of just how unprepared for battle her command truly was, and that was precisely why she, too, was looking forward to those ten days of exercises. Hard exercises, she thought—as demanding as she and her captains could make them. Given the situation she might well find herself facing in the very near future, it was time she and her officers started finding the problems, figuring out what to do about them, and doing it.

And the sooner the better, she reflected grimly. The sooner the better.

The range-to-target sidebar on the tactical display was preposterous.

The missile salvo was sixty-eight million kilometers fromArtemis, speeding steadily onward at 150,029 KPS. Its birds had been ballistic for four and a half minutes, ever since the second drive system had burned out, and they were still ninety-three seconds—almost fourteen million kilometers—from their target, even at half the speed of light.

And the attack missiles still hadn't been assigned targets.

Michelle Henke sat quietly to one side, playing the umpire's role as she watched Dominica Adenauer, Wilton Diego, and Victoria Armstrong work the simulation. It felt just plain wrong to have attack birds that far out at all, she reflected, far less have them swanning around without targets already locked into their cybernetic brains. And yet, what was happening was only a logical consequence of the new technology.

Admiral Hemphill, she'd decided, had been absolutely right about Bill Edwards. The "communications" officer's intimate knowledge of the entire Apollo project had proved invaluable when she and her staff started kicking around the new system's potentialities. In fact, Adenauer and he had spent hours off to one side, talking animatedly, scribbling on napkins (or any other unwary surface which made itself available), and tweaking the simulation software. Michelle had been relieved to see that. Some tactical specialists would undoubtedly have rebuffed a mere communications type's suggestions, wherever he might have spent his last tour. Adenauer, on the other hand, was sufficiently self-confident to welcome insight, regardless of its source, and over the last six days of ship's time, she and Edwards had established not simply a sound working relationship, but a warm friendship. And the fruits of their efforts were readily apparent. In fact, Michelle suspected that the two of them had come up with at least a few wrinkles which hadn't occurred to anyone at BuWeaps.

"Coming up on Point Alpha," Diego said quietly.

"Acknowledged," Adenauer replied.

The actual firing and management of the missiles was Diego's responsibility asArtemis' tactical officer, but the management and distribution of the squadron's massed firepower was a function of its operations officer. Normally, Adenauer would have given Diego Michelle's attack criteria and established general attack profiles before the first missile was launched. Diego would have taken things from there, assigning individual missiles to specific targets and—with Lieutenant Isaiah Maslov, Artemis' electronics warfare officer—slotting them into the attack, EW, and penetration profiles Adenaur had laid down.

But today, they were examining a completely different capability. A capability no squadron commander in history had ever before enjoyed. For the purposes of today's simulation, HMS Artemis had been promoted from a battlecruiser to anInvictus-class SD(P). Every unit of the squadron had undergone a similar transformation, which meant that instead of the sixty Mark 16s each ship could normally fire in a single double-broadside salvo, each of them could deploy six full pods of Mark 23s. Normally, that would have meant that each ship rolled one pattern of Mark 17 "flat pack" missile pods, each of which contained ten Mark 23s, every twelve seconds. In this case, however, they were rolling the Mark 17, Mod D, which contained only eight Mark 23s . . . and a single Mark 23-E.

So instead of sixty Mark 16s every eighteen seconds, with a maximum powered attack range (without a ballistic segment, at least) of only a shade over twenty-seven million kilometers and "cruiser range" laser heads, they were firing forty-eight attack and dedicated EW Mark 23s every twelve seconds.

That was a sufficiently heady increase in firepower, Michelle thought dryly, but the technique which she and Adenauer—and Edwards—had come up with for today made it even sweeter.

One of the Manticoran Alliance's most telling advantages was Ghost Rider, the highly developed—and constantly evolving—family of FTL recon and EW platforms. Deployed in a shell around a single ship, squadron, or task force, they gave an Alliance CO a degree of situational awareness no one else could match. Alliance starships could simply see farther, faster, and better than anyone else, and their recon platforms could deliver their take in real-time or near real-time, which no one else—not even the Republic of Haven—could do.

But there were still drawbacks. It was still entirely possible to detect the impeller signatures of a potentially hostile force and not have a recon platform in position to run and find out who the newcomers were. Even if a tactical officer had very good reason to believe the newcomers in question cherished ill intentions, she still had to get one of her platforms into position to look them over from relatively close range before she could be positive of that. Or, for that matter, before she could be positive that what she was seeing were really starships and not electronic warfare drones pretending to be starships. And it was generally considered to be a good idea to have that sort of information in hand before one sent an entire salvo of attack missiles screaming in on what might, after all, turn out to be a neutral merchant convoy.

In one of Adenauer's and Edwards' brainstorming sessions with Michelle, however, Edwards had pointed out a new possibility which Apollo made possible. Fast as the Ghost Rider platforms were, they were immensely slower than an MDM. They had to be, since stealth and long endurance were completely incompatible with the massive acceleration rates produced by an attack missile's impeller wedge in its brief, incredibly un-stealthy lifetime. But Apollo was designed to combine and analyze the readings from the attack missiles slaved to it . . . and to transmit that analysis back to the launching ship at FTL speed. Michelle and Adenauer had grasped his point immediately and run with it, and this simulation was designed to test what they'd come up with. What Adenauer had done was to fire a single Apollo pod thirty seconds before they fired a complete squadron salvo. And that pod was now one minute's flight from the "unknown impeller wedges" eighty-two million kilometers fromArtemis.

"Jettisoning the shrouds now," Diego reported as the first pod's missiles reached Point Alpha.

"Acknowledged," Adenauer replied.

The shroud-jettisoning maneuver had been programmed into the missiles before launch. Unlike any previous attack missile, the Mark 23s in an Apollo pod were fitted with protective shrouds intended to shield their sensors from the particle erosion of extended ballistic flight profiles at relativistic speeds. Most missiles didn't really need anything of the sort, since their impeller wedges incorporated particle screening. They were capable of maintaining a separate particle screen—briefly, at least—as long as they retained on-board power, even after the wedge went down, but that screening was far less efficient than a starship's particle screens. For the most part, that hadn't mattered, since any ballistic component of a "standard" attack profile was going to be brief, at best. But with Apollo, very long-range attacks, with lengthy ballistic components built into them, had suddenly become feasible. That capability, however, would be of limited usefulness if particle erosion had blinded the missiles before they ever got a chance to see their targets.

Now the jettisoning command blew the shrouds, and the sensors they had protected came on-line. Of course, the missiles were 72,998,260 kilometers from Artemis. That was over four light-minutes, which in the old days (like five or six T-years ago) would have meant any transmission from them would take four minutes to reach Artemis.

With the FTL grav-pulse transceiver built into the Mark 23-E, however, it took barely four seconds.

The display in front of Adenauer blossomed suddenly with icons as the first missile pod's Apollo faithfully reported what its brood could see, now that their eyes had been opened. The light codes of three hostile superdreadnoughts, screened by three light cruisers and a quartet of destroyers, burned crisp and clear, and for a heartbeat, the tactical officer did absolutely nothing. She simply sat there, gazing at the display, her face expressionless. But Michelle had come to know Adenauer better, especially over the last six days. She knew the commander was operating almost in fugue state. She wasn't actually even looking at the plot. She was simply . . . absorbing it. And then, suddenly, her hands came to life on her console.

The missiles in the attack salvo had been preloaded with dozens of possible attack and EW profiles. Now Adenauer's flying fingers transmitted a series of commands which selected from the menu of preprogrammed options. One command designated the superdreadnoughts as the attack missiles' targets. Another told the Dazzlers and Dragon's Teeth seeded into the salvo when to bring their EW systems up, and in what sequence. A third told the attack missiles when to bring up their final drive stages and what penetration profile to adopt when they hit the enemy force's missile-defense envelope. And a fourth told the Mark 23-Es when and how they should take over and restructure her commands if the enemy suddenly did something outside the parameters of her chosen attack patterns.

Entering those commands took her twenty-five seconds, in which the attack missiles traveled another 3,451,000 kilometers. It took just under four seconds for her commands to reach from Artemis to the Apollos. It took another twelve seconds for her instructions to be receipted, triple-checked, and confirmed by the Apollo AIs while the shrouds on the attack missiles were jettisoned. Forty-five seconds after the first pod's missiles had jettisoned their shrouds, the follow-on salvo opened its eyes, looked ahead, and saw its targets, still two and a quarter million kilometers in front of it. They were 4.4 light-minutes from Artemis . . . but their targeting orders were less than sixty seconds old, and the computers which had further refined and analyzed the reports from the first pod's Apollo were those of a superdreadnought, not a missile, however capable.

The simulated targets' fire control had only a relatively imprecise idea of where to look for the attack missiles before their third-stage drives came suddenly on-line. They'd still been so far out when they shut down for the ballistic leg of their flight that the defenders' on-board sensors hadn't been able to fully localize them. The target ships had gotten enough to predict their positions to within only a few percentage points of error, but at those velocities, and on such an enormous "battlefield," even tiny uncertainties made precise targeting impossible. And precise targeting was exactly what was necessary for a counter-missile to hit an attack missile at extended range.

The defenders saw the Mark 23s clearly when the attack missiles' final stages came suddenly and abruptly to life, but by then it was already too late. There was no time for any long-range counter-missile launch, and even the short-range CMs had rushed targeting solutions. Worse, the EW platforms supporting the attack came on-line at the worst possible moment for the defenders. The counter-missiles' rudimentary sensors were totally outclassed, and there was no time for missile-defense officers to analyze the Manticoran EW patterns. Point defense clusters blazed desperately in a last-ditch effort to stop the MDMs hurtling in on the superdreadnoughts, but there were too many of them, they were closing too quickly, and the ballistic approach had robbed the defenders of too much tracking time. Many of the Mark 23s were destroyed short of target, but not enough.

The imagery on Adenauer's plot froze abruptly as the attack missiles and their Apollos slammed into their targets, were picked off by the defenses, or self-destructed at the end of their programmed runs. For an instant or two, the plot simply stayed that way. But then it came abruptly back to life once more. Just as a single pod had preceded the attack wave, another single pod followed in its wake. Its missiles had jettisoned their shrouds at the same moment the attack missiles executed their final runs, and Michelle watched in something very like disbelief, even now, as the results of the initial strike reached Artemis in less than five seconds.

One of the superdreadnoughts was obviously gone. Her wedge was down, she was streaming atmosphere and shedding debris, and the transponders of her crew's escape pods burned clear and sharp on the plot. One of her sisters was clearly in serious trouble, as well. From her impeller signature, she'd taken massive damage to her forward ring, and her emission signature showed heavy damage to the active sensors necessary for effective close-ranged missile-defense. The third superdreadnought appeared to have gotten off more lightly, but even she showed evidence of significant damage, and a second, equally massive attack wave was already tearing down on her.

My God, Michelle thought quietly. My God, it really works. It not only works, but I'll bet we've still only begun to scratch the surface of what this means. Hemphill told me it would be a force multiplier, and, Jesus, was she right!

She watched the second salvo bearing down on its victims, and even though it was only a simulation, she shivered at the thought of what it would be like to know that wave of destruction was coming.

Lord, if Haven knew about this, they'd be begging for a peace treaty! she thought shakenly.

She remembered something White Haven had said after Operation Buttercup, the offensive which had driven Oscar Saint-Just's People's Republic to its knees. "It made me feel . . . dirty. Like I was drowning baby chicks," he'd said, and for the first time, she fully understood what he'd meant.

Chapter Fourteen

Augustus Khumalo was grayer than Michelle remembered.

He was some sort of distant cousin of hers, although she had only the vaguest idea of exactly how and through whom they were related, and she'd met him in passing half a dozen times. This was the first time she'd ever really spoken to him, though, and as she followed his chief of staff, Captain Loretta Shoupe, into his day cabin aboard HMS Hercules, she found herself looking into his eyes, searching for some sign of the moral courage he'd displayed when he received Aivars Terekhov's bombshell dispatch.

She didn't see it. Not surprisingly, perhaps. She'd discovered long since that people who looked like warriors too often proved to be Elvis Santinos or Pavel Youngs, while the most outwardly unprepossessing people frequently turned out to have nerves of steel.

I wonder if I'm looking so hard because I feel guilty about the way I've always dismissed him in the past?

"Vice Admiral Gold Peak, Sir," Shoupe announced quietly.

"Welcome to Spindle, Milady," Khumalo held out a large, rather beefy hand, and Michelle shook it firmly. The Talbott Station commander was a large man, with powerful shoulders and a middle which was beginning to thicken. His complexion was considerably lighter than Michelle's own—in fact, it was almost as light as the Queen's—but there was no mistaking the Winton chin. Michelle knew there wasn't; she had it herself, if in a thankfully somewhat more delicate version.

"Thank you, Sir," she replied, then released his hand to indicate the two officers who had accompanied her. "Captain Armstrong, my flag captain, Sir. And Lieutenant Archer, my flag lieutenant."

"Captain," Khumalo said, offering his hand to Armstrong in turn, and then nodded in Gervais Archer's direction. "Lieutenant."

"Admiral," Armstrong replied, shaking his hand, and Archer returned his nod with a respectful half-bow.

"Please," Khumalo said then, gesturing at the chairs arranged in a comfortable, conversational circle in front of his desk. "Find seats. I'm sure we've got quite a lot to talk about."

That, Michelle reflected, as she settled back into one of the indicated chairs, was undoubtedly one of the greater understatements she'd heard lately.

Archer waited until all of his seniors had seated themselves before he found a chair of his own, and Michelle watched out of the corner of her eye as her flag lieutenant touched his cased minicomp and raised one eyebrow at Shoupe. The chief of staff nodded permission, and Archer uncased the minicomp and configured it to record.

"We're due to dine with Baroness Medusa and Mr. Van Dort this evening, Milady," Khumalo said. "At that time, I have no doubt that she and Mr. O'Shaughnessy—and Commander Chandler, my intelligence officer—will be as eager as I am to hear everything you can tell us about the situation at home and this proposed summit meeting between Her Majesty and Pritchart. And I'm also confident that the baroness and Mr. O'Shaughnessy will have a rather more detailed briefing for you on the political side of events here in the Cluster. I mean, Quadrant."

His lips twitched sourly but briefly as he corrected himself, and Michelle smiled. No doubt the change in nomenclature was going to take some getting used to for everyone involved, but as she'd warned her own staff, it was important. Words had power of their own, and remembering to get it right was one way of helping to assure everyone out here in Talbott that they'd done the right thing when they requested annexation by the Star Kingdom.

Of course, it was probable that they'd envisioned things working out just a little differently than they actually had. Not that anyone in Talbott was likely to complain about the final outcome . . . assuming they'd thought annexation was a good idea in the first place, that was. Some of them, like that lunatic Nordbrandt in Kornati, obviously hadn't, and Michelle had no doubt that those Talbotters who continued to object were vociferously unhappy about that same "final outcome."

The entire annexation debate had posed serious domestic political questions for the Star Kingdom, as well, however, and the answers to those questions had dictated the conditions under which it could go forward. The original proposal hadn't been Manticore's in the first place, and more than one member of Parliament had thought it was a terrible idea. In many ways, Michelle had actually found herself in agreement with those who had objected to the entire concept. Although she'd always felt the advantages outweighed her concerns, she'd still had a high anxiety quotient where some aspects of the proposal were concerned.

The Star Kingdom of Manticore had been in existence for four hundred and fifty years, during which it had evolved and grown into its own unique identity and galactic position. It was incredibly wealthy, especially for a star nation with such a small population, but the point was that its population was small by the standards of any multisystem star nation. It was also politically stable, with a system which—despite its occasional blemishes, like the disastrous High Ridge Government, and monumentally nasty political infighting—enshrined the rule of law. Manticorans were no more likely to be candidates for sainthood than anyone else, and there were those—like High Ridge, Janacek, her own Cousin Freddy, or the Earls of North Hollow—who were perfectly willing to evade or even outright break the law in pursuit of their own ends. But when they got caught, they were just as accountable in the eyes of the law as anyone else, and the Star Kingdom enshrined both transparency and accountability in government. It also enshrined the orderly, legal exchange of power, even between the most bitter of political enemies, through the electoral process, and it possessed a highly educated, politically active electorate.

That was why the notion of adding more than a dozen additional star systems whose individual average populations at least matched that of the Manticore Binary System had been dismaying to Michelle, in many respects. Especially given how poor—and poorly educated (by Manticoran standards, at least)—all of those prospective new citizens were. Some Manticorans had been nervous enough about admitting San Martin, the inhabited world of Trevor's Star, to the Star Kingdom, and San Martin had been an entirely different kettle of fish, despite its years as a Havenite "protectorate" under the People's Republic. Its population was still that of a first-rank star nation, with decent educational, medical, and industrial bases, and it had always been Manticore's immediate astrographic neighbor. Manticorans and San Martinos had known each other for a long, long time; they'd known how one another's governments and societies worked, and shared many more similarities than they had differences. But the Talbott Cluster was typical of the Verge, that vast belt of sparsely settled, economically depressed, technically backward star systems which surrounded the slowly but inexorably expanding sphere of the Solarian League.

Michelle, like many people in the Star Kingdom, had found the idea of adding that many voters with absolutely no experience in the Star Kingdom's political traditions alarming. Some of those alarmed souls had been none too shy about calling the Talbotters "neobarbs," which Michelle, despite her own concerns, had found decidedly ironic, given the fact that Sollies routinely applied that pejorative to the same citizens of the Star Kingdom who were now using it about someone else. Yet even those who would never have dreamed of using that particular term, and who were prepared to accept that their new fellow citizens would have the best intentions in the universe, had to wonder if those new citizens would have time to absorb the instruction manual before they tried to take over the air car's controls. And, of course, there was always the concern—the legitimate concern, in Michelle's view—of what destination a bunch of voters from outside the Manticoran tradition might choose for all of them.

There'd been concerns on the Talbott side, as well, and not just from people like Nordbrandt. Or, for that matter, like Stephen Westman, although from what Michelle had heard so far, Westman seemed to have seen the light. Those with the deepest concerns appeared to have been worried about losing their own identity, although what many of them—especially among the Cluster's traditional power elites—had really meant when they'd said that was that they were worried about losing control.

In the end, however, the Constitutional Convention here on the planet Flax in the Spindle System had worked out an approach that actually seemed to satisfy just about everyone.Nothing could have satisfied absolutely everyone, of course, and some of the local potentates—like the oligarchs of New Tuscany—had opted out in the end and refused to ratify the new constitution. And, to be perfectly fair, it was unlikely that anyone was completely satisfied with the new arrangements. But that, after all, was the definition of a successful political compromise, wasn't it?

Of course it is, she thought. That's one reason I've never liked politics. Still, in this case I've got to admit it looks like something that will actually work.

For all intents and purposes, the approved constitution had established what bade fair to become a model for future annexations. For example, the political future of the systems which had fallen into the Star Kingdom's sphere in the now defunct Silesian Confederacy was going to have to be resolved eventually, and it looked like Talbott was going to be the example for that resolution, as well. Assuming, of course, that it actually worked in Talbott's case.

Instead of adding all of those systems, and all of those voters, directly to the Star Kingdom, the Flax Constitutional Convention had recognized that the sheer distance between the planets of the Cluster—not to mention the entire Cluster's distance from the Manticore Binary System—would have made that sort of close, seamless integration impossible. So the convention had proposed a more federal model for the new "Star Empire of Manticore."

The Talbott Quadrant was a political unit consisting of the sixteen Cluster star systems which had ratified the proposed constitution. It would have its own local Parliament, and after a certain degree of bloody infighting, it had been agreed that that Parliament would be located here on Flax, in the planetary capital of Thimble. And when it came to electing that Parliament's members, the Quadrant franchise would, at the insistence of Prime Minister Grantville's government (and Queen Elizabeth III), be granted on the same terms and conditions as the Star Kingdom's franchise, which had probably had quite a bit to do with New Tuscany's decision to go home and play with its own marbles.

The Quadrant and the Star Kingdom (which some people were already beginning to refer to as "the Old Star Kingdom," even though Trevor's Star and the Lynx System had scarcely been charter members of the original Star Kingdom) would both be units of a new realm known as the Star Empire of Manticore. Both would recognize Queen Elizabeth of Manticore as Empress, and both would send representatives to a new Imperial Parliament, which would be located on the planet of Manticore. An imperial governor would be appointed (and there'd never been any real doubt about who that would be) as the Empress' direct representative and viceroy here in the Quadrant. The armed forces, economic policy, and foreign policy of the Empire would be established and unified under the new imperial government. The imperial currency would be the existing Manticoran dollar, no internal economic trade barriers would be tolerated, and the citizens of the Talbott Quadrant and of the Star Kingdom would pay both local taxes and imperial taxes. The fundamental citizens' rights of the Star Kingdom would be extended to every citizen of the Talbott Quadrant, although the Quadrant's member planets were free to extend additional, purely local citizens' rights, if they so chose. The new imperial judiciary would be based upon the Star Kingdom's existing constitutional law, and its justices would be drawn, initially, at least, from the Star Kingdom, although the new constitution contained specific provisions for integrating justices from outside the Old Star Kingdom as quickly as possible, and local constitutional traditions within the Quadrant would be tolerated so long as they did not conflict with imperial ones. And every citizen of the Quadrant and the Old Star Kingdom would hold imperial citizenship.

Although the Star Kingdom of Manticore had always eschewed any sort of progressive income tax except under the most dire of emergency conditions, the Old Star Kingdom had agreed (not without a certain degree of domestic protest) that imperial taxation would be progressive at the federal level—that is, the degree of the imperial tax bill to be footed by each subunit of the Empire would be based upon that subunit's proportional share of the entire Empire's gross product. Everyone was perfectly well aware that that particular provision meant the Old Star Kingdom would be footing the lion's share of the imperial treasury's bills for the foreseeable future. In return for accepting that provision, however, the Star Kingdom had won agreement to a phased-in representation within the Imperial Parliament.

For the first fifteen years of the Empire's existence, the Star Kingdom would elect seventy-five percent of the Imperial Parliament's membership, and all other subunits of the Empire would elect the other twenty-five percent. For the next fifteen years, the Star Kingdom would elect sixty percent of Parliament's members. And for the next twenty-five years, the Star Kingdom would elect fifty percent. Thereafter, membership in the Imperial House of Commons would be directly proportional to each subunit's population. The theory was that that fifty-five T-years of dominance by the established political system of the Old Star Kingdom would give the citizens of the Quadrant time to master the instruction manual. It would also give them time for the stupendous potential industrial and economic power of the Quadrant to be developed. At the same time, the gradual phasing in of full parliamentary representation for the Quadrant (and, presumably, for the Silesian systems, as well, when it was their turn) would reassure the citizens of the Old Star Kingdom that Manticore wasn't going to find itself suddenly haring off in some totally bizarre direction. And the fact that the Imperial Constitution guaranteed local autonomy to each recognized subunit of the Empire ought to preserve the individual identities of the various worlds and societies which had agreed to unite under the imperial framework.

Since one of the Star Kingdom's basic citizens' rights was access to the prolong therapies, the fifty-five-T-year ramp up to full representation in the Imperial Parliament wasn't going to be quite the hardship for most of the Talbott Cluster's citizens that it might have been once upon a time. True, it would hit some member systems harder than others (which had required some serious horse trading at the Constitutional Convention), because their poverty-stricken economies hadn't already made prolong available. That meant any of their citizens more than twenty-five T-years old would never receive it . . . and that a sizable portion of their present electorate would die of old age, even with modern medical care, before the Quadrant received its full representation. No arrangement could be perfect, however, and the Star Kingdom had pledged to put those systems first on the list to receive the prolong therapies, while the Constitutional Convention had pledged some very hefty financial incentives to bring their economies up to the standards of their neighbors as quickly as possible.

With those arrangements to offset some of the representational sacrifice of those "graying" voters, most people were prepared to call the arrangement as fair as could be contrived. It offered a roadmap to a reasonably orderly transition, anyway. And just as the security umbrella of the Royal Manticoran Navy would discourage piracy, instability, and bloodshed in both Silesia and Talbott, the importance of annexing additional star systems—and the population and resources they represented—in order to bolster Manticore's economic, industrial, and military muscle had become evident to most Manticoran strategists. In light of which, it appeared to be fairly obvious to everyone involved that the tremendous advantages inherent in the new arrangement vastly outweighed any disadvantages.

One can hope so, at any rate, Michelle thought dryly. Although, given the Sollies' present antics, I suppose someone could be pardoned for wondering just how sound that logic actually is.

"Speaking purely from a naval perspective, Milady," Khumalo said, recalling Michelle's attention from the political ramifications of the creation of a brand-new Empire, "I am delighted to see you." He smiled more than a little crookedly. "I remember when Captain Terekhov first reported to Talbott—it doesn't seem possible that that was only eight T-months ago!—I was complaining to him about how few Queen's ships had been assigned to the Cluster. To be perfectly honest, I wish we could have found something just a little less traumatic than the Battle of Monica to convince the Admiralty to turn the tap on."

"I won't mention any squeaky wheels, Sir," Michelle said with an answering smile. "On the other hand, I think you can take it as a given that the 'tap' is going to be opened even wider in the next few months. Especially if anything comes of this summit meeting."

"According to my most recent dispatches from the Admiralty, at least," Khumalo agreed. "And frankly, even without the situation vis-à-vis the League and OFS, I'm sure I'll be able to make good use of every hull they can send me. I believe it's important to establish a naval presence in every one of the Quadrant's member star systems as quickly as possible. Her Majesty's new subjects have the right to call upon her navy's protection, and until they can get their local law enforcement organizations integrated into the new system, and until we can get on-call Marine or Army units into position to assist them in dealing locally with imperial problems, it's going to be up to the Navy to do that, too. Not to mention disaster relief, assistance to navigation, and all those other things we always find ourselves doing."

"I certainly can't argue with any of that, Sir," Michelle said soberly. "Still, I'm inclined to suspect that my position as the CO of Tenth Fleet, once we get organized, is bound to leave me whining and complaining about all the diversions you and Baroness Medusa want me to make. I know we have an absolute responsibility to do exactly what you've just described, but I'm afraid my own focus, for the foreseeable future at least, is probably going to be pretty thoroughly locked in on OFS and the League."

"Oh, that's a given, Milady," Khumalo told her with a genuine smile. "It always works that way. In fact, there'd probably be something seriously broken about the system if you weren't whining and complaining! Which doesn't mean the baroness and I are going to let you talk us out of doing it anyway, of course."

"Somehow, I find that depressingly easy to believe," Michelle observed, and Khumalo chuckled. It was, Michelle noticed, a very genuine chuckle.

Whatever else had happened in the last eight months, she reflected, Augustus Khumalo appeared to have found his niche. All of the reports from the Quadrant had emphasized how the general Talbotter opinion of Khumalo had changed in the wake of the Battle of Monica. As far as Michelle could tell, most Talbotters appeared to believe that the only reason Khumalo and Terekhov didn't routinely walk across swimming pools was because they didn't like wet shoes. To give him credit, Khumalo's aura of confidence and assurance didn't seem to owe itself to a head swelled by popular adulation, however. In fact, it appeared to Michelle that what had actually happened was that his own performance had surprised him as much as it had surprised so many other people. And, in the process, he'd grown into the full dimension of his responsibilities.

Which could, of course, just be my own way of pretending that he had to grow into them instead of just admitting that we'd all underestimated his abilities from the beginning.

"At the moment, Sir," she continued out loud, "my gravest concern is the readiness state of my units. The shipyards back home are pushing so hard, that—"

"There's no need to explain, Milady," Khumalo interrupted. "I've been kept updated. I know they rushed all of your battlecruisers out of the yard, and I also know what short notice you received when they handed you this particular hot potato. I'm not at all surprised if you have readiness problems, and we'll try to give you as much time as we can to deal with them. And, of course, all of the assistance we can. Speaking of which, is there anything we can do to help with your current problems?"

"At this point, I genuinely don't think so," Michelle said. "We deployed with almost eighty of Hephaestus' yard dogs on board, and over the last couple of weeks they've dealt with most of our hardware problems. We do have a couple of minor faults we haven't been able to deal with out of shipboard resources, but I'm confident your repair ships can set all of them right fairly quickly and easily. What no one else can do for us, though, is to bring our people's cohesiveness and training up to Fleet standards."

"How bad is it?" There was no impatience or condemnation in Khumalo's question, only understanding, and Michelle felt herself warming further towards him.

"Honestly, it's not good, Sir," she said frankly. "And it's not my captains' fault, either. We simply haven't had time to deal with the problems that normally get handled in a routine working-up period. We've got a few weak spots among our officers—more than I'd like, really, if I'm going to be honest—thanks to the manning pressures Admiral Cortez has to deal with. And some of our ratings are a lot greener than I'd really like. On the other hand, I've just come from a tour with Eighth Fleet, and that's probably enough to give me a jaundiced view of just about anybody else's training and experience. I don't think we have any problems that can't be set right by a few more weeks—a T-month, if I can get it—of good, hard drill. Well, that and, possibly, a little judicious personnel reassignment."

"A month we can probably give you," Khumalo said, glancing at Shoupe as he spoke. "I'm not sure how much more than that's going to be possible, though. Both Admiral Blaine and Admiral O'Malley are under pressure to get their commands concentrated at the Lynx Terminus as soon as possible, for reasons I'm sure you understand at least as well as I do. That puts us under pressure of our own to get O'Malley relieved down on the 'southern frontier.' At the moment, he's still at Monica, but we've redeployed a support squadron to Tillerman. That's close enough to Monica—and to Meyers—to keep an eye on the Sollies without staying any more obviously in their faces than we have to. So as soon as our damaged units at Monica have managed to complete enough repairs to get underway for home—which will probably take another six to eight T-weeks—and Ambassador Corvisart completes the . . . treaty negotiations, we'll be withdrawing our forces as far as Tillerman."

"I'm confident of the month, Sir," Captain Shoupe said, answering his unasked question. "And I think we can probably squeeze out at least a few more weeks. As you say, it's going to be at least another month or two before Admiral O'Malley is going to be able to withdraw from Monica, anyway."

"Should we think about deploying my squadron—or some of it, at least—forward to Monica to support O'Malley, Sir?" Michelle asked.

"As a show of force for the Sollies, you mean?" Khumalo raised an eyebrow, and Michelle nodded. "I don't think that's really imperative at this point, Milady," he said then. "Frankly, if two squadrons of modern battlecruisers aren't enough to deter Solarian thoughts of aggression, then I don't see how three squadrons would have that effect. Unfortunately, it's entirely possible that a dozen squadrons—of anything less than wallers, at least—wouldn't deter some of the idiots we've seen out here. Even Sollies ought to be beginning to figure out that they don't want to tangle with Her Majesty's Navy on anything like even terms, but I'd be disinclined to risk any money betting on that possibility." He grimaced. "You'd think what Terekhov did at Monica would begin hammering at least a little sense into their brains, but I've come to the conclusion that their skulls are better armored than their wallers are."

His expression was profoundly disgusted looking, and Captain Shoupe looked, if possible, even more disgusted than he was.

"Is it really that bad, Sir?"

"It's probably worse, Milady," Khumalo growled. "I don't doubt you've had your own run-ins with League arrogance over the years. I don't know any serving officer who hasn't. But we've been rather more . . . irritating to them since the Talbotters applied for admission to the Star Kingdom. Or Star Empire, or whatever." He waved one hand. "I don't think there's much doubt Frontier Security was completely confident Talbott was just one more cluster they'd get around to gobbling up whenever they decided it was convenient. Instead, we turned up, and that really, really pissed them off. Which has only made them even more arrogant pains in the arse."

"You mentioned Ambassador Corvisart, Sir," Captain Armstrong observed quietly. "When we left the Star Kingdom, we were only beginning to get reports on what she was finding out there. May I assume she's dug a little deeper in the meantime?"

"Oh, yes, Captain." Khumalo showed his teeth in a tight smile. "I think you could safely say that. And the deeper she gets, the worse it smells."

"Was OFS directly involved, Sir?" Michelle asked.

"Of course it was, Milady." Khumalo snorted. "There's no need for any 'investigation' to tell us that! Proving it—especially to the satisfaction of the notoriously and scrupulously impartial League legal system—is something else, of course." The irony in his tone could have withered an entire forest of Sphinxian picket-wood. "Nothing happens in the Verge—nothing that could possibly have an impact on the League, at any rate—without Frontier Security's involvement. In this case, though, it's actually beginning to look like OFS wasn't the primary player."

"They weren't, Sir?" There was surprise in Michelle's voice, and Khumalo smiled again, grimly, as he heard it.

"That's what it's beginning to look like," he repeated. "As a matter of fact, most of the straws in the wind, including President Tyler's testimony, suggest that the prime mover was Manpower."

Michelle's eyes widened, and Khumalo shrugged.

"Commander Chandler and Mr. O'Shaughnessy will be able to give you a lot more detail on this than I can, Milady. But according to Ambassador Corvisart and her on-site investigators, our original theory that Manpower and the Jessyk Combine were being used as cat's-paws by Frontier Security had things reversed. We've known from the beginning that Commissioner Verrochio has a very . . . comfortable relationship with Manpower and several other Mesan 'corporations.' We assumed—wrongly, apparently—that it was him using that relationship to convince Manpower to serve as his deniable conduit to Nordbrandt and the other terrorist movements here in the Quadrant. From what Corvisart is turning up now, though, it looks like it was actually the other way around."

"Manpower wanted control of the Lynx Terminus?" Michelle shook her head. "I can understand why they'd want us as far away from their home system as they could get us. We've never made any secret of how we feel about the slave trade, after all. But my understanding was that the entire objective of the operation was for Monica to end up controlling the Cluster and the Lynx Terminus as a front for Frontier Security. That would suit Manpower a lot better than what's actually happening, of course, but going about it this way sounds awfully ambitious for a bunch of criminals."

" 'Ambitious' is actually a pretty severe understatement, Milady. They've tried a few other high-stakes maneuvers in the past, but right offhand, I can't think of another one that was this risky and 'ambitious' of them, either. Still, that's the way it's beginning to look. And, considered from one perspective, it's a perfectly logical extension of their usual mode of operation. Not only would it have pushed us six hundred-plus light-years farther away from their headquarters, but it would have given them another set of hooks, this time into Tyler and Monica. I'm sure they would have shown a substantial profit, over the long term, on their ability to manipulate traffic through the terminus, as well, and they didn't even have to come up with the battlecruisers they supplied. Those came from Technodyne."

"That's been confirmed, Sir?"

"It has." Khumalo nodded. "Apparently, they were officially stricken from the Sollies' shiplist to make room for the new Nevadas, and Technodyne saw a way to turn an extra profit on them. We've recovered some electronic records which make it pretty clear Technodyne, at least, has been paying some attention to the rumors about our new systems. It looks as if they expected to get the chance for a close look at our hardware when the unfinished terminus forts had to surrender to Tyler. And they were probably slated for their own share of the income Manpower expected to be raking off from Jessyk's manipulation of the terminus traffic."

Michelle nodded slowly. What Khumalo had just said made plenty of sense, but the notion was going to take some getting used to.

It does hang together, though, she reflected. And poking the Star Kingdom in the eye really isn't as risky for them as it would be for someone else. After all, we're already effectively at war with them over the slave trade. I suppose that from their perspective it was a question of how much worse it could get. And looked at that way, running even a fairly substantial risk to keep our frontiers from moving six hundred light-years closer to them would have an awful lot to recommend it.

"Well, whoever was really in charge, and wherever they were really headed," Khumalo continued, "I'm sure Ambassador Corvisart is going to uncover quite a few more things our good friend Commissioner Verrochio would just as soon stayed buried. But Monica and the Solarian League aren't our sole concerns here in the Quadrant, Milady."

He leaned back in his chair, his expression intent.

"As Captain Terekhov discovered during his brief tour with us before he went trotting off to Monica," Khumalo's smile was quirky, "the new influx of merchant shipping being attracted into the Quadrant by the Lynx Terminus is attracting pirates right along with it. We need to make it clear that this isn't going to be a healthy place for them to operate. That's going to get easier when those light attack craft everyone keeps promising me actually get here, of course. A couple of squadrons of LACs will keep just about any pirate I can imagine out of the star system they're patrolling, at any rate. And having 'their' LAC groups assigned to each new member system will help them realize we're really serious about integrating them into a Cluster-wide security system.

"At the same time, there are threats LACs alone aren't going to be able to deter, and we have to be aware of other potential flash points, whether with OFS or with one of the other single-system star nations out here. Her Majesty has made it quite clear that we're supposed to convince the locals that the Star Empire is going to be a good neighbor. I think she's right that, over time, quite a few more of the local star systems are going to recognize a good thing when they see it and seek admission to the Quadrant. That's for the future, though. For right now, it's our job to make it plain to them that while we're perfectly willing to assist them in dealing with mutual problems—like piracy—we aren't using that assistance as a way to wedge our foot into their doors so we can gobble them up more easily.

"And, of course, there are our equally good friends on New Tuscany."

"I gathered from Admiral Givens' briefings that New Tuscany wasn't exactly likely to be very happy with us," Michelle said.

"No, they aren't. And the fact that Joachim Alquezar's Constitutional Union Party has a clear majority in the new Quadrant Parliament isn't making them any happier. Andrieaux Yvernau hates his guts, and vice versa. In fact, probably the only person in the entire cluster Yvernau hates more than he hates Alquezar is Bernardus Van Dort . . . and the first thing Prime Minister Alquezar did was to name Van Dort a special minister without portfolio as soon as he got back from Monica aboard Hercules."

"I have to admit that I'm more than a little surprised Yvernau could have survived politically after the Convention repudiated his position so thoroughly, Sir," Michelle said cautiously, venturing warily into the political waters she normally kept her toes well clear of.

"I wouldn't say he came through it unscathed, Milady," Khumalo replied. "He didn't get hammered as badly as Tonkovic, of course, but he probably burned twenty or thirty T-years worth of political favors salvaging his position back home."

Shoupe stirred in her chair, and Khumalo glanced at her.

"I know that expression, Loretta," he said. "I take it you disagree?"

"Not entirely, Sir," his chief of staff replied. "I think O'Shaughnessy has a point, though. The real reason Yvernau's political career didn't come to a screeching halt is that a majority of his friends and neighbors back home agree with him."

Shoupe looked at Michelle.

"It's evident that Yvernau and those who think like him decided the citizens' rights provisions of the new constitution would upset their self-serving little applecart on New Tuscany. They aren't prepared to have that happen, so they opted out of the annexation. But one of the reasons they did that was because they figure they'll share in any general economic improvement in the Cluster due to simple proximity, and that our mere presence will protect them from Frontier Security whether that's what we're setting out to do, or not."

"I know that's what Yvernau thought, and I suppose I can't really dispute O'Shaughnessy's belief that quite a few of his fellow oligarchs think the same way," Khumalo said. It was obvious to Michelle that he was discussing the situation with Shoupe, and the fact that she seemed comfortable maintaining a contrary viewpoint—and that he wasn't hammering her for it—said good things about their working relationship, in her opinion.

"But even if that's what Yvernau and some of the others think," the vice admiral continued, "it's not what all of them think. Some of them are royally pissed that the Convention didn't do things Yvernau's way in the first place. Quite a few of them blame us—well, Baroness Medusa, at least—just as much as they do Alquezar and Van Dort. And for a lot of the others, the danger the example of the Quadrant and the Star Empire poses is going to far outweigh any trade advantages or protection against OFS. Nordbrandt's terror campaign against her own oligarchs on Kornati scares the stuffing out of that crew. What they're going to see is that their own lower class is going to be watching the example of what's happening to their counterparts here in the Quadrant. Which isn't exactly likely to contribute to the oligarchs' efforts to keep the lid screwed down."

"Which means exactly what for us, Sir?" Michelle asked, and he snorted.

"If I knew the answer to that question, I wouldn't need to work for a living. I'd just sit around picking winners in the local air car races! I know the baroness, Mr. O'Shaughnessy, Prime Minister Alquezar, and Mr. Van Dort—all of whom, frankly, are much better than I am at political analysis—are all thinking hard about that same question, and I don't believe they've come up with an answer for it yet, either. The thing I can't quite get out of my own mind, though, is that Yvernau and his crew were stupid enough to cut off their noses to spite their own faces when they couldn't get the Convention to swallow their line. I'm afraid I'm not prepared to put anything past anyone who's that stupid, and we're not exactly the favorite people on their list, either. So I just can't shake the suspicion that they're going to be looking for anything they can do to cause problems. The only real question in my mind where that's concerned is how much risk they're willing to run in the process. How far are they actually prepared to push us in order to demonstrate that we don't scare them?"

Michelle nodded again. If she'd been one of the chief crooks in one of the local kleptocracies, she would have been doing everything she could to avoid ticking off Manticore, whether it was the Old Star Kingdom or this newfangled Star Empire. The last thing she'd have done would be to risk goading it into some sort of unfortunately permanent reaction. Then again, she wasn't one of the chief crooks, and even if she had been, she wouldn't have been stupid enough to have embraced Andrieaux Yvernau's political strategy in the first place. Which meant she had no idea how valid Khumalo's concerns might be.

"Even if my concerns prove totally unfounded," the Talbott Station CO continued, "and, to be honest, nothing would please me more than to see exactly that happen, New Tuscany is still going to be one of our more potentially sensitive concerns. The disappearance of the various protective tariffs and other trade barriers here in the Quadrant is going to have a significant impact on local shipping patterns, and New Tuscany is probably going to be one of the major outside players in those patterns, at least in local terms. We're going to have to be careful about how we handle New Tuscan-registry merchant vessels, and I won't be a bit surprised if we encounter all kinds of customs disputes. So we're going to require at least some naval presence permanently in the vicinity of New Tuscany, Marian, Scarlet, and Pequod."

"Yes, Sir," Michelle agreed.

Khumalo started to say something more, but Shoupe cleared her throat quietly. He glanced at her, and she tapped one fingertip on her chrono.

"Point taken, Loretta," he said with a smile, and returned his attention to Michelle.

"What Captain Shoupe has just tactfully reminded me of is that dinner engagement with Baroness Medusa I mentioned to you. She's expecting us in Thimble in about three hours, and I imagine you and Captain Armstrong would like to return to Artemis to prepare. Mess dress, I'm afraid, since Prime Minister Alquezar will also be present. And the baroness also asked me to extend an invitation to all of your captains and their senior officers."

"That's rather a large number of people Sir," Michelle pointed out diffidently, and he chuckled.

"Believe me, Milady, Baroness Medusa is aware of that. She has rather a large banquet room in her official residence, and I believe she visualizes this as an opportunity for the Prime Minister and several other important local political figures to meet your personnel. She sees it as a major first step in fostering their confidence in us, and I think she has a point."

"That makes perfectly good sense to me, Sir. As long as she's got that large banquet room to fit us all into."

"I believe we'll manage, Admiral Gold Peak," Khumalo assured her.

Chapter Fifteen

"And this, Admiral Gold Peak, is Prime Minister Alquezar," Lady Dame Estelle Matsuko, Baroness Medusa, and Her Majesty Elizabeth III's Imperial Governor for the Talbott Quadrant, said. "Prime Minister, Countess Gold Peak."

"Welcome to the Quadrant, Countess," the red-haired, improbably tall and slender Alquezar said, shaking Micehlle's hand with a smile. Despite the low-gravity homeworld which had produced his physique, his grip was firm and strong. Then he glanced over her shoulder at Khumalo, and his smile took on a wicked edge. "It's one of my traditions to ask newly arrived officers in Her Majesty's Navy for their impression of the Cluster's political complexion."

Khumalo smiled back at the Prime Minister, shaking his head, and Baroness Medusa chuckled.

"Now, now, Joachim! None of that," she admonished. "You promised you were going to behave yourself tonight."

"True." Alquezar nodded gravely. "On the other hand, I am a politician."

"And the sort of politician who gives other politicians a bad name," another man said. Michelle recognized him from the newsfaxes. He was shorter than Alquezar—who had to be at least a full two meters tall—but still considerably taller than Michelle. He was also fair-haired and blue-eyed, and his Standard English had a distinctly different accent from Alquezar's.

"Well, of course, Bernardus," Alquezar said to him. "Now that I've been able to secure my grip on power, it's time for my megalomania to begin coming to the surface, isn't it?"

"Only if you really like being chased around Thimble by assassins," the fair-haired man said. "Trust me—I'm sure I can find a dozen or so of them if I really need to."

"Admiral Gold Peak, allow me to introduce Special Minister Bernardus Van Dort." Medusa shook her head, and her tone took on just an edge of tolerant resignation as she waved gracefully at the newcomer.

"I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr. Van Dort," Michelle said with quiet sincerity, shaking his hand firmly. "From everything I've read and heard, none of this—" she swept her free hand around the luxurious banquet room in a gesture which included everything outside its walls, as well "—would have happened without you."

"I wouldn't go that far, Admiral," Van Dort began. "There were—"

"I'd go that far, Admiral," Alquezar interrupted, his tone and expression both completely serious.

"As would I," Medusa said firmly. Van Dort looked more than a little uncomfortable, but it was obvious the others weren't going to let him off the hook if he continued to protest, so he only shook his head, instead.

"There are several other people you need to meet tonight, Milady," Medusa said to Michelle. "I believe Commodore Lázló is around somewhere. He's the senior officer of the Spindle System Navy, and I'm sure he has quite a lot he'd like to discuss with you. And there are at least half a dozen more senior members of the Quadrant political establishment, as well."

"Of course, Governor," Michelle murmured, trying to look pleased.

There was no point protesting. She'd known that the instant Khumalo informed her about the banquet. For that matter, she even understood the logic, however little she might have liked the consequences. Not only was she the proof the Quadrant's new Empress and her government took the protection of her new subjects seriously, but she also stood far too close to the royal—and now imperial—succession for her to be able to hide aboard ship. And since it couldn't be avoided, the only thing to do was to pretend she was actually enjoying herself.

She thought she saw a glimmer of sympathy in Van Dort's eyes as Medusa shepherded her away, but the special minister only bowed with a murmured pleasantry and abandoned her to her fate.

"And this, Lieutenant Archer, is Helga Boltitz," Paul Van Scheldt said, and Gervais Archer turned to find himself face-to-face with one of the most attractive women he'd ever seen.

"Ms. Boltitz," he said, holding out his hand and smiling, which wasn't exactly the hardest thing he'd ever had to do in his life.

"Lieutenant Archer," she replied, and took his hand in a brief, decidedly pro forma handshake. There was not, he noticed, a smile in her blue eyes, and her voice, with its harsh, sharp-edged accent, was unmistakably cool. Indeed, "frosty" might have been a better choice of adverb.

"Helga is Minister Krietzmann's personal aide," Van Scheldt explained. Gervais was scarcely surprised by that announcement, given the similarity between her accent and Krietzmann's, but there was a none too deeply hidden sparkle of malicious delight in Van Scheldt's tone as he added in his own smoothly urbane accent, "She's from Dresden."

"I see," Gervais was very careful to keep any hint that he'd detected Van Scheldt's amusement out of his own response.

The suave, dark-haired Rembrandter was Joachim Alquezar's appointments secretary. The Prime Minister had sent him off with a wave of his hand to introduce Gervais to "the other youngsters," as Alquezar had put it. Unless Gervais was sadly mistaken, Van Scheldt had been less than delighted by his assignment. The Rembrandter, despite his youthful appearance, was at least ten or fifteen T-years older than Gervais, and there was an undeniable edge to his personality, a sort of supercilious arrogance, of knowing he was naturally and inevitably superior to those of lesser birth or wealth. It was a personality type Gervais had seen entirely too frequently back home, especially when someone afflicted by it realized he himself was at least distantly related to the Queen of Manticore. The people who had it frequently demonstrated an appalling desire to do what his father had always described as "sucking up" as soon as they realized the possibility of doing so existed. Gervais had come up with several rather more colorful descriptions of his own over the past few years, but he had to admit that Sir Roger Archer's was still the best.

Fortunately, Van Scheldt appeared not to have made that particular connection just yet. Which left Gervais wondering exactly at whose expense the appointments secretary had decided to amuse himself—Gervais' or Ms. Boltitz's?

"I imagine you and the lieutenant will be seeing quite a bit of one another, Helga," Van Scheldt continued now, smiling at Boltitz. "He's Admiral Gold Peak's flag lieutenant."

"So I understood," Boltitz replied, and her voice, Gervais noted, was even frostier as she turned her attention to the Rembrandter. Then she looked back at Gervais. "I'm sure we'll work well together, Lieutenant." Her tone said that she anticipated exactly the opposite. "For now, however, if you'll excuse me, someone is expecting me elsewhere."

She gave Gervais and Van Scheldt a rather brusque little nod, then turned and made her way purposefully off through the clusters of guests. She moved with a natural, instinctive grace, yet it was obvious to Gervais that she lacked the social polish Van Scheldt exuded from his very pores.

Or thought he did, at any rate.

"My," the Rembrandter observed. "That didn't seem to go very well, did it, Lieutenant?"

"No, it didn't," Gervais agreed. He considered the appointments secretary thoughtfully, then crooked one eyebrow. "Is there a particular reason why it didn't?"

For a moment, Van Scheldt seemed a bit taken aback by the directness of the question. Then he produced a smiling snort of amusement.

"Helga doesn't much care for what she calls 'oligarchs,' " he explained. "I'm afraid that means she and I got off on the wrong foot from the very beginning. Don't get me wrong—she's very good at what she does. Very smart, very dedicated. Possibly a little too intense, I think sometimes, but that's probably why she's so effective. Still, she's also very . . . parochial one might say, I suppose. And despite her position over at the War Ministry, I suspect her heart isn't fully in this annexation business."

"I see." Gervais glanced after the now-vanished Boltitz with that same thoughtful expression. Personally, he empathized with her a lot more than he did with Van Scheldt. After all, the appointments secretary hadn't exactly gotten off on the right foot with him, whether he realized it or not.

"I suppose I really shouldn't hold it against her," Van Scheldt sighed. "After all, she's not exactly from the upper crust of Dresden. For that matter, I'm not at all sure Dresden has an upper crust, now that I think about it. If it does, though, she probably despises it almost as much as she automatically despises anyone from Rembrandt."

I wonder if you realize you're letting a genuine streak of venom show? Gervais thought. And I also wonder exactly what Ms. Boltitz did to piss you off so thoroughly? From what I've seen of you so far, it probably wouldn't have taken much. On the other hand, I can always at least hope it was something suitably publicly humiliating.

"That's unfortunate," he said out loud, and turned back to the task at hand as Van Scheldt spotted someone else who needed to be introduced to the new Manticoran admiral's flag lieutenant.

"Ms. Boltitz?"

Helga Boltitz twitched in surprise and looked up quickly from the wrist chrono she'd been studying hopefully. Unfortunately, it hadn't magically sped ahead to a point which would let her disappear, but that wasn't the source of her surprise.

"Yes, Lieutenant . . . Archer, wasn't it?" she said. She tried to say it tactfully—she really did—but she knew it hadn't come out that way.

"Yes," the red-haired, green-eyed young man replied. The single word came out with a polished, aristocratic smoothness not even that cretin Van Scheldt could have rivaled, she reflected. Despite her innate distaste for the wealth and arrogance which had created it, it actually had a sort of beauty.

"What can I do for you, Lieutenant?" she asked a bit impatiently, and his educated accent made her even more aware than usual of the harshness of her own. Dresdeners weren't exactly noted for the beauty of their speech, she reflected sourly.

"Actually," the Manticoran said, "I was wondering if you could explain to me exactly what that unmitigated jerk Van Scheldt did to . . . irritate you so thoroughly?"

"I beg your pardon?" Despite herself, Helga felt her eyes widen in surprise.

"Well," Gervais said, "it was pretty obvious you weren't what someone might call delighted to see him. And since whatever it was about him that irritated you seemed to be splashing onto me, as well, I thought it might be a good idea to find out what it was. After all, he may be an ass, but he had a point about how much we're likely to be seeing of one another, and I'd just as soon not inadvertently offend you in the same way."

Helga blinked, then felt herself settling back on her heels, head cocking to one side as she looked at—really looked at—Archer for the first time.

What she saw was a tallish young man, a good quarter-meter taller than her own hundred and sixty-two centimeters, although he was nowhere near the height of someone like Alquezar or someone else from San Miguel. He was built more for speed than brute strength—he looked like he'd probably make a decent wing—and his face was pleasantly ordinary looking. But there was something about those green eyes . . .

"I must say, that's a conversational gambit I haven't encountered before, Lieutenant," she told him after a moment.

"I imagine people both here in the Quadrant and back home are going to be encountering all sorts of things we haven't encountered before over the next few years," he replied. "On the other hand, I think it's a valid concern, don't you?"

"However little I may like Mr. Van Scheldt, I don't allow it to color my professional relationship with him," she shot back a bit sharply.

"Probably not. On the other hand, he's only an appointments secretary, and I'm the flag lieutenant of the second-ranking naval officer here in the Quadrant," Gervais pointed out. "I'd say that probably means you and I are going to be running into one another quite a bit more frequently than you run into him. Which brings me back to my original question."

"And if I pointed out to you that my personal relationship—or lack thereof—with Mr. Van Scheldt is none of your affair?" Helga inquired, her tone no more pleasant than it had to be.

"I'd agree that you're entirely correct," Gervais replied calmly. "And then I'd go on to say that, speaking in a purely professional sense, I think it's important that I know how he contrived to give offense—not that I can't think of at least a dozen probable scenarios right off hand, you understand, even on this short an acquaintance with him—so I can manage not to follow in his footsteps. To be perfectly frank, Ms. Boltitz, I don't care what your personal relationship with him or anyone else might be. I'm simply concerned with potential consequences to our own professional relationship."

And you can believe as much of that as you'd like to, lady, he reflected. Not that there isn't quite a bit of truth in it, but still . . .

"I see."

Helga considered Lieutenant Archer thoughtfully. He was a prolong recipient, of course—probably at least a second-generation recipient, given the background of wealth and privilege his accent clearly denoted—which meant he was also very probably quite a bit older than she'd originally thought. There weren't enough Dresdeners who'd received prolong for her people to be particularly good at estimating the age of people who had, she reflected bitterly. But despite the way his confident, sophisticated attitude made Van Scheldt's look like the provincial façade it actually was, there was still that hint of a twinkle in his eyes. And his tone, though amused, wasn't patronizing or dismissive. It was more as if he were inviting her to share his own amusement at Van Scheldt than as if he were mocking her.

Sure it is. You just go right ahead and assume that and see what it gets you, Helga!

Still, he did have a point about how likely they were to find themselves working together, or at least in close proximity to one another. And Minister Krietzmann, despite his own deep-seated aversion to oligarchs, wasn't likely to thank her for generating any more friction with the Manties than she had to.

"Actually, Lieutenant Archer," she heard herself say, "I rather doubt you're going to be as offensive as Mr. Van Scheldt. I hope not, at least, since I don't see how anyone possibly could be without deliberately working at it."

"From what I've seen of him so far," Gervais told her, "I imagine that's exactly what he did—work at it, I mean." He saw her blue eyes widen slightly in fresh surprise and smiled faintly at her. "We're not exactly unfamiliar with the type back home," he added.

"Really?" Helga was a bit surprised by the cold edge of her own voice, but she couldn't help it. "I rather doubt that, Lieutenant. His 'type,' as you put it, has had a bit more of an impact on Dresden than I imagine it's ever had on you."

Gervais managed not to blink in surprise or raise any eyebrows, but the harshness, the sudden, unmistakable anger, in her response took him more than a little aback.

This isn't just a case of Van Scheldt personally being an asshole, he realized. I don't know what the hell it is, but it's more than that. And now that I've so nonchalantly wandered out into this particular minefield, what do I do about it?

He gazed at her for several seconds, and as he did, he realized there was a darkness behind the anger in her eyes. A darkness put there by some memory, some personal experience. He felt certain somehow that this wasn't a woman who lightly succumbed to prejudice or permitted it to rule her life, and if that was true, there had to be more to the bitterness, the shadows of pain, than the mere casual arrogance and amused malice of a drone like Van Scheldt.

"I don't doubt that that's true," he said finally. "I've done my best to bone up on Talbott since Lady Gold Peak picked me as her flag lieutenant and we both found out we were headed this way, but I can't pretend to really know very much about the way things have been out here in the past. I'm working on it, but there's an awful lot of information involved and I simply haven't had time to make very much of a dent in it. It's obvious to me that you and Van Scheldt don't exactly get along like a house on fire, but I'd assumed he must have personally done something to offend you. Lord knows he's obviously the sort of jackass who could do something like that as easily as breathing! But from what you've just said, I'm beginning to realize there's more to it. I'm not trying to be flip, and if you'd rather not talk about it, I'll accept that. On the other hand, if it's something I should know—something my admiral should be aware of—so that we don't inadvertently do the same thing, I'd really appreciate it if you could help further my education about the Quadrant."

My God, I think he actually means it! Helga thought. She gazed at him for several heartbeats, frowning ever so slightly, then felt the decision make itself.

He wants to know why I feel the way I feel? Wants to understand why not all of us are ready to start dancing in the streets just because another batch of oligarchs thinks it can make a profit off of us? All right. I'll tell him.

"All right, Lieutenant," she said. "You want to know why Van Scheldt and I don't like each other? Try this on for size." She folded her arms in front of her, standing hip-shot, her blue eyes glittering, and looked up at him. "I'm twenty-six T-years old, and I only received my very first prolong treatments when I went to work for Minister Krietzmann last year. If I'd been three T-months older, I'd have been too old for even the first-generation treatment . . . just like my parents. Just like my two older brothers and my three older sisters. Just like all but six of my cousins and every one of my aunts and uncles. But not Mr. Van Scheldt. Oh, no! He's from Rembrandt! He got it just because of where he was born, who his parents were, what planet he came from—just like you did, Lieutenant. And so did his parents, and all of his sisters and brothers. Just like they got decent medical care and a balanced diet."

Her eyes were no longer merely glittering. They blazed, now, and her voice was far harsher than her accent alone could ever have explained.

"We don't like Frontier Security on Dresden any more than anyone else in the Cluster. And, sure, everything we've heard about Manticore suggests we'll get a better deal out of your Star Kingdom than we ever would out of OFS. But we know all about being ignored, Lieutenant Archer, and most of us on Dresden don't have any illusions. I doubt the Star Kingdom is going to gouge us the way Frontier Security, the League, and the Rembrandt Trade Union have, but most of us take all those 'economic incentives' the Convention promised us with a very large grain of salt. We'd like to think at least some of our neighbors were sincere about it, but we're not stupid enough to believe in altruism or the tooth fairy. And if any of us might've been tempted to, there are enough Paul Van Scheldts in the Cluster to teach us better. His family was deeply invested in Dresden even before the Annexation, you know. They hold majority interests in three of our major construction companies, and they could care less about the people who work for them. About the building site injuries, or the long-term health problems, or providing their employees' families—their children, at least, for God's sake!—with access to prolong."

The depth of her anger swept over Gervais with a pure and consuming power, and it took everything he had not to flinch from it. No wonder Van Scheldt had found it so easy to flick her on the raw!

And the fact that he obviously enjoys doing it so much suggests he's an even nastier piece of work than I thought he was. He probably spends his free time pulling the wings off flies.

"I'm sorry to hear that, especially about your family," he said quietly. "And you're right—it's not something I can really imagine or share from my own experience. My brothers and sisters, my parents—even my grandparents—are all prolong recipients. I can't begin to imagine how I'd feel if I'd gotten it and none of them had. If I knew I was going to lose every single one of them before I was even 'middle aged.' " He shook his head, his own eyes dark. "But I can understand why an asshole like Van Scheldt would be able to get to you. And even if I can't really say I 'know' him yet I don't need to know him to recognize how much he enjoys doing just that. Which, given what you've just said about his family's involvement in your planet's economy, makes him an even sicker bastard than I'd already thought."

Helga twitched as she heard the hard, cold disgust—the contempt—in his voice. She'd heard plenty of contempt from people like Van Scheldt, but this was different. It wasn't directed at the speaker's "natural inferiors," and it wasn't petty and denigrating. More than that, it was born of anger, not arrogance. Of outrage, not disdain.

Or, at least, it sounded as if it were. But Dresden had learned the hard way that appearances could be deceiving, she cautioned herself.

"Really?" she said.

"Really," he replied, and he felt a distant sort of wonder at the rock-ribbed certitude of his own tone.

The back of his brain wondered what the hell he thought he was doing, using terms like "sick bastard" to describe someone he hardly knew to someone he'd barely even spoken to. Yet there it was. He did recognize the self-indulgent sadism required for someone to enjoy mocking the victim of his own family's exploitative greed and neglect.

"I'd like to believe that," she said finally, slowly. Her Dresden accent was as harsh as ever, yet that harshness was oddly smoothed, he thought. Or perhaps the word he really wanted was "gentled," instead. "I'd like to. But we've believed people on Dresden before. In fact, it took us far too long to realize we shouldn't have. We've accomplished a lot in the last couple of generations, but only because people like Minister Krietzmann realized we had to do it ourselves. Realized that no one else gave a solitary damn what happened to us.

"Don't get me wrong." She shook her head, and her voice was calmer, as if she were reasserting control over her own passions. "There's no reason why anyone off Dresden should have given us a free ride. We understand that. Charity begins at home, they say, and Dresden is our home, not Rembrandt's, or San Miguel's, or Manticore's. It's not so much that no one came and invested in free clinics or schools for us, but that we had to fight other people tooth and nail to somehow hang onto enough of the profit of our own labor, our own industrial structure—such as it was, and what there was of it—to begin building our own clinics and schools.

"We'd figured that out by the time the RTU finally got around to us, which is why one of the things we insisted on, if they wanted trade deals with us, was that they had to clean their own house where people like the Van Scheldts were concerned—had to put at least some limits on the kind of crap they could get away with. And, to Mr. Van Dort's credit, I suppose, the RTU did just that. Of course, the extent of the limits they could impose was limited by the domestic pull of their own oligarchs who were already invested in Dresden, but they still managed to do a lot. Which is probably one of the reasons Van Scheldt is such a pain where I'm concerned, I suppose, since his family got whacked harder than most . . . since they'd been even worse than most. But even with Van Dort on our side—and I think he really is" she sounded almost as if she wished she could believe otherwise, Gervais thought "—we're still a long way from where we could have been. It's hard to stand on your own two feet when someone else owns the carpet and keeps trying to jerk it out from under you."

The party's background noise seemed distant, like the sound of surf rolling up onto a far-off beach. It was no longer part of Gervais' world—or hers, he realized. It was no more than a frame, something which enclosed her intensity, whose contrasting banality underscored the raw honesty in her voice.

"That's one thing that isn't going to be happening again," he told her quietly. "Not on our watch. Her Majesty won't stand for it—not for a heartbeat."

"I hope you'll pardon me for saying that Dresden's going to be taking that with a grain of salt, too, Lieutenant." Her voice was flatter, no less passionate but with something far worse than anger, he thought. It was flat with the bitterness of experience. With disillusionment so deep, so intense, that it couldn't—dared not—expose itself to the risk of optimism.

He felt a stab of quick, fierce anger of his own—anger directed at her for daring to prejudge the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Daring to prejudge him, simply because he'd been fortunate enough to be born into a wealthier, less constrained world than she. Who was she to look at him with such distrust? Such bitterness and anger born of the actions of others? He'd told her nothing but the simple truth, and she'd rejected it. It was as if she'd looked him straight in the eye and told him that he'd lied to her.

Yet even as he thought that, even as the anger flared, he knew it was at least as irrational—and unfair—as anything she might have felt.

"It's obvious I have even more to learn about the Talbott Quadrant than I thought I did," he said after several moments. "In fact, at the moment, I'm feeling pretty stupid for not having realized it had to be that way." He shook his head. "Trying to get some sort of 'quick fix' on sixteen different inhabited star systems is guaranteed to be an exercise in futility, isn't it? I guess nobody's really immune to the idea that everyone else has to be 'just like them' even when intellectually they know better."

She was looking at him now with a slightly puzzled expression, and he grinned crookedly at her.

"I promise I'll try to do my homework better, Ms. Boltitz. I know Lady Gold Peak will be doing the same, and I don't doubt that Baroness Medusa's been working at it the entire time she's been out here. But while I'm doing that, do you think you could do a little homework on the Star Kingdom? I'm not going to say Manticore doesn't have its own share of warts, because God knows we do. And I don't blame you a bit for taking the Star Kingdom's promises with—what was it you called it? 'A grain of salt'?—but when Queen Elizabeth gives her word to someone, she keeps it. We keep it for her."

"That sounds good. And I'd like to believe it," she replied. "I doubt you have any idea how much I'd like to believe it. And if a part of me didn't, I wouldn't be here, wouldn't be working with Minister Krietzmann to try to make it be true. But when you've been kicked often enough, it's hard to trust someone you don't even know. Especially when he's wearing the biggest, heaviest boots you've ever seen in your life."

"I'll try to bear that in mind, too," he assured her. "Do you think you can give me—give us—at least a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, as well?" He smiled at her. "At least for a little while, long enough to see how well we do at living up to our promises?"

Helga looked at that smile, and its warmth, the empathy and the concern—the personal concern—behind it amazed her. He meant it, she realized, and wondered how he could possibly be that naïve. How could he believe, even for a moment, that the oligarchs who must infest an economic power like the Star Kingdom of Manticore would care for a moment about any political "promises" someone else had made?

Yet he did. He might be—almost certainly was—wrong, yet he wasn't lying. There were many things in those green eyes that she couldn't read, but deceit wasn't one of them. And so, despite herself, she felt a small stir of hope. Felt herself daring to believe that perhaps, just perhaps, he might not be wrong.

Bitter experience and the cynicism of self preservation roused instantly, horrified by the possibility of opening such a breach in her defenses. She started to speak quickly, to make her rejection of his overture's false hope clear. But that wasn't what came out of her mouth.

"All right, Lieutenant," she heard herself say instead. "I'll do my 'homework' while you do yours. And at the end of the day, we'll see who's right. And," she realized she was actually smiling slightly, "believe it or not, I hope it turns out you are."

Chapter Sixteen

Too many hours later for Michelle's taste, she found herself sitting in a pleasant study sipping an excellent local cognac from a large, tulip-shaped glass. She was thoroughly exhausted, and she had that stuffed-too-tightly feeling that all too often followed state dinners . . . and always made her envy Honor Harrington's genetically enhanced metabolism. But she also felt a sense of accomplishment. However little she liked formal political dinners, she felt reasonably confident she'd carried off her part in this one successfully.

She wasn't alone in the study. Baroness Medusa sat behind the desk, and Gregor O'Shaughnessy sat in a chair to her right, at the end of the desk. O'Shaughnessy, Medusa's senior intelligence analyst, was slightly built and a good ten centimeters shorter than Augustus Khumalo, with thinning gray hair. Khumalo, Alquezar, Van Dort, and the Quadrant's minister of war, Henri Krietzmann, sat in a semicircle with Michelle, facing the desk. Krietzmann was a short, compact, solid-looking man with brown hair and gray eyes. His left hand had been mangled in some long-ago accident, and although Michelle knew he was actually the youngest person in the room, he looked like the oldest, because prolong had been unavailable on his native planet of Dresden in his youth. In fact, it still wasn't generally available the way it ought to be.

"Well," Medusa tipped back in her chair, and Michelle strongly suspected that the baroness had just toed off her shoes underneath her desk. "I'm glad that's over. For tonight, at least."

"As are we all, I'm sure," Alquezar agreed, passing his own glass appreciatively back and forth under his nose.

"Not me," Krietzmann announced. He and Van Dort, unlike anyone else in the study, nursed moisture-beaded tankards of beer rather than some effete beverage like cognac. "I love evenings like tonight."

"Yes, but that's because of how much you enjoy pissing off people like Samiha Lababibi by putting on your crude, unlettered barbarian act," Alquezar said severely.

"Nonsense. Samiha's getting along with me just fine these days," Krietzmann shot back. "Now, there are a few other members of the political establishment . . ."

He let his voice trail off provocatively, and Van Dort snorted. Then he looked across Krietzmann at Michelle.

"Henri takes a certain perverse pleasure in irritating us oligarchs, Milady," he said. "Even the ones he's grudgingly willing to admit are on the side of the angels. That's why he got shuffled off to the War Ministry where he doesn't have to deal with other politicians as much."

"I wish," Krietzmann muttered. Then he twitched a smile. "In fact, Samiha and I are getting along," he said more seriously. "She's not the worst sort, you know. I have to admit, I was a bit surprised when she resigned as the Spindle System President to take the Treasury Ministry. It seemed like an awfully big step down, prestige-wise. But she seems to be the right woman for the job, and unlike some of our other colleagues, she genuinely doesn't seem to mind working with an ex-factory hand from Dresden."

"Yes," Alquezar said, looking across at him. "I do know she isn't the worst sort. That's one reason I asked her to take Treasury. Unfortunately," he turned to Michelle, "she's off-world tonight, hosting a sort of local economic summit on Rembrandt."

"I imagine having all of your ministers here in Spindle at once is going to be the exception, not the rule, for at least the foreseeable future, Mr. Prime Minister," Michelle observed.

"That, unfortunately, is nothing but the truth," Alquezar agreed.

"Actually," Medusa said, "the entire process of creating the new government is going far more smoothly and efficiently than I think most of the people involved in doing the actual work realize. I have the advantage of a perspective none of the rest of you have, Joachim. Trust me, you're doing quite well."

"So far, at least," Van Dort murmured.

"Things can always change," Medusa acknowledged equably. "My distinct feeling at this moment, however, is that you're already past the most likely stumbling points, and the Quadrant's systems are showing a remarkable degree of mutual tolerance and internal cohesion. Don't forget how little a lot of these systems truly had in common—aside from astrographic location and the threat of OFS—before the annexation proposal came along. That was certainly a factor while the annexation was getting organized, as I expect all of us remember rather better than we'd like to. In fact, there's being far less infighting than I would ever have anticipated after watching the gladiatorial combat of the Convention!"

"You can thank the Sollies for that, I suspect," Alquezar said sourly.

"I probably could . . . if I were willing to thank them for anything," Krietzmann responded with cold, biting bitterness.

"There's quite a lot of truth to that, I think, though, Henri," Van Dort said quietly. "What happened in Monica—and what was happening on Montana and Kornati—reminded everyone OFS is still out there. And most of them think Verrochio and Hongbo would just love another shot at the Cluster."

"Do people really think that's likely, Minister?" Michelle asked.

" 'Bernardus,' please, Milady," he replied, then grimaced. "And in answer to your question, yes, there are quite a few people here in the Quadrant who think that's very likely, if Verrochio can figure out a new approach."

"Even after how badly he got his fingers burned this time . . . Bernardus?"

"Maybe even especially after getting his fingers burned." Van Dort shrugged. "First of all, we don't know how much—if any of this—is going to stick to him after Ambassador Corvisart gets done with her investigation in Monica. I'm not saying I don't think it will stick to him; I'm just saying we don't know how badly. Second, he's not exactly what someone might call a forgiving man. Even assuming he manages to squirm out without any official sanctions, he's undoubtedly been humiliated in front of the only people he really cares about—his peers in Frontier Security. I'm quite sure his position in the OFS hierarchy's taken some severe damage out of this, and he's going to be looking for a chance to recoup his status and power base. When you factor in his temper and the fact that he's going to want revenge, I think you can safely say that if he sees the opportunity to do us a disservice, he'll seize it with both hands."

"The view back home on Manticore is that he's most likely to pull in his horns and try to cut his losses," Michelle said.

"I'm not surprised." Van Dort shook his head. "That would be the smart thing for him to do, after all. After getting his fingers caught in the cookie jar this way, the last thing he needs is to shove his whole hand in while the entire galaxy is watching. That's obvious to everyone else, and one would hope it would be obvious to him, as well. In fact, it probably is. But never underestimate the ability of human nature to ignore the obvious once the emotions are fully engaged. Especially when the human being in question is a fundamentally stupid, superficially clever, and incredibly arrogant man like Lorcan Verrochio. A corner of his mind—such as it is, and what there is of it—must be thinking that if he can only get his hands on the Lynx Terminus after all, it would more than restore his pre-Monica position. After all, pulling that off after what looked like disaster would demonstrate his ability to adapt and overcome adversity, wouldn't it? As a matter of fact, I strongly suspect that if it weren't for Hongbo Junyan's ability to prevent him from throwing good money after bad, Verrochio might have responded to Aivars' attack on Monica by sending in a Frontier Fleet squadron with orders to do whatever it took to 'restore Monica's sovereignty.' "

"Which is why it's so important to keep that frontier strongly picketed," Baroness Medusa said. "I know you and Admiral Khumalo have already discussed that, Milady. And I know he and I are in fundamental agreement about the best use to make of our naval resources. But having both of you simultaneously here in Thimble, along with the Prime Minister and Mr. Krietzmann, presents entirely too good an opportunity to pass up. What I'd like for all of us to do is to kick around the basic strategic situation and get everyone's insight into what it is we're doing about it."

"I think that's an excellent idea, Madame Governor," Krietzmann said, sitting forward in his chair. "But part of our 'basic strategic situation' out here are the implications of the Old Star Kingdom's strategic situation closer to home. Specifically, I'm thinking about this summit meeting between Her Majesty and President Pritchart. How likely is that to lead to serious peace talks? And, short of serious peace talks, how long do we expect the cease-fire to last?"

"Those are two excellent questions, Mr. Krietzmann," Michelle said. "Unfortunately, the answer to the first one is that no one knows. Both sides have obvious reasons to want to stop shooting at one another, if we can. But, by the same token, both sides appear to have painted themselves into something of a corner where the question of 'war guilt' is concerned. I don't see how any sort of peace talks can succeed if we can't even agree on who falsified whose diplomatic correspondence before the war. The initiative came from the Havenites' side. If that means they're willing to make some genuine concessions, a serious effort towards establishing—and admitting—responsibility for the forgeries, then I think the chance of 'serious peace talks' is at least pretty good.

"Short of that, I'd guess the cease-fire is going to last for a minimum of several months. It's going to take that long just to get all of the messages setting it up sent back and forth. Then Beth—I mean, Her Majesty—and Pritchart are going to have to get to Torch for the actual summit. It's over a month's voyage for Pritchart, one way, and I doubt anyone is going to be willing to give up without spending at least a month or two proving to the other side—and to the galaxy at large—that however unreasonable the other fellows may be being,we're doing our dead level best to bring all this bloodshed to an end. And then you've got the voyage time home for Pritchart. Considering all of that, I'd say five T-months wouldn't be at all out of the question."

"That's about what Gregor I have been estimating from this end," Baroness Medusa said with a nod.

"And if it does last that long, what does it mean for us here in Talbott?" Krietzmann asked.

"The main thing it would mean, Henri," Khumalo said, "is that the majority of the emergency war program construction will have time to come into service. And that, in turn, means the Admiralty's plans to beef up our naval presence here in the Quadrant could proceed without worrying about diversions to meet unanticipated needs on the main front. Which means Vice Admiral Gold Peak's new fleet's order of battle would come forward more or less as scheduled, and that we ought to see the first light attack craft squadrons being deployed within the next month or so."

"Really?" Krietzmann looked as if he were more than half afraid to believe it. He obviously didn't think Khumalo was lying to him. It was more as if he found it difficult to believe the universe would allow things to go that smoothly.

"Really," Khumalo assured him. "In the long run, I think the LACs are going to be even more useful here in the Quadrant than Tenth Fleet. I doubt any Solly with Frontier Security or Frontier Fleet would consider them any sort of threat, so they aren't going to have any deterrence value for someone like Verrochio. That's what Tenth Fleet is for. But once we get two or three squadrons of them deployed to every one of the Quadrant's systems, we'll pretty much have knocked piracy on its head. And, to be honest, the LACs are going to be the best means for gradually integrating the personnel of the local system navies into the RMN."

"I certainly agree with that," Van Dort said firmly. "No pirate in his right mind is going to cross swords with a modern Manticoran LAC. Or, at least, not after the word gets around about what happens to the first couple of them to try it. And the LAC squadrons and their personnel are going to be seen by the locals as 'theirs' in a way hyper-capable ships aren't. They'll be the local police force, not the Navy that comes swinging through the vicinity to check on things every so often. And integrating local personnel into their complements is going to be the best way to start getting our people trained up on modern naval technology, as well."

"That's the Admiralty's thinking, Sir," Michelle agreed. "It won't be the same as running them all through basic training back home, but what they have in mind is more of an orientation mission. Each LAC detachment will have its own simulators for training, and running local personnel through them will give our people a chance to evaluate their general skill levels and basic competence, which aren't necessarily the same thing. Ultimately, BuPers is going to have to set up whatever remedial education is necessary in-house, since both the Admiralty and the PM have already made it clear that there are going to be Talbotters in the RMN and that they are not going to get stuck with some kind of second-class status. That means bringing their basic educational levels up to Manticoran standards, not trying to do some sort of rote training or 'enough to get by' training like the old Peep Navy used with its conscripts. That's going to require a lot out of them in terms of extra classroom studies, at least until we get the general education system out here up to Manticoran standards, but there's no way to avoid that, and I think the people who actually want to transfer to naval service will be willing to make the effort. In fact, that's probably going to be one of those Darwinian filters that help us recruit the cream of the crop.

"In the meantime, of course, the squadrons themselves will provide a defense in depth against the kind of . . . risk-averse scum who go into piracy as a career. And, frankly, there's another advantage to it from my perspective, given what you've just told me about Commissioner Verrochio. The quicker we can get the LACs up and running to deal with people like that, the quicker I can get my strength concentrated and pushed far enough forward to remind Mr. Verrochio to stay away from our cookies."

Michelle Henke finished toweling her hair vigorously, draped the towel around her neck, and settled into the chair in front of the terminal in her sleeping cabin. Her sadly worn-looking Academy sweats' fleecy lining was sinfully warm and sensual feeling against her just-showered skin, and she grinned as she looked down at her feet. Honor had given her her first pair of fluffy, violently purple treecat slippers as a joke several Christmases ago. Michelle had started wearing them as a joke of her own, but she'd kept wearing them because of how comfortable (if undignified) they were. The original pair had been lost with Ajax, but she'd insisted on finding time to buy a replacement pair before deploying with her new squadron, and they were finally getting properly broken in.

Chris Billingsley had left a carafe of hot coffee on a tray at her elbow, along with a single sugared doughnut, and she grimaced wryly at the sight. Unlike Honor, Michelle had discovered that it was distinctly necessary for her to keep an eye on her caloric intake. The majority of naval officers led relatively sedentary lives when they were aboard ship. Others—like Honor—verged on the fanatical when it came to physical fitness. Michelle was one of those who preferred to follow a middle-of-the-road path, with enough exercise to keep her reasonably fit, but without going overboard about it. And since every excess calorie seemed to go directly to her posterior, and since it was harder than ever for her to find the time for the amount of exercise she was prepared to tolerate, she had no choice but to watch what she was eating very carefully.

It had taken Billingsley a little while to realize that, but he'd caught on quickly. And Michelle was grateful to discover that as the immediacy of what had happened to Ajax receded into the past, the pain of losing Clarissa Arbuckle was easing. It would never go away, but like most naval officers of her generation, Michelle had acquired far too much experience in dealing with losses. In this case, the fact that Billingsley was so unlike Clarissa in so many ways actually helped, and she was glad it was so. He deserved to be taken on his own terms, without being measured against someone else's ghost. And, taken on his own terms, he was a gratifyingly competent force of nature who took no nonsense from his admiral where questions of her care and feeding were concerned. His style of bullying involved reproachful glances, deep sighs, and what Michelle privately thought of as "the Jewish mother" technique, which was very different from Clarissa's oh-so-polite insistence, but it was certainly . . . effective.

She chuckled at the thought, poured herself a cup of coffee, allowed herself a single (small) introductory bite of the doughnut, then brought the terminal on-line. She was just about to open the letter to her mother which she'd begun the evening before when something large, warm, and silky stroked luxuriously against her ankle. She looked down and found herself gazing directly into Dicey's large, green eyes. They blinked, then swivelled towards the doughnut before they tracked back to her face.

"Don't even think about it, you horrible creature," she told him severely. "You don't get enough exercise to be stacking up that kind of calories, either. Besides, I'm sure donuts are bad for cats."

Dicey looked up at her appealingly for several more seconds, doing his very best to look like a small, starving kitten. He wasn't noticeably successful, however, and she pointedly moved the plate farther away from him. Finally, he gave up with a mournful sigh, turned away, flipped his tail at her, and wandered off to see who else he might be able to mooch some desperately needed sustenance out of.

Michelle watched him go, then shook her head, finished opening the letter and ran forward through it, reviewing what she'd written previously while she sipped the rich, black coffee, savoring its touch of harshness after the doughnut's sweetness.

It was hard to believe the squadron had been here in Spindle for just over one T-week already. Despite the relentless schedule of training exercises and drills with which she and Victoria Armstrong had afflicted their personnel on the voyage here from the Lynx Terminus, those ten subjective days in transit looked positively soporific in retrospect. Or perhaps not. Perhaps that was only true for Michelle and her staff. The squadron's demanding training schedule hadn't relented—if anything, it had intensified—but while the rest of her people were grappling with that, Michelle, Cynthia Lecter, Augustus Khumalo, and Loretta Shoupe were engaged in an intensive analysis, along with Henri Krietzmann and his senior staffers, of the Quadrant's resources, as well as its needs, while they tried to formulate the most effective deployment plans.

So far, the main conclusion they'd been able to draw was that until more of Tenth Fleet's starships and the first of the LAC squadrons got forward, it was simply physically impossible for Michelle's ships to be everywhere they needed to be. Which was why she was due to leave Spindle the day after tomorrow and proceed with the squadron's first division to Tillerman. That would put her in position to pay a "courtesy call" on Monica about the time thatHexapuma and Warlock completed their repairs and O'Malley was withdrawing his Home Fleet battlecruisers from the system. At the same time, Commodore Onasis would split up her second division, and the individual ships would begin a sweep through the Quadrant's systems as visual reassurance of the Royal Navy's presence. Which, unfortunately, was about all Michelle could actually offer them until the rest of the Quadrant's assigned units put in their appearance.

And, of course, we'll all go right on training, she thought wryly.No wonder all my people love me so much!

She reached the end of her previous recording, which had covered Baroness Medusa's dinner party and the after dinner conversation, and straightened in her chair as she keyed the microphone.

"So I'm sure you and Honor are both going to sprain your elbows patting yourselves on the back and chanting 'We told you so!' in two-part harmony about my aversion for politics." She smiled and shook her head. "I knew I wouldn't be able to stay completely away from them once the Admiralty decided to send me out here, but I can't say I anticipated getting into them quite so deeply. At the same time, I have to admit it's actually pretty . . . exciting. These people are really fired up, Mom. Oh, there's still some opposition and unhappiness, but it looks to me like that's starting to fade. Nothing is going to convince someone like that maniac Nordbrandt to see reason, but I think anyone whose brain actually works has to realize everyone involved is doing her dead level best in a good-faith effort to work things out as quickly and equitably as possible. These people aren't saints, any more than our politicos back home are. Don't get me wrong about that. But I think most of them have a genuine sense that they're creating something greater than any of them. They know they're going into the history books, one way or the other, and I think most of them would prefer to get good reviews.

"I'm not too happy about what I'm hearing about New Tuscany, though." She grimaced. "Everyone warned me the New Tuscans were going to be a problem, but I'd really have preferred for them to be wrong about that. Unfortunately, I don't think they are. And, to be frank, I can't begin to get my head wrapped around wherever it is these people are coming from. They were the ones who decided to opt out of the Quadrant, but you wouldn't know that to listen to their trade representatives. Just yesterday one of them spent the entire afternoon in Minister Lababibi's office complaining about the fact that New Tuscany isn't going to be getting any of the tax incentives Beth is offering to people who invest in the Quadrant." Michelle shook her head. "Apparently, this guy was ranting and raving about how 'unfair' and 'discriminatory' that is! And if that's the way 'politics' work, Mom, I still don't want to get any deeper into them than I have to!

"On another front, though, I really wish you could try the cuisine out here. Thimble is right on the ocean, and the seafood they have here is incredible. They've got what they call 'lobsters,' even if they don't look anything like ours—or like Old Earth's, for that matter—and they broil them, then serve them with sauteed mushrooms and peppers, garnished with lemon juice and garlic butter, over a bed of one of their local grains. Delicious! And if I were only Honor, I could eat all of it I wanted to. Still—"

She broke off as a red light blinked on the corner of her terminal. She looked at it for a couple of heartbeats, then punched another key, and Bill Edwards' face appeared before her.

"Yes, Bill?"

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Ma'am, but there's an urgent priority call."

"From whom?" Michelle asked with a frown.

"It's a conference call, Ma'am—from Admiral Khumalo and Baroness Medusa."

Despite herself, Michelle's eyes widened. It was an hour or two after local midnight in Thimble, and Khumalo's staff coordinated its work schedule with the governor's. So what had both of them up at this hour talking to her?

I don't think I'm going to like the answer to that question, she thought.

"Have they requested visual?" she asked Edwards, running one hand across her short, still damp hair and wondering how her voice could sound so calm.

"No, Ma'am. In fact, the governor isn't visual herself, and she specifically said it would be satisfactory for you to attend audio-only, as well."

"Good." Michelle twitched a smile. "Chris would kill me if I let anyone see me sitting around in sweats for a conference with another flag officer and an imperial governor. Either that, or give me that terminally reproachful look of his! Go ahead and put it through, please, Bill."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Edwards disappeared, replaced almost instantly by a split screen. One quadrant showed Augustus Khumalo's face while the other displayed the wallpaper of Baroness Medusa's coat of arms. Khumalo was still in uniform, although he'd shed his tunic, and Michelle knew both of them were seeing the shield and crossed arrows ofArtemis' wallpaper, overlaid with the two stars of her rank, instead of her.

"Good evening, Admiral. Good evening, Governor," she said.

" 'Good morning,' you mean, don't you, Milady?" Khumalo responded with a tense smile.

"I suppose I do, actually. Although we're still on Manticoran time aboard ship." Michelle smiled back, then cleared her throat. "I do have to wonder why the two of you are screening me this late in your day, however, Sir."

"Technically, I don't suppose we really had to," Baroness Medusa's voice replied. "In fact, I suppose the reason we didn't wait until tomorrow is at least partly a case of misery loving company."

"That sounds ominous," Michelle said cautiously.

"A dispatch boat came in from the Lynx Terminus about twenty minutes ago, Milady," Khumalo said. "It carried an urgent dispatch. It would appear that three T-weeks ago, Admiral Webster was assassinated on Old Earth."

Michelle inhaled abruptly. For a moment, it felt as if Khumalo had reached out of the terminal and slapped her. The shock was that sharp, that totally unexpected. And, on the heels of the shock, came the grief. The Webster and Henke families were close—her father's sister had married the present Duke of New Texas—and James Bowie Webster had been an unofficial uncle of hers since she was a little girl. He was one of the ones who had actively encouraged her to make the Navy her career, and despite his monumental seniority, their relationship had remained close after her graduation from Saganami Island, although their different duties and assignments had forced them to stay in touch mostly by letter. And now—

She blinked burning eyes and shook her head sharply. She didn't have time to think about the personal aspects of it.

"How did it happen?" she asked flatly.

"That's still under investigation." Khumalo looked like a man with a mouth full of sour persimmons. "What has been definitely established so far, though, is that he was shot at close range on a public sidewalk—in front of the Opera House, in fact!—by none other than the personal driver of the Havenite ambassador to the League."

"My God!" Michelle stared at Khumalo's image.

"Indeed," Medusa's voice said. "Gregor and I are still going over the official dispatch and the reports which accompanied it. From what we've seen so far, I have to wonder if this is another application of whatever it was they used to try to kill Duchess Harrington."

"May I ask why, Governor?" Michelle's voice had sharpened with her memory of Tim Meares and his death.

"Because the assassin shot him right in front of half a dozen security cameras, at least two or three policemen, and Admiral Webster's own bodyguard. If that doesn't constitute a suicide attack, then I don't know what would."

"But why would the Havenites want to assassinate the admiral?" Michelle heard the plaintiveness in her own voice.

"I don't have a clue why they might have done it," Medusa said.

"Neither do I," Khumalo agreed, and Michelle sat back, thinking furiously.

James Webster had been one of the most popular officers in the Navy, both with his fellow service personnel and with the Manticoran public. An ex-First Space Lord, he'd been instrumental in breaking the criminally stupid, politically inspired policies which had almost gotten Honor Harrington killed on Basilisk Station years ago. And he'd commanded Home Fleet throughout the first Havenite War, as well. For the last couple of T-years, he'd been the Star Kingdom's ambassador to the Solarian League, and from everything Michelle had heard, he'd done that job just as well as he'd done everything else.

"This doesn't make sense," she said finally. "Admiral Webster's an ambassador these days, not a serving officer. And Old Earth is about as far away from Haven as someone could get."

"Agreed," Medusa said. "In fact, if I'd had to look for someone to blame this on—without the obvious Havenite connection, at least—my first choice would have been Manpower."

"Manpower?" Michelle's eyes narrowed.

"They'd have to be uncommonly stupid—or crazy—to try something like this right in the middle of Chicago," Khumalo objected. "But," he continued, almost unwillingly, "if there's anyone in the galaxy Webster was beating up on, it was Manpower. Well, Manpower, the Jessyk Combine, and Technodyne. He's been giving them hell in the League media over their attempts to spin what happened in Monica, and my impression is that things were only going from bad to worse for them in that regard. I suppose it's at least remotely possible they got tired of having him bust their chops and decided to do something about it. Still stupid, especially in the long run, but possible. And to be fair, God knows Manpower's done other stupid things on occasion—like that raid on Catherine Montaigne's mansion, or that whole operation on Old Earth, when they kidnaped Zilwicki's daughter."

"That's what I'm thinking," the governor agreed. "And you're right that killing him would be a really stupid thing for an outlaw bunch like Manpower to do. Unless, of course, they felt completely confident no one would ever be able to prove they'd had anything to do with it."

"But—" Michelle began, then cut herself off.

"But what, Milady?" Medusa asked.

"But it would be an equally stupid thing for Haven to do," Michelle pointed out. "Especially using their own ambassador's driver! Why would someone who had whatever it is they used to force Lieutenant Meares to try to kill Her Grace use it on their own ambassador's driver? What's the point in having a completely deniable assassination technique if you're going to hang a great big holo sign around your neck saying 'We did it!'?"

"That's one of those interesting questions, isn't it?" Medusa replied. "And, frankly, one of the reasons my own suspicion leans towards Manpower. Except, of course, for the fact that the only people who've demonstrated this particular capability are the Havenites."

"Maybe somebody did it just to drive us all crazy thinking and double-thinking the whole thing!" Khumalo rasped.

"No, Augustus. However crazy this looks, whoever did it had a reason," Medusa said. "A reason she thought justified taking all the risks inherent in assassinating an accredited ambassador in the middle of the Solarian League's capital city. From here, I can't imagine what that reason was, but it exists."

"Are there any theories about that 'reason' in the reports from home, Governor?" Michelle asked.

"As a matter of fact, there are," Medusa replied heavily. "Several of them, in fact—most of which are mutually incompatible. Personally, I don't find any of them especially convincing, but at the moment, I'm afraid, suspicion back home is focusing on Haven, not Manpower. And the superficial evidence against Havenis very damning. I have to admit that. Especially since, as I say, Haven has already demonstrated the ability to compel someone to carry out suicidal attacks, and that points directly at Nouveau Paris, too."

"And their motive is supposed to be what?"

"That's a matter of some dispute. I don't want to try to read too much between the lines here, not this far away from Landing. Officially, the Star Kingdom's position is that the assassination was arranged by 'parties unknown.' I have no idea how unanimously that position is supported within the Government, however. If I had to guess, based on what I've seen so far and what I know about the personalities involved, I'd guess that whatever the official position, there's a lot of suspicion that it was Haven. As to why, beyond the evidence the Solly police have been able to put together so far, I really couldn't say. Especially not on the very eve of the summit Pritchart suggested."

"Unless the entire objective was to prevent the summit from happening," Khumalo said slowly.

"I can't see that, Sir," Michelle said quickly. "Pritchart and Theisman both want this summit to go forward. I was there; I saw their faces. I'm sure of that much."

"Even assuming—which I'm perfectly willing to do—that your evaluation of them is accurate, Admiral," Medusa said, "the fact is that what you really know is that they did want the summit to go forward at the time they spoke to you. It's entirely possible that something we know nothing about has changed their thinking. In fact, derailing the summit is one of those 'theories' you asked about."

"But if that's all they wanted, why not simply withdraw their proposal?"

"Diplomacy is a game of perceptions," the governor replied. "There may be domestic or interstellar political considerations that make them unwilling to be the ones who kill the summit they originally proposed. This may be an effort to pushManticore into rejecting the summit. I don't say that makes a lot of sense from our perspective, but, unfortunately, we can't read Pritchart's mind from here, so we can't know what she may or may not have been thinking. Always assuming, of course, that Haven did carry out this assassination."

"Or assuming thePritchart Administration carried it out, at least," Michelle said slowly.

"You think it may have been a rogue operation?" Khumalo said with a frown.

"I think it's possible," Michelle said, still slowly, her eyes slitted in thought. "I know the People's Republic was fond of assassinations." Her jaw tightened as she recalled the murder of her father and her brother. "And I know Pritchart was a resistance fighter who's supposed to have carried out several assassinations personally. But I don't think she would have wanted to do anything to jeopardize her meeting with Elizabeth. Not as seriously as she talked to me when she issued the invitation. Which doesn't mean someone else in the present Havenite government or covert agencies, maybe someone who's nostalgic for 'the good old days' and doesn't want the shooting to stop, couldn't have done this without Pritchart's approval."

"Actually," Medusa said thoughtfully, "that comes closer than anything that's occurred to me yet to making sense of any explanation for why Haven might have been behind this."

"Maybe." Khumalo clearly felt that "Because they're Peeps" was sufficient explanation for just about anything Haven might decide to do. Which, Michelle reflected, probably summed up the attitude of a majority of Manticorans. After so many years of war, after the forged diplomatic correspondence, after the "sneak attack" of Operation Thunderbolt, there must be very little the average woman-in-the-street would put past the Machiavellian and malevolent Peeps.

"At any rate," Khumalo continued, "it's obvious to me that this is going to have serious implications for our own deployment plans. Trying to figure out what those implications are, however, isn't going to be easy. The one thing I can say is that until this whole thing settles down, Milady, I want your squadron right here in Spindle. There's no telling which way we may have to jump if the wheels come off the Torch summit after all, and I don't want to be forced to send dispatch boats racing off in every direction to get you back here if that happens."

"I understand, Sir."

"Good." Khumalo's nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply, then gave himself a shake. "And on that note, Baroness, with your permission, I think we've probably discussed this as thoroughly as we can at this point. That being the case, suppose you and I see if we can't get at least a few hours of sleep before we have to get up and start worrying about it again?"

Chapter Seventeen

"Hi, Helga," Gervais Archer said, and grinned from Helga Boltitz's com. There was more than a little worry in his green eyes, but the grin seemed remarkably genuine. "Got time for lunch?"

"Hello, Gwen. And how are you? Very well, thank you, Helga. And yourself?" Helga replied. "Fine, thank you, Gwen," she continued. "And to what do I owe the pleasure of this call? Well, Helga, I was wondering if you had lunch plans?" She paused, looking at him with one eyebrow raised. "Would it happen, Lieutenant Archer, that any of that sounded remotely familiar?"

"I suppose," he said unrepentantly, still grinning. "But the question still stands."

Helga sighed and shook her head.

"For someone from an effete, over-civilized Star Kingdom, you are sadly lacking in the social graces, Lieutenant," she said severely.

"Well, I understand that's a hallmark of the aristocracy," he informed her, elevating his nose ever so slightly. "We're so well born that those tiresome little rules that apply to everyone else have no relevance for us."

Helga laughed. Even now, she found it surprising that she could find anything about oligarchs—or, even worse, overt aristocrats—even remotely funny, especially with everything else that was going on. But the last ten days had significantly altered her opinion of a least one Manticoran aristocrat.

Gervais Archer had stood her concept of oligarchs on its head. Or perhaps that was being a little too optimistic, at least where oligarchs in general were concerned. It was going to take an awful lot of "show me" to convince Helga Boltitz and the rest of Dresden that all the protestations of selfless patriotism flowing around certain extremely well-off quarters here in Talbott—or, for that matter, back in Manticore—were sincere. Still, if Gervais hadn't inspired her to leap to a sudden awareness that she'd profoundly misjudged people like Paul Van Scheldt all her life, he had convinced her that at least some Manticoran aristocrats were nothing at all like Talbott Cluster oligarchs. Of course, she'd already been forced to admit that at least some Talbott Cluster oligarchs weren't like Talbott Cluster oligarchs, either, if she was going to be honest about it. Kicking and screaming the entire way, perhaps, but she'd still had to admit it, at least in the privacy of her own thoughts.

The universe would be such a more comfortable place if only preconceptions could stay firmly in place, she reflected.

Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—that couldn't always happen.

She'd already been forced to accept that people like Prime Minister Alquezar and Bernardus Van Dort were very different from people like that poisonous Wurmfresser Van Scheldt. Henri Krietzmann had been right about that. They still didn't really understand what someone like Helga or Krietzmann had experienced, but they did understand that they didn't, and at least they were trying to. And much as she'd wanted to cling to the belief that Van Dort's motivation for the original annexation campaign had been purely self-serving, she'd had no choice but to concede otherwise as she watched him working with Krietzmann and the other members of the newly elected Alquezar Government.

Not that there aren't still plenty of Rembrandters who are just like Van Scheldt, she reflected sourly.And they've got plenty of soulmates in places like right here in Spindle.

And then there was Lieutenant Gervais Winton Erwin Neville Archer. Despite his disclaimers, he really was a member of the Manticoran aristocracy. She knew he was, because she'd made it her business to look him up in Clarke's Peerage. The Archers were a very old Manticoran family, dating clear back to the original landing on Manticore, and Sir Roger Mackley Archer, Gervais' father, was not only ridiculously wealthy (by Dresdener standards, at least) in his own right, but stood fourth in line for the Barony of Eastwood, as well. Gervais was also a distant relative (Helga had found it almost impossible to decipher the complex genealogical charts involved in determining exactly how distant, although she suspected that the most applicable adverb was probably "very") of Queen Elizabeth of Manticore. As far as someone from the slums of Schulberg was concerned, that definitely qualified him for aristocrat status. And in the universe which had once been so comfortably her own, he ought to have been just as well aware of it as she was.

If he was, he concealed the fact remarkably well.

He was younger than she'd first estimated—only about four T-years older than she was—and she wondered sometimes whether or not some of the monumental aplomb he carried around with him was due to the fact that deep down inside he was aware of the intrinsic advantages of his birth. Mostly, though, she'd come to the conclusion that it was simply a case of his being exactly who he was. There was remarkably little pretense about him, and his lighthearted mockery of the aristocratic stereotypes appeared to be completely genuine.

And unlike certain cretins named Van Scheldt, he also works his ass off.

Her mouth tightened slightly at that thought.

"Should I assume there's an official reason for your question about lunch?" she asked him, and saw his own smile fade.

"I'm afraid so," he acknowledged. "Not—" he added with a resurgence of humor "—that I would ever have been gauche enough to admit any such thing without being forced." The flicker of amusement dimmed once more, and he shrugged. "Unfortunately, I'm afraid that what I really want to do is discuss some scheduling details with you for tomorrow. Since I know you're as busy as I am, and since I doubt very much that you've taken any breaks today, I thought we might do the discussing over a nice lunch at Sigourney's. My treat . . . unless, of course, you feel you can legitimately put it on the Ministry's tab and spare a poor flag lieutenant the grim necessity of justifying his expense vouchers."

"What kind of scheduling details?" she asked, eyes narrowing in thought. "Tomorrow's awfully tight already, Gwen. I don't think there's a lot of flex in the Minister's itinerary."

"That's why I'm afraid it might take us a while to figure out how to squeeze this in." His rueful tone was an acknowledgment that he'd already known how tightly scheduled Krietzmann was.

"And would that also be the reason you're having this discussion with me instead of Mr. Haftner?" she inquired shrewdly.

"Ouch!" He winced, raising both hands dramatically to his chest. "How could you possibly think anything of the sort?"

"Because otherwise, given how busy Mr. Krietzmann is and all the assorted varieties of hell breaking loose, your Captain Lecter would have brought a little extra firepower to bear by discussing this directly with Mr. Haftner instead of having you sneak around his flank. That is the way you military types describe this particular maneuver, isn't it? Sneaking around his flank?"

"Us military types, is it?" He snorted. "You don't do all that badly for a civilian sort, yourself. And," he shrugged, his expression darker and more serious, "I might as well admit that you've got a point. Captain Lecter doesn't think Mr. Haftner's going to be pleased by an official request to grab an hour or so of the Minister's time."

"An hour?" Helga's dismay wasn't in the least feigned.

"I know. I know!" Gervais shook his head. "It's an awful big chunk of time, and just to make it worse, we'd like it to be off the books. Frankly, that's another reason not to go through Haftner's office."

Helga sat back in her chair. Abednego Haftner was Henri Krietzmann's Spindle-born chief of staff at the War Ministry. He was a tall, narrowly built, dark-haired man with a strong nose and an even stronger sense of duty. He was also a workaholic, and in Helga's opinion, an empire-builder. As far as she could tell, it stemmed not from any sort of personal ambition but rather from his near-fanatical focus on efficiency. He was an extraordinarily able administrator in most ways, but he obviously found it difficult to delegate access to Krietzmann, and he wasn't about to let anything derail his own smoothly machined procedures.

In fact, that was his one true, undeniable weakness. He wasn't exactly flexible, and he didn't improvise well, which only reinforced his aversion to people who operated on an ad hoc basis. Under normal circumstances, that was more than offset by his incredible attention to detail, his encyclopedic grasp of everything going on within the Ministry, and his total personal integrity. Unfortunately, circumstances weren't normal at the moment, and even in the radically changed circumstances following the Webster assassination, he persisted in his efforts to force order upon what he considered chaos.

That lack of flexibility had already brought him and Helga, as Krietzmann's personal aide, into conflict more than once, and she suspected that was going to happen more often for the immediately foreseeable future. It was less than two T-days since news of the Webster assassination had hit Spindle like a hammer, and the entire government—from Baroness Medusa and the Prime Minister on down—was still scrambling to adjust. So was the military, which probably had a little something to do with Gervais' request. Although his apparent desire to keep any meeting with Krietzmann off the War Ministry's official logs also rang more than a few distant alarm bells in the back of her brain.

"Can you at least tell me exactly what you want his time for?" she asked after several seconds.

"I'd really rather discuss that with you over lunch," he replied, his expression and his tone both totally serious. She looked at him for another moment, then sighed again.

"All right, Gwen," she conceded. "You win."

"Thank you for coming," Gervais said as he pulled out Helga's chair for her.

He waited till she was seated, then settled into his own chair on the other side of the small table and raised one finger to attract the attention of the nearest waiter. That worthy deigned to notice their presence and approached their table with stately grace.

"Yes, Lieutenant?" His tone was nicely modulated, with just the right combination of deference to someone from the Old Star Kingdom and the hauteur that was so much a part of Sigourney's stock in trade. "May I show you a menu?"

"Don't bother," Gervais said, glancing at Helga with a twinkling eye. "Just let us have a tossed salad—vinaigrette dressing—and the prime rib—extra rare for me; medium rare for the lady—with mashed potatoes, green beans, sautéed mushrooms, and a couple of draft Kelsenbraus."

The waiter flinched visibly as Gervais cheerfully deep-sixed all of the elegant prose the restaurant had invested in its menus.

"If I might recommend the Cheviot '06," he began out of some spinal reflex effort to salvage something. "It's a very nice Pinot Noir. Or there's the Karakul 1894, a truly respectable Cabernet Sauvignon, if you'd prefer. Or—"

Gervais shook his head firmly.

"The Kelsenbrau will be just fine," he said earnestly. "I don't really like wine, actually."

The waiter closed his eyes briefly, then drew a deep breath.

"Of course, Lieutenant," he said, and tottered off toward the kitchens.

"You, Lieutenant Archer, are not a nice man," Helga told him. "He was so hoping to impress somebody from Manticore with this pile of bricks' sophistication."

"I know." Gervais shook his head with what might have been a touch of actual contrition. "I just couldn't help it. I guess I've spent too much time associating with the local riffraff."

"Oh?" She tilted her head to one side, gazing at him speculatively. "And I don't suppose you had any particular members of the 'local riffraff' in mind?"

"Perish the thought." He grinned. "Still, it was somebody from Dresden, I think, who introduced me to the place to start with. She said something about the food being pretty decent despite the monumental egos of the staff."

Helga chuckled and shook her head at him. Not that he was wrong. In fact, he'd picked up very quickly on the fact that she particularly enjoyed watching the oh-so-proper waitstaff's reaction to her buzz saw Dresden accent. Of course, the food was really excellent and, despite the waiter's reaction to Gervais' order, Sigourney's was one of the very few high-class restaurants here in Thimble which kept Kelsenbrau on tap. The dark, rich beer was a product of her own region of Dresden, and she'd been deeply (if discreetly) pleased by Gervais' enthusiastic response to it.

"Why do I think you chose this particular venue as a bribe?" she asked.

"You'd be at least partly right if you did," he admitted. "But only partly. The truth is, the admiral sent me dirt-side on several errands this morning. I've been a very busy and industrious little flag lieutenant since just after dawn, local time, and I figured I was about due a decent lunch, a nice glass of beer, and some pleasant company to share them with."

"I see."

Helga looked up with a faint sense of relief as a far more junior member of the waitstaff turned up with a pitcher of ice water. She watched the young man pour, murmured a word of thanks, then sipped from her own glass as he withdrew. She took her time before she set it down again and returned her attention to Gervais.

"Well, in that case, why don't we get whatever business we need to attend to out of the way while we wait for the salads?"

"Probably not a bad idea," he agreed, and glanced casually around the dining room.

There'd been another factor in his choice of restaurants, she realized. Although Sigourney's was completely public, it was also extraordinarily discreet. Several of its tables—like, coincidentally, the one at which they happened to be seated at this very moment—sat more than half enclosed in small, private alcoves against the rear wall. What with the lighting, the ambient noise, and the small, efficient, Manticoran-built portable anti-snooping device—disguised as a briefcase, which had kept her from immediately recognizing what it was—Gervais had unobtrusively parked between them and the open side of the alcove, it would be extraordinarily difficult for anyone to eavesdrop upon them.

And if anyone's watching him, all he's doing is having a flashy lunch with an easily impressed little girl from Dresden, she thought dryly.

"The thing is," he continued quietly, "that the admiral would like to invite Minister Krietzmann to a modest get together aboard her flagship. Purely a social event, you understand. My impression is that the guest list will include Admiral Khumalo, Gregor O'Shaughnessy, and Special Minister Van Dort. I believe Ms. Moorehead may well be able to attend, as well."

Despite her own previous suspicions, Helga inhaled in surprise. Gregor O'Shaughnessy was Baroness Medusa's senior intelligence officer and, effectively, her chief of staff, as well. And Sybil Moorehead was Prime Minister Alquezar's chief of staff. Which suggested all sorts of interesting things.

"A 'social event,' " she repeated very carefully after a moment.

"Yes." Gervais met her gaze levelly. Then his nostrils flared slightly, and he shrugged. "Basically," he continued in a slightly lower voice, "Admiral Gold Peak and Mr. O'Shaughnessy want to share some of the admiral's . . . personal insight into the Queen's probable reactions to what happened to Admiral Webster."

Helga's eyes widened. Personal insight? she repeated silently.

Part of her wasn't particularly surprised. Admiral Gold Peak seemed remarkably unaware of her own importance for someone who stood fifth in the royal—and now imperial—succession. It was painfully obvious that quite a few of the true sticklers of Spindalian society, especially here in Thimble, had been sadly disappointed by her low-key efficiency and easy approachability. Her businesslike, no-nonsense attitude towards her responsibilities, coupled with an almost casual, conversational personal style meant that even people from backgrounds like Helga's were remarkably comfortable with her. And the fact that she was fifth in the line of succession meant that not even the starchiest oligarch dared take open umbrage at her cheerful disregard for the ironclad rules of proper social behavior . . . or their own vast importance.

Setting up an informal "social event" as a cover for something considerably more important would be entirely like her. That was Helga's first thought. But her second thought was to wonder just what sort of "personal insight" the Queen's first cousin was likely to be offering and why it was necessary to go to such lengths to disguise the fact that she was?

And O'Shaughnessy's presence, as well as Khumalo's, makes it even more interesting, she thought. If both of them are present—not to mention Van Dort and the Prime Minister's chief of staff—then this is going to be some sort of strategy session, as well. . . .

"Where would this gathering take place? And what time did Lady Gold Peak have in mind?" she asked.

"She was thinking about offering everyone the courtesy of her flagship," Gervais replied. "Around nineteen hundred local, if Mr. Krietzmann could make it."

"That's not much lead time," Helga pointed out with massive understatement.

"I know. But"—Gervais looked directly into her eyes—"the admiral would really appreciate it if he could find time to join her."

"I see."

Helga gazed at him for several seconds, then looked up as their salads arrived, accompanied by theirKelsenbraus. The server's courteous interruption gave her time to think, and she waited until he'd withdrawn from the alcove. Then she picked up her beer glass, sipped, and set it back down.

"Obviously, I won't be able to make any promises until I've been able to get back to the office and check with the Minister. Having said that, though, I think he'll probably be happy to attend."

In point of fact, "happy" might well be the last thing Henri Krietzmann would be, she reflected. It all depended on exactly what sort of "insight" Lady Gold Peak proposed to share with him.

"Good. You'll screen me one way or the other when you've had a chance to talk to him about it?"

"Of course."

"Thank you," he said, smiling at her with quiet sincerity. "And as a reward for our having been such good little worker bees about organizing this, you and I are invited, as well. I'm sure there'll be enough 'go-for' work to keep us both busy, but we may be able to steal a few moments just to enjoy ourselves, as well."

"Really?" Helga smiled back at him. "I'd like that," she said with a sincerity which surprised her just a bit.

Chapter Eighteen

"Well, at least word didn't get here in the middle of the night this time," Cindy Lecter observed sourly.

"That's straining awful hard to find a silver lining, Cindy," Michelle replied, and Lecter produced a wan smile.

"That's because it's awful hard to find one this time, Ma'am."

Cindy had that one right, Michelle reflected as she tipped back in her chair, closed her eyes, and squeezed the bridge of her nose wearily while she contemplated the dispatches which had occasioned this meeting. It was amazing how quickly—and drastically—things could change in barely three T-days. The memory of that first dinner party, of how confidently she and Admiral Khumalo and Governor Medusa and Prime Minister Alquezar had planned for the future, mocked her now, and she wondered what other surprises lay in store.

At least there's a little element of "I told you so," isn't there, Michelle? Of course, you didn't see this one coming any more than anyone else did, but at least you get brownie points for warning everyone that Beth . . . wasn't likely to react well if anything else went wrong.

She shook her head, remembering her "little get together" of the night before.

If I were the superstitious sort, I'd be wondering if I hadn't somehow provoked this, she reflected. One of those "If I say it, it will happen" sorts of things. Except, of course, for the minor fact that it all actually happened the better part of a T-month ago.

James Webster's assassination had been bad enough, but this latest news—the news of the attack on Queen Berry—had been worse, far worse. Just as, if not for the sacrificial gallantry and quick thinking of Berry's bodyguards, the death toll would have been immeasurably worse than it actually had been. Including Michelle's own cousin, Princess Ruth.

And it has to have been another one of those programmed assassins, she thought grimly. It's the only possible answer. That poor son-of a bitch Tyler sure as hell didn't have any reason to try to kill Berry—or Ruth. And I can't think of anything more "suicidal" than using an aerosol neurotoxin in your own briefcase! How in hell are they getting these people to do this kind of thing? And why?

Much as she hated to admit it, the attempt to murder Honor had made tactical and strategic sense. Honor was widely considered to be the Manticoran Alliance's best fleet commander, and the forces under her command had done, by any measure, the greatest damage to the Republic of Haven since the resumption of hostilities. For that matter, loathsome as Michelle found the technique of assassination—for, what she admitted, were some highly personal reasons—any military commander had to be considered a legitimate target by the other side. And if the technique the Republic had used had also inevitably led to the death of another young officer and half a dozen other bridge personnel in her vicinity, killing Honor's flagship to get at her would have resulted in thousands of additional deaths, not just a handful. So she supposed there was actually a moral argument in favor of assassination, if it allowed you to inflict possibly decisive damage on the other side with a minimum possible number of casualties.

But this—!

She released the bridge of her nose and opened her eyes, gazing up at the flag briefing room's overhead.

The thing that stuck in her mind most strongly, actually, wasn't the fact that Haven had come within an eyelash of murdering yet another member of her family. No, what stuck in her mind was that the Republic of Haven and the Star Kingdom of Manticore had always been the two star nations with the strongest record, outside that of Beowulf itself, for opposing Manpower and genetic slavery. Not only that, but the very existence of the Kingdom of Torch, and the only reason Queen Berry had been placed on its throne in the first place, with Ruth as her junior-spymaster-in-training, was that the Star Kingdom and the Republic had jointly sponsored the effort. In fact, support for Torch was the single foreign policy point they still had in common, the very reason Elizabeth had chosen that planet for the site of Pritchart's summit conference. So what could possibly have inspired the Republic of Haven to do its best to decapitate Torch now? It made absolutely no sense.

Yes, it does make sense, girl, a corner of her brain told her. There's one way it makes sense, although why they'd want to do that is another question all of its own.

The news of the deaths on Torch—and despite everything, there'd been almost three hundred dead—had reached Manticore barely two T-days after news of Webster's assassination. Which, allowing for the transit time, meant they'd happened on the same T-day. Somehow, she didn't think the fact that the attacks had been synchronized that tightly had been an accident, either, which did give significant point to the theory Elizabeth had embraced. Both attacks had been carried out using the same technique—the same still unknown technique—which, combined with their timing, certainly indicated that the same people had planned and executed them both. So far as Michelle could see, there were only two candidates when it came to propounding motives for the attackers.

As Baroness Medusa had pointed out in Webster's case, if it hadn't been for the similarity between the technique used against Honor and the technique used against him, Manpower would probably have been the first suspect on everyone's list, however stupid it might have been of them to carry out such an attack right in the middle of Chicago. And the same logic went double, or even triple, where an attack on Torch was concerned. No one else in the entire galaxy could have had a more logical motive to attempt to destabilize Torch. But Manpower, and to a lesser extent the other outlaw corporations based on Mesa and allied with Manpower, obviously had all the motives there were. The notion of an independent star system inhabited almost exclusively by ex-genetic slaves, its government heavily influenced (if not outright dominated) by the "reformed" terrorists of the anti-slavery Audubon Ballroom, could not be reassuring to Manpower or any corporate crony bedfellow. Add in the fact that the planet of Torch itself had been taken away from Manpower by force (and that several hundred of its more senior on-planet employees had been massacred, most of them in particularly hideous fashion, in the process), and Manpower's reasons for attempting to kill Berry—and Ruth, and anyone else on the planet they could get to—became screamingly obvious.

So one possible explanation was to assign both attacks to Manpower. Except, of course, for the unfortunate fact that the only people who had previously employed the same technique were Havenites. Whatever Pritchart might have said, no one else had any motive for that attack. Certainly Manpower hadn't had any reason to go after Honor at that time. For that matter, as far as Michelle could see, Manpower probably would have had every reason not to assassinate her. Manpower was at least as unfond of Manticore and Haven—separately and together—as they were of it, and the notion of eliminating someone who was doing that much damage to Haven could scarcely have appealed to Manpower's board of directors.

Which led, little though Michelle wanted to admit it, to Elizabeth's theory.

Be fair, she told herself. It isn't justBeth's theory, and you know it. Yes, her temper's engaged, but Willie Alexander and a lot of other high-paid, high-powered types at the Foreign Ministry and in the intelligence services agree with her.

What was scariest about that particular analysis, in Michelle's opinion, was the possibility that the Republic might actually have had an at least plausible motive for killing off their own conference. Given the dispute over how the current war had started, Pritchart and her advisers would scarcely be likely to reinitiate operations in a way that openly sabotaged a peace conference she'd initiated. So if some inkling of the Star Kingdom's accelerated building programs or—far worse—some hint of Apollo's existence had somehow leaked to Nouveau Paris only after Pritchart had suggested her meeting with Elizabeth, and if Pritchart and Theisman had concluded that the newly discovered threat left them no option but to seek a decisive military victory before those ships or those new weapons could be added to the balance against them, then it was entirely possible that they would have been delighted if they could get Beth to kill the conference for them.

And if that was what lay behind this operation, whoever had planned it had shown a devastating grasp of Beth's psychology. The timing, and the technique, could not possibly have been better selected to drive Elizabeth Winton into an incandescent fury. Given the fact that the previous Havenite régime had already attempted to assassinate her and had succeeded in killing her uncle and cousin—who'd just happened to be Michelle's father and brother—and her beloved prime minister, expecting any other result would have been ludicrous. Not only that, but that assassination attempt had been planned and executed by Oscar Saint-Just for the express purpose of furthering a political strategy when he had no viable military strategy. So the theory that Pritchart—or some rogue element in her security services, Michelle reminded herself almost desperately—had deliberately chosen to use a variant on the same theme as a means to sabotage the summit meeting for some reason of their own was nowhere near as insane as Michelle would have preferred for it to be. In fact, she couldn't think of a single other hypothesis for why someone would have carried out those two particular assassinations in that particular fashion on the same damned day.

And Beth and her advisers are also right about who knew about the summit, she thought bleakly. If someone was actually out to sabotage it, they had to know about it in the first place, and who could possibly have found out in time to put something like this together? Word would still have had to get to them somehow, and they would've had to get their assassination orders out in time, and Manpower is too far away for that. You simply can't get dispatch boats back and forth between Mesa and Torch—or Nouveau Paris, for that matter!—quickly enough for them to have found out what was happening, formulated a plan to stop it, and sent out the execution orders. Even if they're using the Junction and Trevor's Star under cover of some legitimate corporation or news organization or diplomatic boat, they're just plain too far outside the command and control loop to physically pass the needed orders. For that matter, everyoneis outside the command and control loop . . . except, of course, for one of the two star nations setting the damned thing up in the first place! And even if you assume someone else did find out about it, and had time to set it up, what possible motive could that "someone else" have had for sabotaging a summit meeting like this one?

Well, if that was what the mastermind behind the operation had wanted, he'd gotten it. The same dispatch boat which had brought news of the attack on Torch had brought with it a copy of Elizabeth's white-hot denunciatory note to Eloise Pritchart. The note which had informed Pritchart that the Star Kingdom of Manticore would be resuming military operations immediately. And as a part of the shift in deployment stances that implied, Vice Admiral Blaine and Vice Admiral O'Malley had been ordered to concentrate all of their Home Fleet forces at the Lynx Terminus as quickly as possible.

Which was what had so thoroughly destabilized the preliminary plans she, Khumalo, Medusa, and Krietzmann had been working out.

At least they'd been in a position last night to discuss a few contingencies—like the Star Kingdom's potential withdrawal from the peace conference—without drawing official attention to them. Which meant that, little as any of them had cared for the possibility, she actually knew how the government and Vice Admiral Khumalo were likely to respond now.

"All right."

She let her chair come back upright, then swiveled it to face Lecter, Commodore Shulamit Onasis, and Captain Jerome Conner, the senior officer of BatCruDiv 106.1, the 106th's first division. Gervais Archer sat quietly to one side, taking notes, as always, and Onasis had brought her own chief of staff, Lieutenant Commander Dabney McIver, who was just as much a Gryphon highlander as Ron Larson, while Conner was accompanied by his executive officer, Commander Frazier Houseman.

Houseman had come as a considerable surprise to Michelle, and she looked forward to the first time he came face-to-face with Rear Admiral Oversteegen. Or, for that matter, with Honor! Houseman was a first cousin of Reginald Houseman, who was probably the single Manticoran political figure who most loathed Honor Harrington . . . and vice versa, since Pavel Young was dead. Of course, the competition for which politico most hated her would undoubtedly have been fierce, but Houseman had the unique distinction of being the only surviving member of the Manticoran political establishment who had been—literally—knocked on his wealthy, cowardly ass by Honor.

And of being loathed by the Navy in general almost as much as he was loathed by Honor.

His career and his influence alike had taken a powerful nosedive after that embarrassing little incident at Yeltsin's Star, although there were still members of his Liberal Party (such of it as survived, after its disastrous alliance with the Conservative Association in the High Ridge government) who continued to support him as a victim of "the Salamander's" notoriously brutal and vicious temperament. They were, however, noticeably thinner on the ground than they once had been. Perhaps that owed something to the fact that Houseman had accepted the position of Second Lord of Admiralty in the Janacek Admiralty. At the time, it had probably seemed like a good idea, since it had restored him to the first ranks of political power in the Star Kingdom and finally allowed him to do something about the "bloated and ridiculously over expensive" state of the Navy which he had decried for decades.

Unfortunately, it also meant he had been personally and directly responsible for planning and carrying out the Navy's deliberate build-down. Unlike Janacek, who had committed suicide when the enormity of his failure became obvious at the opening of the current war, Houseman had opted for the less drastic option of resigning his office in disgrace. And despite the investigation which had led directly to formal charges of corruption, malfeasance, bribery, and half a dozen other criminal activities on the part of Baron High Ridge, a dozen of his personal aides, eleven senior members of the Conservative Association in the House of Lords (including the current Earl of North Hollow), two Liberal Party peers, three unaligned peers, seventeen members of the Progressive Party's representation in the House of Commons, and over two dozen prominent members of the Manticoran business community, it appeared Houseman had at least not been guilty of any outright violations of the law.

Because of that, he had been able to retire into the safer, if far less prestigious (or remunerative), fields of academia. His sister, Jacqueline, had never been formally associated with the High Ridge Government, although her longtime position as one of Countess New Kiev's unofficial financial advisers had still managed to bring her into the outer radius of fallout when that government collapsed. Fortunately for New Kiev (and Jacqueline), New Kiev had probably been the only member of High Ridge's cabinet and inner circle who hadn't been personally party to any of his criminal activities.

Michelle found it difficult to believe the countess hadn't known anything about what was going on, however. Nor was she the only one. That very point had been raised quite broadly in the Star Kingdom's newsfaxes, and it had undoubtedly contributed to her disintegrating Liberal Party's decision to "regretfully accept her resignation" as its leader with indecent haste. Whether she'd actually known or not, she damned well ought to have known, in Michelle's opinion, but it truly did appear that her main offense (legally speaking, at least) had been terminal political stupidity. And it had been terminal. Her retirement as the Liberal Party's official leader had been followed by her virtual retirement from the House of Lords, as well, and it seemed obvious her political career was over. For that matter, despite the speed with which it had dumped her and sought to disassociate itself from the High Ridge "excesses," New Kiev's Liberal Party, which had been dominated by its aristocratic wing from its very inception, was also deceased for all intents and purposes. The new Liberal Party which had emerged under the leadership of the Honorable Catherine Montaigne, the ex-Countess of the Tor, was a very different—and much brawnier and less couth—creature than anything with which New Kiev had ever been associated, and the majority of its strength came from Montaigne's bloc in the House of Commons.

Personally, Michelle far preferred Montaigne's "Liberals" to New Kiev's "Liberals," and she always had.

But Jacqueline Houseman's associations had all been with the aristocratic old guard, and the fall of that old guard had pretty much cut off her access to the Manticoran political establishment, as well. Which hadn't exactly broken Michelle Henke's heart.

But then there was Frazier Houseman, the only son of Reginald and Jacqueline's Uncle Jasper. Frazier, unfortunately, looked as much like Reginald Houseman as Michael Oversteegen looked like a younger edition of his uncle . . . Michael Janvier, also known as the Baron of High Ridge. The fact that Michael despised the uncle for whom he had been named and thought most of the Conservative Association's political leaders between them hadn't had the intelligence of a rutabaga, didn't mean he didn't share his family's conservative and aristocratic view of the universe. He was considerably smarter than most of the Conservative Association, and (in Michelle's opinion) possessed of vastly more integrity, not to mention a powerful sense of noblesse oblige, but that didn't precisely make him the champion of egalitarianism. And the fact that Frazier despised his cousin and had been known, upon occasion, to remark that if Reginald and Jacqueline's brains had been fissionable material, both of them in combination probably wouldn't have sufficed to blow a gnat's nose, didn't mean that he didn't share his family's liberal and aristocratic view of the universe. Which would undoubtedly make the two of them the proverbial oil and water in any political discussion.

Fortunately—and this was the cause of Michelle's surprise—Frazier Houseman gave every appearance of being just as capable as an officer in Her Majesty's Navy as Michael Oversteegen was. Whether or not their mutual competence could overcome the inevitable political antipathy between them was another question, of course.

You have better things to do than think about Houseman's pedigree, she scolded herself. Besides, given the number of absolute idiots who have somehow ripened on your family tree over the centuries, you might want to be a little cautious about throwing first stones, even if you only do it inside your own head.

"I don't think our initial deployment plan is going to work anymore, Shulamit," she said out loud.

"I wish I could disagree with you, Ma'am," Onassis replied sourly. The commodore was a short, not particularly heavy but opulently curved brunette with what would probably have been called a "Mediterranean complexion" back on Old Terra. She was also quite attractive, despite her present thoughtful and unhappy scowl.

"At the same time, though, Admiral," Conner pointed out, "Admiral O'Malley's recall gives even more point to the necessity of getting someone out in the region of Monica to replace him ASAP."

"Agreed, Jerome. Agreed," Michelle said, nodding. "In fact, I think you and I are going to have to expedite the First Division's departure. I'm thinking now that we need to pay a 'courtesy visit' to Monica as quickly as possible, and then establish ourselves—or at least a couple of our ships—permanently at Tillerman. Where the main change is going to be necessary is in our original plans for Shulamit."

She swivelled her eyes back to Onassis.

"Instead of splitting your division up and sending it out to touch base with the various systems here in the Quadrant, I think we're going to need to keep you right here at Spindle, concentrated."

"I won't be accomplishing very much parked here in orbit, Ma'am," Onassis pointed out.

"Maybe not. But whether you'reactively accomplishing anything or not, you'll be doing something which has just become critical—keeping a powerful, concentrated force right here under Admiral Khumalo's hand. I need to be out there at Monica, just in case. At the same time, though, Admiral Khumalo needs a powerful naval element he can use as a fire brigade if something goes wrong while I'm away. And you, for your sins, are the squadron's second-ranking officer. That means you draw the short straw. Clear?"

"Clear, Ma'am." Onassis smiled briefly and sourly. "I said I wished I could disagree with you, and I do. Wish that, I mean. Unfortunately, I can't."

"I know you'd rather be doing something . . . more active," Michelle said sympathetically. "Unfortunately, they also serve who wait in orbit, and that's what you're going to have to do right now. Hopefully, once Rear Admiral Oversteegen comes forward, I can shuffle this off onto him. After all," she smiled a bit nastily, "he'll be Tenth Fleet's second-ranking officer. Which will just happen to make him ideal for leaving here in a central position whenever I can find a good reason I have to be somewhere else, won't it?"

Onassis grinned, and Captain Lecter smothered a chuckle. But then Michelle's expression sobered.

"I'd really prefer not to have any additional surprises from back home while I'm away, Shulamit. That doesn't necessarily mean it isn't going to happen. If it does, I expect you to give Admiral Khumalo and Baroness Medusa the full benefit of your own views and insights. Is that understood, as well?"

"Yes, Ma'am." Onassis nodded, and Michelle carefully did not nod back. That was about as close as she could come to telling Onassis that, despite her growing respect for Augustus Khumalo, she continued to cherish a few doubts where his purely military insight was concerned. She more than half-expected those doubts to die a natural death in the not too distant future, but until they did, it was one of her responsibilities to be sure he had the very best advice she could provide for him, whether she did the providing in person or by proxy.

"Very well," she said, checking the time display. "It's about time for lunch. I've asked Vicki and the other skippers and their XOs to join us, and I intend to make it a working meal. I also intend to tell all of them how pleased I am with the readiness state we've managed to attain. We still have a ways to go, but we're in far better shape than we were, and I expect that improvement to continue. And I am well aware that I owe everyone in this compartment a matching vote of thanks for that happy state of affairs. So, all of you, consider yourselves patted on the back."

Her subordinates smiled at her, and she smiled back, then braced both hands flat on the tabletop as she pushed herself to her feet.

"And on that note, I think I hear a Cobb salad calling my name. And since I do, it would only be courteous if I went and let it find me."

Chapter Nineteen

Aivars Aleksovitch Terekhov swung out of his pinnace's personnel tube and into the boat bay of HMSBlack Rose through the wailing twitter of the bosun's pipes. He released the grab bar, landed neatly outside the deck line, and saluted the boat bay officer of the deck as the bay sound system announced, "Hexapuma, arriving!"

"Permission to come aboard, Ma'am?" he said to the BBOD.

"Permission granted, Sir," the lieutenant replied, and Captain Vincenzo Terwilliger,Black Rose's commanding officer, was waiting to clasp Terekhov's hand in greeting.

"Welcome aboard, Aivars."

"Thank you, Sir," Terekhov told his old friend, then reached out to take the hand of a short, slender man in the uniform of a Manticoran vice admiral.

"Captain Terekhov," Vice Admiral O'Malley said quietly.

"Admiral."

Terekhov released O'Malley's hand and looked around the battlecruiser's boat bay. He'd always thought "Black Rose" was an unusually poetic name for a Manticoran battlecruiser, but he'd always rather liked it, too. And the reason O'Malley's flagship wore that name was that it—like the name of Terekhov's own heavy cruiser—was listed on the RMN's List of Honor, one of the names to be kept permanently in commission. Perhaps that was one reason he'd decided to come aboard and take his leave of O'Malley and Terwilliger face-to-face rather than simply bidding them—and the System of Monica—farewell over the com.

His mind ran back over the three months it had taken first Khumalo's repair ships and then the repair ships in O'Malley's support squadron, after the vice admiral had arrived and Khumalo had been able to head back to Spindle, to repairHexapuma and Warlock at least well enough for them to make the voyage home to Manticore under their own power. Altogether, he'd been in Monica for four T-months, and it seemed like a lifetime.

Actually, it was a lifetime for too many other people. Or the end of a lifetime, at any rate, he thought grimly, once again recalling the horrendous casualties his scratch built "squadron" had taken here. We got the job done, but, God, did it cost more than I ever dreamed it might! Even after Hyacinth.

"So you're finally ready, Captain," O'Malley observed, pulling his brain back to the present, and he nodded.

"Yes, Sir."

"I imagine you'll be glad to get home."

"Yes, Sir," Terekhov repeated. "Very glad. Ericsson and the other repair ships have done a remarkable job, but she really needs a full-scale shipyard."

Which, he reflected, was nothing less than the truth. And at least, unlike the older and even more heavily damagedWarlock,Hexapuma would be getting that shipyard's services. He didn't like to think about how long it was going to take to return her to active service even with them, but at least she'd be returning. Warlock, on the other hand, almost certainly would not. It wasn't official yet—it wouldn't be until she'd been surveyed back home at one of the space stations—and she deserved far better after all she'd done and given here, but she was simply too old, too small and outmoded, to be worth the cost of repair.

"Well, Captain," the vice admiral said, holding out his hand once more, "I'm sure the yard will put her back to rights quickly. We need her—and you—back in service. Godspeed, Captain."

"Thank you, Sir."

Terekhov shook his hand, then stepped back and saluted. The pipes wailed once more, the side party came back to attention, and he swung back into the personnel tube.

He swam the tube quickly, nodded to the flight engineer, and settled into his seat as the umbilicals disengaged and the pinnace began backing out of the docking arms under nose thrusters. His mind ran back through his brief visit to the flagship, and he wondered again why he'd made that visit in person. He doubted that he'd ever really be able to answer that question, although his present sense of satisfaction—of closure—told him it had been the right decision.

He frowned thoughtfully, gazing out the viewport as the pinnace cleared the threat perimeter of its impeller wedge from Black Rose and accelerated rapidly towards the waitingHexapuma. The two ships lay very close together in their parking orbits, separated by barely three times the width of the larger vessel's wedge. That was still too far apart for their relative size to be registered by the unassisted human eye, but Terekhov felt a familiar surge of pride asHexapuma swelled steadily as the pinnace approached her. His ship might be "only" a heavy cruiser, but she was a Saganami-C-class. At 483,000 tons, she was almost halfBlack Rose's size. Admittedly, she was far smaller compared to the RMN's more recent battlecruisers, but she was still a force to be reckoned with . . . as she'd demonstrated rather conclusively four months ago here in Monica.

Now, as he'd told O'Malley, it was time to take her home once more.

"Captain on the Bridge!" the quartermaster of the watch announced as Terekhov stepped ontoHexapuma's command deck.

"As you were," Terekhov said as the bridge watch started to come to its collective feet, and made a note to have a word with the quartermaster in question. Or, better yet, to have the XO have that word with her, which would probably feel less threatening to her. After all, Petty Officer 1/c Cheryl Clifford was young for her rate, one of the people who'd been promoted in the wake ofHexapuma's casualties. This was her first watch as bridge quartermaster, and it wouldn't do to step on her too hard . . . especially when her announcement was perfectly correct, according to The Book. It was not, however, Terekhov's preferred procedure. Like many of the younger captains in Manticoran service, he was normally less concerned about formalities on the bridge than he was about efficiency.

Ansten FitzGerald, however, continued to rise. He'd been sitting in the command chair at the center of the bridge, and Terekhov stepped across to him quickly.

It took a conscious effort on Terekhov's part not to reach out an assisting hand. Naomi Kaplan had been evacuated to Manticore aboard the high-speed medical transport which had departed along with Augustus Khumalo the day after O'Malley's arrival. Which, ironically, meant the tactical officer was almost certain to be returned to duty sooner than Fitzgerald. Although his wounds had been less serious, the medical technology available at Bassingford Medical Center, the huge (and, unfortunately, growing of late) hospital complex the Royal Manticoran Navy maintained just outside the City of Landing, was going to put Kaplan back on her feet much more quickly. "Less serious" than her massive skull trauma, however, didn't turn FitzGerald's injuries into "just a scratch," and the medical officers had . . . strongly suggested that he accompany her. But, as Terekhov had told Ginger Lewis, Ansten was a stubborn man. He'd been determined to return to Manticore with his ship, and Terekhov hadn't been able to bring himself to overrule his exec.

Acting Ensign Aikawa Kagiyama, currently standing his watch at Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri's elbow asHexapuma's assistant communications officer, watched FitzGerald out of the corner of his eye. He had a distinct tendency to hover with what he obviously thought was unobtrusive worry where FitzGerald was concerned. It was rather touching, actually, Terekhov thought, although from the gleam in FitzGerald's eye, the XO found it at least equally amusing, as well.

"I have the ship, Mr. FitzGerald," Terekhov said formally, stepping past FitzGerald and seating himself in the command chair.

"You have the ship, Sir," FitzGerald acknowledged, and straightened his spine just a bit cautiously as he clasped his hands behind him.

"Anything fromBlack Rose, Communications?"

"Yes, Sir," Nagchaudhuri replied. "Vice Admiral O'Malley wishes us a quick—and uneventful—voyage."

"Well, that's certainly something I think we could all appreciate," Terekhov said dryly, and glanced across at Lieutenant Commander Tobias Wright,Hexapuma's astrogator.

"May I assume, Toby, that with your customary efficiency you have already computed our course?"

"Unfortunately, Sir, in this case I haven't," Wright replied with a sorrowful expression. The astrogator was the youngest of Terekhov's senior officers, and normally the most reserved. It turned out that he'd always had a lively sense of humor behind that reserved façade, however, and it had bubbled to the surface after the Battle of Monica. Which probably said something interesting about his basic personality, Terekhov reflected.

"I'm afraid," Wright continued, "that this time we're all dependent on Enign Zilwicki's astrogation."

"Oh dear," Terekhov said. He looked at the sturdily built young woman sitting beside Wright and shook his head with a doubtful air. "Dare I hope, Ms. Zilwicki, that this time you've done your sums correctly?"

"I've certainly tried to, Sir," Helen replied earnestly.

"Then I suppose that will have to do."

Several people chuckled. Astrogation wasn't precisely Helen's favorite occupation, and everyone knew it. By now, in fact, Terekhov reflected, there was very little about anyone in Hexapuma's company which "everyone" didn't know. Despite her impressive tonnage and firepower, the cruiser's total complement was little larger than a prewar destroyer's, and her ship's company had been through a lot together. They were all keel-plate owners, as well, and he knew that, like him, all of them already understood perfectly well that there would never be another ship like Hexapuma. Not for them, not ever.

His own awareness of that fact seemed to flow outward, settling across the entire bridge crew. Not oppressively, but almost . . . comfortingly. His subordinates' smiles didn't disappear; instead, they faded gradually into more serious expressions, as if their owners were soberly reflecting upon all they and their ship had endured and accomplished. Something very like love washed through Aivars Terekhov, and his nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply.

"All right, then, Astro," he said. "Let's go home."

"So what do you make of the Manties's latest little trick?" Albrecht Detweiler asked sourly.

He, Benjamin, and Daniel reclined on chaise lounges under the baking sun while turquoise waves and creamy surf piled on the eye-wateringly white beach, and despite the restfulness of their surroundings, his expression was as sour as his tone.

"You know, Father," Benjamin replied a bit obliquely with a slight smile, "you're a hard man to please, sometimes. We've got the Manties and the Havenites shooting at each other again. Wasn't that what you wanted?"

"I may be a hard man to please sometimes," Albrecht retorted, "but you're a disrespectful young whelp, sometimes, aren't you?"

"Isn't that one of my functions?" Benjamin's smile grew a bit broader. "You know, the lowly slave riding in the back of the chariot reminding Caesar he's only mortal while the crowd cheers."

"I wonder how many of those slaves actually survived the experience?" Albrecht wondered aloud.

"Odd how the history chips don't offer much information on that particular aspect of things," Benjamin agreed. Then his smile faded. "Seriously, though, Father, at this distance and this remove from Lovat it's hard to form any significant or meaningful opinion of what they've done this time."

Albrecht grunted in semi-irate acknowledgment of Benjamin's point. Even with streak-drive dispatch boats, there was a limit to how quickly information could get around. And to be honest, they were overusing the Beowulf conduit, as far as he was concerned. He knew there was nothing to distinguish a streak-drive equipped vessel from any other dispatch boat as far as any external examination was concerned, but he didn't like sending them back and forth between Mesa and Manticore any more frequently than he had to. Beowulf had closed its terminus of the Manticore Wormhole Junction to all Mesan traffic from the day of its discovery, with Manticore's complete support and approval. None of the dispatch boats of the Beowulf conduit were Mesan-registered, of course, but there was always the unhappy possibility that Beowulfan or Manticoran intelligence might manage to penetrate that particular deception. It was unlikely in the extreme, but the Alignment had developed a wary respect for both Beowulf's and Manticore's analysts over the decades.

But there's not really any choice, he told himself. It's only sixty light-years from Beowulf to Mesa via the Visigoth Wormhole. That's only five days for a streak boat. We can't possibly justify not using that advantage at a time like this, so I guess I'll just have to hope the wheels don't come off.

If he'd been the sort of man who believed in God, Albrecht Detweiler would have spent a few moments in fervent prayer that the wheels in question would remain firmly attached to the vehicle. Since he wasn't that sort of man, he only shook his head.

"One thing we do know is that Harrington just shot the shit out of another Havenite ambush attempt, though," he pointed out.

"Yes, we do," Benjamin agreed. "But we don't have any hard and fast numbers on the two sides' force levels, either. We think she was significantly outnumbered, but it's not exactly like the Manties' press releases are going to give out detailed strength reports on Eighth Fleet, now is it? And despite Collin's and Bardasano's best efforts, we still haven't been able to get anyone far enough inside the Manties' navy to give us that kind of information."

"That's all true enough, Ben," Daniel said. "On the other hand, there are a few straws in the wind. For example, it sounds like they've managed to improve the accuracy of their MDMs by a hell of a lot. And I'm inclined to think—mind you, I haven't had a chance yet for any sort of rigorous analysis of what information we do have—that the Havenites' missile defenses' effectiveness must've been reduced rather significantly, as well. Unless Harrington was reinforced a lot more powerfully than any of our admittedly limited sources have suggested, then the Manties' announced kills represent an awfully high ratio for the number of hulls they could have committed to the operation."

"I'd have to agree with that," Benjamin conceded. "Do you or your people have any idea about just how they might have accomplished that, though?"

Just as Everett Detweiler was the ultimate director of all of the Alignment's biosciences research and development, Daniel was the director ofnon-bioscience R&D, which meant he and Benjamin normally worked very closely together.

"I can only speculate," Daniel replied, looking at his brother, and Benjamin nodded in acknowledgment of the caveat. "Having said that, however," Daniel continued, "I'd have to say this sounds an awful lot like it's another example of their damned FTL capability."

He grimaced sourly. He felt fairly confident that his research people had finally figured out essentially what Manticore was doing, but duplicating the ability to create grav-pulses along the hyper-space alpha wall in anything but the crudest possible fashion wasn't a particularly simple proposition. It was going to take a lot of basic research to figure out how they were doing it, and even longer to duplicate their hardware, given that the Alignment, unlike the Republic of Haven, hadn't been able to lay its hands on any working examples of the technology.

And even the frigging Havenites can't begin to do it as well as the Manties can . . . yet, at least, he reminded himself once again.

"If I'm right about what they're doing, it's the next logical extension of what they've already accomplished, in a lot of ways," he said out loud. "We know they've got FTL-capable reconnaissance drones, so theoretically there isn't any reason they couldn't eventually cram the same capability into something the size of an MDM."

"Come on, Daniel!" Benjamin protested. "There's a hell of a size difference between a reconnaissance drone and even one of their big-assed missiles! And most missiles I know anything about are already crammed just about as full as they can be with other absolutely essential bits. Where would they put the damned thing?"

"I did say it wastheoretically possible," Daniel pointed out mildly. "We couldn't do it, I'm pretty sure, even if we were certain how they were managing it in the first place. Not yet. But that's the significant point here, Ben—not yet. They've been using this thing for over twenty T-years, and they thought it up, in the first place. That means they know how to do it better than anyone else does, and it's obvious from the hardware they've deployed that they've been progressively downsizing the volume and mass constraints—and upsizing bandwidth—steadily. If I had to guess, I'd say that what they've probably done is to somehow squeeze an FTL receiver into a standard MDM. If they were to deploy one of their drones close enough to the target—and we know their stealth systems are probably as good as our own, if not better—then they'd have an effective FTL command and control loop. That would probably help to explain not only the increased accuracy, but also the apparent decrease in the effectiveness of the Havenites' defenses, as well. It would let the Manties manage their attack profiles and penetration EW on something a lot closer to a real-time basis than anyone has been able to manage since they started pushing missile ranges up in the first place."

"Does that sound reasonable to you, Ben?" Albrecht asked after a long, thoughtful moment, and Benjamin nodded. It was evident from his expression that he didn't much care for his brother's hypothesis, but he nodded.

"If Dan is right, though, then this constitutes a major—another major—shift in the balance of military capabilities, Father," he said. "Unless my staff's analysis of the two sides' overall relative ship strengths is way off, I don't think there's any way Haven is going to have enough of a numerical advantage to take Manticore out. Not if the Manties are able to get this thing into general deployment, at any rate. And once they do have it into general deployment, and their new construction programs start delivering, they're going to make what White Haven did to the Havenites in the last war look like a squabble at a kids' picnic."

"And even if Haven somehow manages to survive, it's only going to mean both of them are going to develop this capability—or at least its rough equivalent," Albrecht observed sourly.

"I'd say that follows logically, Father," Daniel agreed. "Haven comes closest to matching the Manties' capabilities already. Their education system sucks, but they're fixing that. In fact, let's be fair, the main thing that was wrong with it to begin with wasn't that they didn't have at least a core cadre of competent teachers and scientists. It was that the Legislaturalists had managed to hobble the general system with so much political indoctrination and water it down with so much 'feel-good' insistence on passing students regardless of their actual academic achievements, that the ratio of competent researchers to useless drones was so far lower than Manticore's. Research priorities tended to be assigned on the basis of who the researchers' patrons were, rather than any impartial analysis of potential benefits, too. And the fact that they'd made so little investment in basic infrastructure improvement meant even the competent researchers they had didn't have the resources or the sophisticated industrial platform Manticore had, either, regardless of who their patrons might've been. But they always had a bigger talent pool than most people would have thought looking at what they managed to accomplish, and whoever's running their R and D now is obviously making the best possible use of the pool they have.

"Not only that, but they're the only ones who really have access to firsthand sensor readouts and observational data, not to mention captured hardware to examine. And let's not forget the old saying about the man about to be hanged. They have a considerably more pressing motivation to figure out what the Manties are up to, or at least how to counter whatever they're up to, even than we do. So either they're going to figure out how to do this—or something like it—on their own, or else they're going to get plowed under, like Ben says. And if Manticore doesn't completely disarm them, then they're going to do exactly what they did after the last war and go away and think about it until they have figured out how to do it. We'd probably have at least a few more years before they managed that, under that scenario, but that would be about it."

"Don't you think the Manties would insist on their complete disarmament this time, given what happened last time?" Albrecht asked.

"I think I would, in their place," Benjamin said before Daniel could answer. "On the other hand, let's say they do make that demand. Do you really think even Manticore could ultimately keep Haven from managing a secret rearmament program somewhere? I'm not talking about the short term. But as time passed, I'm sure someone who's already figured out how to build a completely secret shipyard complex and R and D center once could figure out how to do it again. It would still be the best-case scenario from our perspective, though, since I don't think it's very likely Haven could manage to pull it off before we were ready. And I imagine Manticore would probably accept at least a modest build-down in its own active wallers once it had disarmed Haven."

"Against which, they'd have the countervailing pressure to maintain fleet strength if this expansion of theirs into Talbott and Silesia prospers," Albrecht observed.

"Probably." Benjamin shrugged. "The problem is that all we can do at this point is speculate, and we don't have enough information—or enough penetration, especially of the Manties, to get enough information—to base any sort of solid projections on."

"Assume Daniel's hypothesis is accurate," Albrecht said. "On that basis, does this represent a significant threat to Oyster Bay?"

"No," Benjamin said promptly. "It's not range or fire control that could hurt us where Oyster Bay itself is concerned, Father, and there's absolutely no evidence that anyone else anywhere, even the Manties, has remotely considered the possibility of the spider. If they don't know about it, then the odds of their ever even seeing Oyster Bay are virtually nil. If they do find out about the spider, though, and if they have time to develop some sort of countermeasure, then this could be a major problem for us in any period of sustained warfare."

"So our real best-case scenario would be to see the Manties finished off before they get it into general deployment," Albrecht mused.

"Yes, it would," Benjamin agreed, looking at him a bit warily.

"Could you expedite Oyster Bay?"

"Not significantly, Father." Benjamin shook his head with the expression of a man who'd heard pretty much what he'd been afraid he was going to hear. "The spider is an entirely new technology. Daniel and I think we've gotten all of the bugs out of it, but like I told you before, we're still prototyping. Technically, I suppose, the Sharks are warships, but their primary function's always been to serve as testbeds and training vessels, not strike units. I don't see any way we could produce enough of the new hardware to carry out Oyster Bay much sooner than we've already been projecting."

"I see." Albrecht's expression was enough like Benjamin's to make it obvious he'd expected that response, and it was his turn to shrug. "In that case, I think this whole Lovat business gives rather more point to the desirability of remounting the Monica operation, covered by an appropriately new lambskin, as soon as we can, doesn't it?"

Chapter Twenty

"You wanted to see me, Albrecht?"

Albrecht Detweiler turned from his contemplation of the panorama of sugar-white beaches beyond his luxurious officer's windows as the dark-haired, boldly tattooed woman stepped through its door.

"Yes, I believe I did," he observed, and tilted one hand to indicate one of the chairs in front of his desk.

Isabel Bardasano obeyed the wordless command, sitting with a certain almost dangerous grace and crossing her legs as he walked back from the windows to his own chair. Her expression was attentive, and he reflected once again upon the lethality behind her . . . ornamented façade.

Bardasano belonged to one of Mesa's "young lodges," which explained the tattoos and the elaborate body piercings. The young lodges represented a "new generation" of the Mesan corporate hierarchy, one which had embraced a deliberately flamboyant lifestyle, flaunting its wealth and power under the nose of a virtuously disapproving galaxy. Very few members of any of the lodges had been admitted to the full truth of Mesa's plans, for several reasons. The largest one was that the wealth, sense of privilege, and arrogance which underlay their flamboyance had been deliberately encouraged as one more sign of Manpower and its fellow outlaw corporations' excesses and general degeneracy. It had been more necessary than ever to distract attention from the Alignment's activities now that the culminating moment was so rapidly approaching, and the "young lodges" had done that quite well. Of course, their members' lifestyles had also made them rather more vulnerable to the activities of the Audubon Ballroom's assassins. That was unfortunate, but all the genotypes in question had been conserved elsewhere, and it had been well worth the price tag in terms of misdirection. And if it also convinced the rest of the galaxy that Mesa at large was increasingly dominated by hedonistic sybarites and useless drones, so much the better.

But some of those "hedonistic sybarites" were anything but useless drones, and Bardasano was a prime example. In fact, she was the prime example. The Bardasano genotype had been notable for at least half a dozen generations for its intelligence and ruthless determination. There'd been a few unfortunate and unintended traits, as well, unhappily, and at one point there'd been serious consideration of simply culling the line's last several iterations and starting over again from a significantly earlier point. The positive traits had been so strong, however, that a remedial program had been instituted, instead, and Isabel was the current example of how successful it had been. It had been necessary to eliminate two of her immediate predecessors when their inherent ruthlessness had made them just a bit too ambitious for anyone else's good, but intelligent ambition, properly tempered, was always a useful thing, as Bardasano herself demonstrated. And if there was still a slight tendency towards sexual disorders and mildly sociopathic behaviors, neither of those posed any serious handicap, especially for someone whose area of expertise was covert operations. Of course, they'd have to be dealt with in the next generation or two if the Bardasano line was going to earn back permanent alpha status within the Alignment, which Isabel understood.

In the meantime, however, she was quite possibly the best covert ops specialist the Alignment had produced in at least the last T-century. It amused Detweiler that those outside the Alignment's innermost circle often cherished doubts about Bardasano's sanity, particularly when it came to her attitude towards him. The fact that it was well known within Mesa's star lines that the Bardasanos had almost been culled meant that her apparent insouciance with him only added to her reputation for . . . oddness, and provided a valuable extra level of protection when he or one of his sons called upon her services. As he gazed at her across the desk, he toyed once more with the notion of telling her that a cross between the Bardasano and Detweiler genotypes was even then being evaluated, but decided against it. For now, at least.

"Well," he said, tipping back slightly in his chair, "I'd have to say that so far, at least, removing Webster—and, of course, Operation Rat Poison—seems to be working out quite well. Aside from whatever new weapons goody the Manties seem to have come up with."

"So far," she agreed, but there was the merest hint of a reservation in her tone, and his eyebrows arched.

"Something about it concerns you?"

"Yes, and no," she replied.

He waggled his fingers in a silent command to continue, and she shrugged.

"So far, and in the short term, it's had exactly the effect we wanted," she said. "I'm not talking about whatever they did at Lovat, you understand. That's outside my area of expertise, and I'm sure Benjamin and Daniel already have their people working on that full time. If either of them needs my help, I'm sure they'll tell me so, as well. But leaving that aside, it does look like we got what we wanted out of the assassinations. The Manties—or, at least, a sufficient majority of them—are convinced Haven was behind it; the summit's been derailed; and it looks as if we've managed to deepen Elizabeth's distrust of Pritchart even further. I'm just not entirely happy with the fact that we had to mount both operations in such a relatively tight time frame. I don't like improvisation, Albrecht. Careful analysis and thorough preparation have served us entirely too well for entirely too long for me to be happy flying by the seat of my pants, whatever the others on the Strategy Council may think."

"Point taken," Detweiler acknowledged. "And it's a valid point, too. Benjamin, Collin, and I have been discussing very much the same considerations. Unfortunately, we've come to the conclusion that we're going to have to do more and more of it, not less, as we move into the end game phase. You know that's always been part of our projections."

"Of course. That doesn't make me any happier when it's forced upon us, though. And I really don't want us to get into a make-it-up-as-we-go-along mindset just because we're moving into the end game. The two laws I try hardest to bear in mind are the law of unintended consequences and Murphy's, Albrecht. And, let's face it, there are some fairly significant potential unintended consequences to eliminating Webster and attacking 'Queen Berry.' "

"There usually are at least some of those," Detweiler pointed out. "Are there specific concerns in this case?"

"Actually, there are a couple of things that worry me," she admitted, and his eyes narrowed. He'd learned, over the years, to trust Bardasano's internal radar. She was wrong sometimes, but at least whenever she had reservations she was willing to go out on a limb and admit it, rather than pretending she thought everything was just fine. And if she was sometimes wrong, she was right far more often.

"Tell me."

"First and foremost," she responded, "I'm still worried about someone's figuring out how we're doing it and tracing it back to us. I know no one's come close to finding the proverbial smoking gun yet . . . so far as we know, at any rate. But the Manties are a lot better at bioscience than the Andermani or Haven. Worse, they've got ready access to Beowulf."

Detweiler's jaw tightened in an involuntary, almost Pavlovian response to that name. The automatic spike of anger it provoked was the next best thing to instinctual, and he reminded himself yet again of the dangers of allowing it to affect his thinking.

"I doubt even Beowulf will be able to put it together quickly," he said after a moment. "I don't doubt they could eventually, with enough data. They certainly have the capability, at any rate, but given how quickly the nanites break down, it's extremely unlikely they're going to have access to any of the cadavers in a short enough timeframe to determine anything definitive. All of Everett's and Kyprianou's studies and simulations point in that direction. Obviously, it's a concern we have to bear in mind, but we can't allow that possibility to scare us into refusing to use a capability we need."

"I'm not saying we should, only pointing out a potential danger. And, to be frank, I'm less worried about some medical examiner's figuring it out forensically than I am about someone reaching the same conclusion—that it's a bioweapon and that we're the ones who developed it—by following up other avenues."

"What sort of 'other avenues'?" he asked, eyes narrowing once again.

"According to our current reports, Elizabeth herself and most of Grantville's government, not to mention the Manty in the street, are absolutely convinced it was Haven. Most of them seem to share Elizabeth's theory that for some unknown reason Pritchart decided her initial proposal for a summit had been a mistake. None of them have any convincing explanation for what that 'unknown reason' might have been, however. And some of them—particularly White Haven and Harrington—don't seem very convinced it was Haven at all. Since the High Ridge collapse, we no longer have enough penetration to absolutely confirm something like that, unfortunately, but the sources we still do have all point in that direction. Please bear in mind, of course, that it takes time for information from our best surviving sources to reach us. It's not like we can ask the newsies about these things the way we can clip stories about military operations like Lovat, for example. At this point, and even using dispatch boats with streak capability on the Beowulf conduit, we're still talking about very preliminary reports."

"Understood. Go on."

"What concerns me most," she continued with a slight shrug, "is that once Elizabeth's immediate response has had a little time to cool, White Haven and Harrington are still two of the people whose judgment she most trusts. I think both of them are too smart to push her too hard on this particular issue at this moment, but neither of them is especially susceptible to spouting the party line if they don't actually share it, either. And despite the way her political opponents sometimes caricature Elizabeth, she's a very smart woman in her own right. So if two people whose judgment she trusts are quietly but stubbornly convinced that there's more going on here than everyone else has assumed, she's just likely to be more open-minded where that possibility is concerned than even she realizes she is.

"What else concerns me is that there are two possible alternative scenarios for who was actually responsible for both attacks. One, of course, is that it was us—or, at least, Manpower. The second is that it was, in fact, a Havenite operation, but not one sanctioned by Pritchart or anyone in her administration. In other words, that it was mounted by a rogue element within the Republic which is opposed to ending the war.

"Of the two, the second is probably the more likely . . . and the less dangerous from our perspective. Mind you, it would be bad enough if someone could convince Elizabeth and Grantville that Pritchart's offer had been genuine and that sinister and evil elements—possibly throwbacks to the bad old days of State Security—decided to sabotage it. Even if that turned around Elizabeth's position on a summit, it wouldn't lead anyone directly to us, though. And it's not going to happen overnight, either. My best guess is that even if someone suggested that theory to Elizabeth today—for that matter, someone may already have done just that—it would still take weeks, probably months, for it to reach the point of changing her mind. And now that they've resumed operations, the momentum of fresh casualties and infrastructure damage is going to be strongly against any effort to resurrect the original summit agreement even if she does change her mind.

"The first possibility, however, worries me more, although I'll admit it would appear to be a lower order probability, so far, at least. At the moment, the fact that they're convinced they're looking at a Havenite assassination technique is diverting attention from us and all of the reasons we might have for killing Webster or Berry Zilwicki. But if someone manages to demonstrate that there has to be an undetectable bio-nanite component to how the assassins are managing these 'adjustments,' the immediate corollary to that is going to be a matching suspicion that even if Haven is using the technique, it didn't develop the technique. The Republic simply doesn't have the capability to put something like this together for itself, and no one as smart as Patricia Givens is going to believe for a moment that it does. And that, Albrecht, is going to get that same smart person started thinking about who did develop it. It could have come from any of several places, but as soon as anyone starts thinking in that direction, the two names that are going to pop to the top of their list are Mesa and Beowulf, and I don't think anyone is going to think those sanctimonious bastards on Beowulf would be making something like this available. In which case Manpower's reputation is likely to bite us on the ass. And the fact that both the Manties and the Havenites' intelligence services are aware of the fact that 'Manpower' has been recruiting ex-StateSec elements is likely to suggest the possibility of a connection between us and some other StateSec element, possibly hiding in the underbrush of the current Republic. Which is entirely too close to the truth to make me feel particularly happy.

"That could be bad enough. If they reach that point, however, they may very well be willing to go a step further. If we're supplying the technology to some rogue element in Haven, then what would keep us from using it ourselves? And if they ask themselves that question, then all of the motives we might have—all of the motives they already know about because of Manpower, even without the additional ones we actually do have—are going to spring to their attention."

Detweiler swung his chair gently from side to side for several seconds, considering what she'd said, then grimaced.

"I can't disagree with the downsides of either of your scenarios, Isabel. Still, I think it comes under the heading of what I said earlier—the fact that we can't allow worry about things which may never happen to prevent us from using necessary techniques where we have to. And as you've just pointed out, the probability of anyone deciding it was us—or, at least, that it was us acting for ourselves, rather than simply a case of Haven's contracting out the 'wet work' to a third-party—is low."

"Low isn't the same thing as nonexistent," Bardasano countered. "And something else that concerns me is that I have an unconfirmed report Zilwicki and Cachat visited Harrington aboard her flagship at Trevor's Star."

"Visited Harrington?" Detweiler said a bit more sharply, letting his chair come upright. "Why is this the first I'm hearing about this?"

"Because the report came in on the same streak boat that confirmed Elizabeth's cancellation of the summit," she said calmly. "I'm still working my way through everything that was downloaded from it, and the reason I requested this meeting, frankly, has to do with the possibility that the two of them actually did meet with her."

"At Trevor's Star?" Detweiler's tone was that of a man repeating what she'd said for emphasis, not dubiously or in denial, and she nodded.

"As I say, it's an unconfirmed report. I really don't know how much credibility to assign it at this point. But if it's accurate, Zilwicki took his frigate to Trevor's Star, with Cachat—a known Havenite spy, for God's sake!—on board, which would mean they were allowed transit through the wormhole—and into close proximity to Harrington's fleet units—despite the fact that the entire system's been declared a closed military area by Manticore, with 'Shoot on Sight' orders plastered all over the shipping channels and newsfaxes and nailed up on every flat surface of the Trevor's Star terminus' warehousing and service platforms. Not to mention the warning buoys posted all around the system perimeter for any through traffic stupid enough to head in-system from the terminus! And it would also appear that Harrington not only met with Cachat but allowed him to leave, afterward. Which suggests to me that she gave fairly strong credence to whatever it was they had to say to her. And, frankly, I can't think of anything the two of them might have to say to her that we'd like for her to hear."

Detweiler snorted harshly in agreement.

"You're right about that," he said. "On the other hand, I'm sure you have at least a theory about the specific reasons for their visit. So be a fly on her bulkhead and tell me what they probably said to her."

"My guess would be that the main point they wanted to make was that Cachat hadn't ordered Rat Poison. Or, at least, that neither he nor any of his operatives had carried it out. And if he was willing to confirm his own status as Trajan's man in Erewhon, the fact that he hadn't carried it out—assuming she believed him—would clearly be significant. And, unfortunately, there's every reason to think she would believe him if he spoke to her face to face."

Detweiler throttled another, possibly even sharper spike of anger. He knew what Bardasano was getting it. Wilhelm Trajan was Pritchart's handpicked director for the Republic's Foreign Intelligence Service. He didn't have the positive genius for improvisational covert operations that Kevin Usher possessed, but Pritchart had decided she needed Usher for the Federal Investigation Agency. And whatever else might have been true about Trajan, his loyalty to the Constitution and Eloise Pritchart—in that order—was absolute. He'd been relentless in his efforts to purge FIS of any lingering StateSec elements, and there was no way in the world he would have mounted a rogue operation outside channels. Which meant the only way Rat Poison could have been mounted without Cachat knowing all about it would have been as a rogue operation originating at a much lower level and using an entirely different set of resources.

That was bad enough, but the real spark for his anger was Bardasano's indirect reference to the never-to-be-sufficiently-damned treecats of Sphinx. For such small, fuzzy, outwardly lovable creatures, they had managed to thoroughly screw over altogether too many covert operations—Havenite and Mesan alike—over the years. Especially in partnership with that bitch Harrington. If Cachat had gotten into voice range of Harrington, that accursed treecat of hers would know whether or not he was telling the truth.

"When did this conversation take place, according to your 'unconfirmed report'?"

"About a T-week after Elizabeth fired off her note. The report about it came from one of our more carefully protected sources, though, which means there was even more delay than usual in getting it to us. One of the reasons it's still unconfirmed is that there was barely time for it to catch the regular intel drop."

"So there was time for Harrington to go and repeat whatever they told her to Elizabeth or Grantville even before she headed out for Lovat, without our knowing anything about it."

"Yes." Bardasano shrugged. "Frankly, I don't think there's very much chance of Elizabeth or Grantville buying Haven's innocence, no matter what Cachat may have told Harrington. All he can tell them is that as far as he knows Haven didn't do it, after all, and even if they accept that he was telling her the truth in so far as he knew it, that wouldn't mean he was right. Even if he's convinced Harrington he truly believes Haven didn't do it, that's only his personal opinion . . . and it's damned hard to prove a negative without at least some outside evidence to back it up. So I strongly doubt that anything they may have said to her, or that she may have repeated to anyone else, is going to sidetrack the resumption of operations. And, as I said before, now that blood's started getting shed again, the war is going to take on its own momentum all over again, as well.

"What worries me quite a bit more than what Zilwicki and Cachat may have told Harrington, frankly, is that we don't know where they went after they left her. We've always known they're both competent operators, and they've shown an impressive ability to analyze any information they get their hands on. Admittedly, that's hurt us worse tactically than strategically so far, and there's no evidence—yet—that they've actually begun peeling the onion. But if Cachat is combining Haven's sources with what Zilwicki is getting from the Ballroom, I'd say they're more likely than anyone else to start putting inconvenient bits and pieces together. Especially after they start looking really closely at Rat Poison and how it could have happened if Haven didn't do it. Working on their own, they can't call on the organizational infrastructure Givens or Trajan have access to, but they've got plenty of ability, plenty of motivation, and entirely too many sources."

"And the last thing we need is for those Ballroom lunatics to realize we've been using them for the better part of a century and a half," Detweiler growled.

"I don't know if it's absolutely the last thing we need, but it would definitely be on my list of the top half-dozen or so things we'd really like not to happen," Bardasano said with a sour smile, and, despite himself, Detweiler chuckled harshly.

The gusto with which the Audubon Ballroom had gone after Manpower and all its works had been one more element, albeit an unknowing and involuntary one, in camouflaging the Alignment's true activities and objectives. The fact that at least some of Manpower's senior executives were members of at least the Alignment's outer circle meant one or two of the Ballroom's assassinations had hurt them fairly badly over the years. Most of those slaughtered by the vengeful ex-slaves, however, were little more than readily dispensed with red herrings, an outer layer of "the onion" no one would really miss, and the bloody warfare between the "outlaw corporation" and its "terrorist" opposition had helped focus attention on the general mayhem and divert it away from what was really going on.

Yet useful as that had been, it had also been a two-edged sword. Since all but a very tiny percentage of Manpower's organization was unaware of any deeper hidden purpose, the chance that the Ballroom would become aware of it was slight. But the possibility had always existed, and no one who had watched the Ballroom penetrate Manpower's security time and time again would ever underestimate just how dangerous people like Jeremy X and his murderous henchmen could prove if they ever figured out what was truly going on and decided to change their target selection criteria. And if Zilwicki and Cachat actually were moving towards putting things together . . .

"How likely do you really think it is that the two of them could pull enough together to compromise things at this stage?" he asked finally.

"I doubt anyone could possibly answer that question. Not in any meaningful way, at any rate," Bardasano admitted. "The possibility always exists, though, Albrecht. We've buried things as deeply as we can, we've put together cover organizations and fronts, and we've done everything we can to build in multiple layers of diversion. But the bottom line is that we've always relied most heavily on the fact that 'everyone knows' what Manpower is and what it wants. I'd have to say the odds are heavily against even Zilwicki and Cachat figuring out that what 'everyone knows' is a complete fabrication, especially after we've had so long to put everything in place. It is possible, however, and I think—as I've said—that if anyone can do it, the two of them would be the most likely to pull it off."

"And we don't know where they are at the moment?"

"It's a big galaxy," Bardasano pointed out. "We know where they were two T-weeks ago. I can mobilize our assets to look for them, and we could certainly use all of our Manpower sources for this one without rousing any particular suspicion. But you know as well as I do that what that really amounts to is waiting in place until they wander into our sights."

Detweiler grimaced again. Unfortunately, she was right, and he did know it.

"All right," he said, "I want them found. I recognize the limitations we're facing, but find them as quickly as you can. When you do, eliminate them."

"That's more easily said than done. As Manpower's attack on Montaigne's mansion demonstrates."

"That was Manpower, not us," Detweiler riposted, and it was Bardasano's turn to nod.

One of the problems with using Manpower as a mask was that too many of Manpower's executives had no more idea than the rest of the galaxy that anyone was using them. Which meant it was also necessary to give those same executives a loose rein in order to keep them unaware of that inconvenient little truth . . . which could produce operations like that fiasco in Chicago or the attack on Catherine Montaigne's mansion on Manticore. Fortunately, even operations which were utter disasters from Manpower's perspective seldom impinged directly on the Alignment's objectives. And the occasional Manpower catastrophe helped contribute to the galaxy at large's notion of Mesan clumsiness.

"If we find them, this time it won't be Manpower flailing around on its own," Detweiler continued grimly. "It will be us—you. And I want this given the highest priority, Isabel. In fact, the two of us need to sit down and discuss this with Benjamin. He's got at least a few spider units available now—he's been using them to train crews and conduct working up exercises and systems evaluations. Given what you've just said, I think it might be worthwhile to deploy one of them to Verdant Vista. The entire galaxy knows about that damned frigate of Zilwicki's. I think it might be time to arrange a little untraceable accident for it."

Bardasano's eyes widened slightly, and she seemed for a moment to hover on the brink of a protest. But then she visibly thought better of it. Not, Detweiler felt confident, because she was afraid to argue the point if she thought he was wrong or that he was running unjustifiable risks. One of the things that made her so valuable was the fact that she'd never been a yes-woman. If she did disagree with him, she'd get around to telling him so before the operation was mounted. But she'd also take time to think about it first, to be certain in her own mind of what she thought before she engaged her mouth. Which was another of the things that made her so valuable to him.

And I don't doubt she'll talk it over with Benjamin, too, he thought sardonically. If she has any reservations, she'll want to run them past him to get a second viewpoint on them. And, of course, so the two of them can double-team me more effectively if it turns out they agree with one another.

Which was just fine with Albrecht Detweiler, when all was said and done. The one thing he wasn't was convinced of his own infallibility, after all.

"All right," he said aloud, leaning back again with the air of a man shifting mental gears. "Something else I wanted to ask you about is Anisimovna."

"What about her?" Bardasano's tone might have turned just a tiny bit cautious, and she cocked her head to one side, watching Detweiler's expression intently.

"I'm not about to change my mind and have her eliminated, if that's what you're worrying about, Isabel," he said dryly.

"I wouldn't say I was exactly worried about it," she replied. "I do think doing that would be wasting a very useful asset, though, and as I said before, I don't think anything that happened in Talbott was her fault any more than it was mine. In fact, given the amount of information I had and she didn't, it was almost certainly more my fault than hers."

Bardasano, Detweiler reflected, was one of the very few people, even inside the Alignment's innermost circle, who would have made that last admission to him. Which was yet another of the things that made her so valuable.

"As I say, I'm not about to have her eliminated," he said. "What you've just said goes a fair way towards answering the question I was going to ask, though, I think. Which is—do you think it's time to bring her all the way inside? Is she a sufficiently 'useful asset' to be made a full member of the Alignment?"

"Um."

It wasn't often Detweiler saw Bardasano hesitate. Nor was that actually what he was seeing in this case, he realized. It wasn't so much hesitation as surprise.

"I think, maybe, yes," she said finally, slowly, her eyes narrowed in thought. "Her genome is an Alpha line, and she already knows more than most people who aren't full members. The only real concern I'd have about nominating her for full membership—and it's a minor one—would be that she's got a little more highly developed sense of superiority than I'd really like to see."

Detweiler arched an eyebrow, and she shrugged.

"It's not just her, Albrecht. In fact, I'd say I was a lot more concerned about someone like Sandusky than I am about Aldona. The thing is that quite a few of us—including some who are already full members—have a tendency, I think, to automatically assume their superiority in any matchup with any normal. That's dangerous, especially if the 'normal' is someone like Zilwicki or Cachat—or, for that matter, Harrington, although, given her pedigree on her father's side, I suppose she's not actually a normal herself, wherever her loyalties might lie. It's also something I have to guard against in myself, however, and in Aldona's case, I think it's probably exacerbated by the fact that she isn't already a full member . . . and she thinks she is. Based solely on what she and the other members of the Strategy Council who aren't full members know, or think they know, about the stakes we're really playing for, most of her sense of superiority would be survivable. And she's certainly smart enough to understand what's really going on—and why—if you decide to tell her. So, if she does come all the way inside, I think we could probably count on knocking most of that . . . smugness out of her in fairly short order. May I ask why the question's arisen at this particular time?"

"In light of the implications of what happened at Lovat, I'm thinking about trying to resurrect the Monica operation using a different proxy," Detweiler replied. "And given the way we got our fingers burned last time, I want whoever is in charge of it this time around to know what we're really trying to accomplish."

"I knew what we were really trying to accomplish last time," Bardasano pointed out.

"Yes, you did. But one of the things which is such a useful part of your cover is your relative lack of official seniority outside the Alignment itself. That's why Anisimovna had primary responsibility, as far as the Strategy Council was concerned, at least, last time. And it's also one reason I couldn't send you back out to handle this solo this time around. There are other reasons, however, including the fact that I want you close to home to monitor the situation between Manticore and Haven. And to deal with Cachat and Zilwicki, if we can locate them. I don't want you out of reach if I need you, and there's a limit to how much we can send streakers zipping around the galaxy without someone starting to notice that our mail seems to get delivered just a little quicker than anyone else's."

"I see."

Bardasano leaned back in her chair, obviously thinking hard, then drew a deep breath.

"On that basis, I would definitely recommend bringing Aldona fully inside. Although I also think it would be a good idea to think things over very carefully before we decide whether or not we want to 'resurrect' Monica. And to consider it in light of the concerns I've already expressed about flying by the seat of our pants."

"Granted," he agreed. "And I'm not saying I've firmly decided one way or the other. I'm still thinking about it. However, if we did decide to take this approach, it wouldn't be quite as improvisational as it might first appear, since we could use a lot of the spadework from the Monica operation. Oh," he waved one hand like a man swatting at a gnat, "not in Monica itself, obviously. But in Meyers, and with Crandall."

Bardasano frowned slightly, then nodded.

"Use Crandall to motivate Verrochio, you mean?"

"Use Crandall, yes. And Verrochio. But I'm thinking of Crandall more as . . . reassurance for Verrochio. The motivation we'll supply by way of Hongbo."

"You want to make an explicit approach to Hongbo?" Bardasano's tone was slightly dubious, and Detweiler snorted.

"We've already made an 'explicit approach' to Hongbo," he pointed out. "So far, he's done quite well out of us as our local manager for Commissioner Verrochio. It's not as if he should be particularly surprised if we 'request' his assistance once more."

"My impression is that he'd be . . . quite hesitant to try a variant on Monica this soon," she said. "He's smarter than Verrochio. I think he's probably a lot more aware of the potential consequences if they try something like this a second time and screw up. Oh, he's not worried about the Assembly or the courts. He's worried about what his and Verrochio's fellow OFS satraps will do to them if they get fresh egg on Frontier Security's face."

"I can see that," Detweiler conceded. "And, of course, he's not aware that if we succeed, his fellow Frontier Security commissioners are going to be the least of his worries. Be that as it may, though, I'm really hesitant to let all of our preparation go completely to waste. Especially since we'll have to eliminate Crandall and Filareta after this if we can't use them now."

"Sometimes it's better to just write an operation off, however much you've invested in it," Bardasano cautioned. "That old cliché about throwing good money after bad comes rather forcibly to mind. And so does the one about reinforcing failure."

"Agreed. And I fully intend to kick the entire notion around with Collin before we make any hard and fast decisions. I'll want you in on those conversations, as well, for that matter. But it's not just a case of pushing to recoup our investment. I'm genuinely concerned about the long term implications of whatever they used at Lovat. I think it's just become even more important to keep them under the maximum pressure and prune them back any way we can, and what's occurred to me is that with the summit off the table and the Manties going back to war with Haven, it shouldn't be too incredibly difficult to convince someone like Verrochio that they're under too much pressure from Haven to respond to a full bore threat from the Solarian League."

"A 'full bore threat'?" she repeated carefully.

"What I'm thinking is that with only a very little encouragement, New Tuscany would probably make an even better cat's-paw than Monica did last time around. Frontier Fleet's already dispatched a reinforcing detachment to Meyers, which is probably enough to start bolstering Verrochio's nerve all by itself. And I just happen to know that the senior officer of that detachment doesn't much care for 'neobarbs.' In fact, he doesn't care for Manties. Something to do with getting his fingers rather severely burned in an incident with a Manticoran freighter when he was a much more junior officer. Franklin's contacts in the League meant we could get him assigned without ever having to approach him directly, so he doesn't know a thing about our involvement in this. Given his background, though, I'm sure he's already quite upset about the Manties' wild allegations about the complicity of major League business interests—and, of course, those nasty Mesans—in what happened in Monica. If he were properly approached by Hongbo and Verocchio, I'm fairly confident he'd be amenable to doing something about it, especially if the League's assistance was officially requested by someone with legitimate interests in the area. Like, oh, New Tuscany, perhaps. And one of Verrochio's outstanding characteristics has always been his temper. If Hongbo pumps a little hydrogen into the fire, instead of trying to put it out, Verrochio is going to be just itching for an opportunity to get even with Manticore for his current humiliation. And if he just happened to be aware—or to become aware—of the fact that our good friend Admiral Crandall is in his vicinity with an entire Battle Fleet task force of superdreadnoughts, it might stiffen his irate spine quite remarkably."

"And you want Aldona fully inside to handle New Tuscany and Hongbo," Bardasano said slowly. "Which means we aren't going to be able to fob her off with any nonsense about Technodyne getting hold of Manty technology, or about us only wanting to prevent them from annexing the Talbott Cluster because of its proximity to Mesa, this time around."

"That's pretty much it, yes." Detweiler shrugged. "Without Technodyne and Levakonic to front for us by providing Monica with battlecruisers anymore, she's going to have to be aware of our real knuckleduster. And that's going to suggest to someone as smart as she is that we're up to rather more than she knew about last time. Especially since it's going to become obvious to her that Crandall's task force wouldn't be where it is if we hadn't arranged for it before the two of you ever set out for Monica. She's going to wonder why we didn't tell her about it then, and I don't think it will take her very long to start making some reasonably accurate guesses about just how much else is happening that she doesn't know about. I'd far rather tell her everything that really is going on than have her guess just enough to make some serious mistake trying to adjust for what she thinks is going on."

"I think you really should discuss this with Collin," Bardasano said. "If you still think it's a good idea after that—and I'm not saying it isn't; I just don't know whether or not it is at this point—then I'd certainly recommend explaining everything to Aldona and putting her back in charge of it. But she's going to need something more persuasive than mere greed and bribery to get Hongbo solidly behind her on this one."

"In that case," Detweiler said with a thin, sharklike smile, "it's probably a very good thing we have all those bank records about the payoffs he's accepted over the years from those nasty Manpower genetic slavers, isn't it? I realize he might try to turn stubborn even so. I mean, after all, it's not like the League judiciary is likely to do any more than slap him on the wrist over it. If he does, though, Aldona could always point out that if that same information were to be unfortunately leaked to those Ballroom lunatics . . ."

He let his voice trail off and shrugged as he raised both hands shoulder-high, palms uppermost.

"I suppose that probably would motivate him suitably," Bardasano agreed with a smile of her own. "The Ballroom does come in handy from time to time, doesn't it?"

Chapter Twenty-One

"Well, what do you make of it?" Gregor O'Shaughnessy asked with a crooked smile.

"If you're asking for my professional opinion on how we pulled it off, I don't have a clue," Commander Ambrose Chandler, Augustus Khumalo's staff intelligence officer, replied.

He sat across a small table from his civilian counterpart on Baroness Medusa's staff, the two of them enjoying the afternoon sunlight of the city of Thimble, the improbably named planetary capital of the planet Flax. Spindle-A, the G0 primary component of the distant binary system in which Flax made its home, was warm on their shoulders, the tablecloth flapped gently on the iodine-scented breeze, and their terrace table above the seawall looked out across the Humboldt Ocean's tumbled blue and silver.

"Even if you could tell me how we did it, it probably wouldn't mean very much to me, Ambrose," O'Shaughnessy pointed out, and Chandler chuckled. O'Shaughnessy had come up through the civilian side of the Star Kingdom of Manticore's intelligence community. He neither truly understood how the military mind worked nor shared the military's perspective on quite a few problems. Fortunately, he was aware of that, and he tried—not always successfully—to make allowances for it when it was necessary to coordinate with his naval colleagues.

"I was more concerned with what I suppose you'd call the strategic implications of it," O'Shaughnessy continued, and Chandler's smile faded.

"Militarily?" he asked.

"Militarily and politically." O'Shaughnessy shrugged. "I'm in a better position on the political side than on the military side, of course, but under the circumstances, any additional perspective I can get has to be worthwhile. I've got the oddest feeling that the entire Star Kingdom—excuse me, the Star Empire—is in the process of falling down that Old Earth rabbit hole."

" 'Rabbit hole?' " Chandler repeated, looking at him oddly, and O'Shaughnessy shook his head.

"Never mind. It's an old literary reference, not anything important. It just means I'm feeling mightily confused at the moment."

"Well, you're hardly alone there," Chandler pointed out, then took another swallow of his beer and leaned back in his chair.

"Militarily," he said bluntly, "Haven is screwed if—and please do note the qualifier, Gregor—whatever Duchess Harrington used at Lovat can be gotten into general deployment. I'm guessing that it has to be some further development of the grav-pulse telemetry we're already using in Ghost Rider. Exactly how Admiral Hemphill's shop did it, and what sort of hardware is involved, is more than I could guess at this point. I'm a spook, not a tactical officer, and I'm actually probably better informed aboutPeep hardware than I am about ours. Something about knowing your enemy. But it's clear enough even from the preliminary reports that whatever Duchess Harrington did enormously increased her MDMs' long-range accuracy, and that's always been the biggest problem where they're concerned."

O'Shaughnessy nodded to show he was following Chandler's logic. Despite his own lack of military experience, he wouldn't have been Medusa's senior intelligence analyst if he hadn't managed to acquire at least some grasp of the navy's current capabilities.

The dispatches informing Khumalo and Baroness Medusa about the Battle of Lovat had reached Spindle only the evening before. He had no doubt Chandler was still in the midst of assimilating everything else that had come with them, much as he himself was. And he also had no doubt that Loretta Shoupe, who—unlike Chandler—was a tactical specialist, would have been a better source if he'd been interested in the nuts and bolts of whatever was going on. He liked Shoupe, and he did intend to discuss Lovat's military aspects with her, but right now he needed the big picture more than the specifics. Besides, Chandler was a fellow analyst. He'd probably have a better feel for the sorts of details someone like O'Shaughnessy needed than Shoupe would.

"The MDM and the missile pod between them turned the balance between energy armaments and missile armaments on its head," Chandler continued, "but we've never been able to really take full advantage of the system because the range of the missiles has outstripped the effective range of our fire control. If Admiral Hemphill really has found a way to effectively integrate FTL telemetry into the system, that's changed, though, and if we can do that and the Peeps can't, then they're going to find themselves as outclassed as they were when Earl White Haven kicked their asses the last time around. But to do that, Duchess Harrington is going to have to have enough ships with the capability to do whatever it is they're doing. If she doesn't, if the Peeps have enough hulls to soak up her hits and keep closing, then we're back to worrying about whether or not our quality is sufficient to overcome their quantity."

"Would we have used this thing in the first place if we didn't have it in general deployment?" O'Shaughnessy asked.

"I'd like to think we wouldn't have," Chandler said, rather more grimly, "but I'm a lot less confident of that than I'd like to be."

"Because of the collapse of the summit?"

"Exactly. Or, maybe to be more accurate, because of the way the summit collapsed. If I thought we'd backed away from it on the basis of a dispassionate analysis of our military advantages, I'd be a lot happier. But that isn't what happened, is it?Political considerations—political considerations that are driven at least as much by emotions as by analysis—dictated the Government's decision. Which means what we could be looking at here is a less than optimum military decision based on political necessity."

"Aren't all military decisions ultimately based on political necessities?" O'Shaughnessy asked just a bit challengingly, and Chandler snorted.

"You aren't going to get me involved in that discussion, Gregor! I don't have any problem at all with the notion that military policy and objectives have to be defined within a political context. And I'm an officer in the Queen's Navy, which means I fully accept the validity and necessity of civilian control of the military, which means the subordination of military decision making to the political leadership. All I'm saying in this instance is that the decision to resume active operations was essentially a political one. Admiral Caparelli and the Strategy Board are responsible for determining the best ways to carry out decisions like that, but they can only do that within the limitations of the tools available to them. So I'm saying they may have decided to use a weapon system that's not fully prepared for general deployment. Or, at least, to have used it at an earlier point in any deployment process than they would have under other circumstances."

"At least partly in an effort to bluff the Havenites into thinking it is ready for general deployment, you mean?"

"Maybe. And I could be worrying more about it than I ought to be, too," Chandler conceded. "After all, even if they're ready to go to general deployment tomorrow, they still have to use this thing for a first time somewhere."

"But you don't think they are ready for general deployment, do you?" O'Shaughnessy said shrewdly. "Why?"

"Because," Chandler replied, answering the blunt question with matching bluntness, "if we had this thing in general deployment already, we'd've gone straight for Nouveau Paris, not Lovat. Lovat's an important target, but not nearly as important as the Peeps' capital. And given the way everyone back home is feeling over Admiral Webster's assassination and that business on Torch, do you really think anyone at the Admiralty or the Palace wouldn't have gone for a knockout if they'd thought they had the capability?"

"Um." O'Shaughnessy frowned. He'd treasured a few reservations about the commander's imagination over the many months he and Chandler had worked together. There was nothing wrong with his imagination where that particular bit of analysis was concerned, however.

"Okay," the civilian continued after a moment. "Let's assume you're right. This new guidance system or whatever is limited right now to Eighth Fleet. Would you agree that we wouldn't have let Haven know we've got it unless we were at least getting ready to deploy it more broadly?"

He cocked an eyebrow at Chandler, who nodded.

"Good. So, assume we do get it into general deployment over the next few months. What happens then?"

"Assuming we get a few months in which to put it into deployment, the Peeps are history," Chandler replied. "It may take a few more months for the smoke to clear and the articles of surrender to get signed, but I can't see anything that would save them under those circumstances. And, frankly, I can't see any circumstances under which Her Majesty would settle for anything other than unconditional surrender this time around, can you?"

"Not hardly!" O'Shaughnessy snorted, but his expression was more worried than Chandler's. The commander looked a question at him, and he shrugged.

"I just wish we knew more about what the Sollies are going to do," he said. "I know it looks like they're going to fold their hand after what's happened at Monica, but I've just got this . . . I don't know, this itchy feeling."

"Itchy," Chandler repeated thoughtfully.

"I know. I know! It's not the sort of technical terminology that contributes to the mystique of our profession, Ambrose. Unfortunately, I can't come up with a better adjective."

"Why not?"

"If I knew that, I'd be able to find the better adjective I wanted," O'Shaughnessy said tartly. Then he sighed. "I think it's just the fact that it looks like the entire Monica operation was set up by Manpower and Technodyne. Not by Frontier Security, or any of the Solly bureaucracies—by a pair of corporate entities. Right?"

"So far," Chandler acknowledged. "I think it's obvious they had to be pretty sure they had Frontier Security—or at least Verrochio—safely tucked away in their pocket before they tried it, but that's what it looks like."

"And that's what bothers me," O'Shaughnessy said. "First, the sheer scale and . . . audacity of what they had in mind strikes me as being just a bit over the top even for one of the Mesa-based outfits. Second, look at the expense involved. I'm sure they'd have managed to recoup most of their investment one way or another if it had worked, but they invested literally hundreds of billions trying to bring this thing off. That's a pretty stiff risk exposure even for someone like Manpower or Technodyne. And, third, if I'd been Manpower, and if all I really wanted to do was to prevent the annexation of the Talbott Cluster, I could have found an approach that would have been a lot less expensive and risky . . . and probably at least as effective."

"Really?"

"Sure." O'Shaughnessy shook his head. "This was a case of using an awfully big, awfully expensive sledgehammer when a tack hammer would have done the job. Not only that, but they had the tack hammer they needed all along! Look at their return on Nordbrandt, alone. And if Terekhov and Van Dort hadn't literally stumbled across the Manpower connection—I'm not trying to downplay anything they accomplished, but they really did stumble across it, you know—then Westman would probably still be shooting at us in Montana, too. Investing a few hundred million in political action committees and funding and supplying other lunatics with guns and bombs would have let them keep the entire Cluster at the boil pretty much indefinitely, unless we wanted to resort to some sort of authoritarian repression. And it would have done that while simultaneously limiting Manpower's exposure, risk, and expense. They might not have been able to prevent the Constitutional Convention from voting out an acceptable constitution, although I'm not even sure of that. But even if the constitution had been voted out, they could probably have counted on keeping the political unrest going at a level which would have forced us to stay home and tend to our knitting instead of causing them problems in their own backyard. So why go for this sort of grandstanding operation? Why invest so much more money and risk the kind of beating they're taking in the Solly public opinion polls now that it's blown up in their faces?"

"I hadn't really considered it that way," Chandler admitted thoughtfully. "I guess I just assumed it was pure greed, as much as self-defense, from their perspective. Keeping us completely out of the Cluster and taking control of the Lynx Terminus would have to be the optimum solution from their viewpoint, after all."

"I don't disagree. I just think it's not the sort of solution Manpower would normally have reached for. With only a handful of exceptions—like Torch—the Mesan government's never shown any particular interest in playing the interstellar politics game. And virtually everything Manpower and the other Mesan corporations have done has been more . . . insidious. They've worked through acquiring influence, through bribery and coercion, at least where anyone who could potentially fight back might be concerned. This just isn't like them, and it makes me antsy when an established player suddenly starts changing. It leaves me with the feeling that there's something going on under the surface. Something we ought to figure out before it comes up out of the depths and bites us right square on the ass."

"You may have a point," Chandler acknowledged after several seconds. "On the other hand, whatever they had in mind this time around, it clearly didn't work."

"This time around," O'Shaughnessy agreed. "But we still don't know how the Sollies are going to react in the long haul. And if they've tried something like this once, who's to say they won't come up with something equally . . . inventive for us in the future? That's one reason I hope you're right about what's going to happen to the Havenites' military position in light of Lovat. I may not be sure what they're up to, but I know I want us to be as free as possible from other distractions if they decide to have a second try at getting us into a war with the Solarian League!"

"Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Junyan," Valery Ottweiler said as he stepped into the sun filled office and the door closed silently behind him.

"Your message indicated that it was rather urgent," Vice Commissioner Hongbo Junyan of the Office of Frontier Security replied, coming to his feet to shake Ottweiler's hand. "And on a personal level, it's always good to see you, Valery."

The vice commissioner didn't bother to lie very well in that last sentence, Ottweiler noted with a certain amusement. Given what had happened in Monica, he had to be one of the last people in the galaxy Hongbo Junyan actually wanted to see. Still, there were diplomatic niceties to be observed, even if the diplomats on both sides were fully aware of the total insincerity of the niceties in question. Unfortunately for Hongbo, he'd had no choice but to agree to this meeting. He'd been far too deep in Manpower's pocket for far too long to refuse to see a diplomatic representative of Manpower's home planet, since everyone knew the corporations of Mesa effectively were the government the Mesa System.

"What is it I can do for you this morning?" Hongbo continued, waving his visitor into one of the office's chairs. From his tone, it was apparent he didn't intend to do one single thing more for Mesa—or Manpower—than he absolutely had to. And since both of them were fully aware of that state of affairs, Ottweiler saw no point in beating about the bush.

Especially since I'm probably going to have to twist his arm to the point of dislocation anyway before this is over, he thought.

"Actually," he said out loud, "I've just received fresh instructions from home."

"You have?" Ottweiler wasn't particularly surprised that a certain wariness had crept into Hongbo's voice. The man was no fool, after all.

"Yes. It seems that several powerful interests in my government—and in the Mesan business community, as well, if we're going to be honest—aren't at all happy about how that business in Monica was finally resolved."

"Really? I can't imagine why." The sarcasm dripping from Hongbo's response was a mark of his own unhappiness with "that business." And also a pointed comment on just who he thought was to blame for its outcome.

"Please, Junyan." Ottweiler shook his head wearily. "Can we just take it as a given that no one involved in that entire operation is very happy about it? There was plenty of egg to go around for everyone's faces, I assure you."

He held Hongbo's eye for a moment until, finally, the Solarian nodded.

"Thank you," Ottweiler said, and sat back in his chair.

"Having said that, however," he continued, "the same considerations that inspired my government to become involved then continue to apply. A Manticoran presence in our area poses a significant threat not simply to our business community's commercial interests, but to the security of the Mesa System itself. I'm sure you can understand that the failure of our sponsorship of Monica has led to a certain reevaluation of our options and requirements back home."

"Yes, I can see that," Hongbo acknowledged. "On the other hand, I'm not sure I see what sort of 'options' you have left at the moment. They've ratified their precious constitution, the Star Kingdom has officially expanded itself into this 'Star Empire' of theirs, and the beating you people—and us—have taken in the press back home doesn't leave any of us very much room for maneuver, does it?"

"Yes . . . and no," Ottweiler replied, and Hongbo stiffened behind the desk. That was obviously the last response he'd wanted to hear, Ottweiler reflected.

"Before you go any further, Valery," the Solarian said, "let's be clear about one thing, shall we? I'm prepared to do a great many things to accommodate you and your 'government,' and so is Lorcan, but there are distinct limits to what we can do. Especially after what happened in Monica. And, not to put too fine a point on it, assassinating Webster didn't help any."

"That wasn't us," Ottweiler said mildly. "I thought everyone knew it was the Republic of Haven."

"Of course it was," Hongbo snorted. "But whoever it was, it's got the newsies all in a flutter back home, especially combined with what he was saying about you people's modest efforts out here in Talbott. When a mess is this big and gets this much play in the 'faxes, even our public starts to get interested. And when that happens, the Justice Department can't hush it up forever. The newsies demand show trials, so Justice has to give them exactly that. Hell, they've actually indicted half a dozen of Technodyne's top people!"

"Yes, that was unfortunate," Ottweiler said. "On the other hand, neither you nor I work for Technodyne, do we?"

"No, but Lorcan and I do work for the Office of Frontier Security," Hongbo said tartly, "and we're already hearing about this from the home office. So far, OFS has managed to stay out of the limelight, and that busybody Corvisart hasn't been all that interested in pulling us into it. So far," he repeated.

"Of course she hasn't." It was Ottweiler's turn to snort. "You think the Manties want to take on the League Navy? Especially now that this summit thing has collapsed and they've got Haven back on their backs again?"

"Of course they don't, but that's not really my point." Hongbo tilted back in his chair and tapped the desk blotter with one forefinger for emphasis. "While it would undoubtedly be very unfortunate for Manticore if they should find themselves in a direct shooting confrontation with the Navy, that could also be very unfortunate for whoever helped to . . . arrange that confrontation. Nobody in OFS wants to hand the newsies—or the Manties—even more ammunition to use against us. It's bad enough that we look incompetent enough to have let this happen under are very noses, as it were. After all, the Manties are hardly your typical neobarbs. They have far better connections on Old Terra than most people do, as you people—oh, excuse me, I meant Haven—clearly recognized when the decision was made to eliminate Webster. The truth is, Valery, Lorcan and I have been told in no uncertain terms to lay off Manticore. Which, to be perfectly blunt, is exactly what I would have decided on my own."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Ottweiler said calmly. "Unfortunately, my instructions are somewhat different."

"That's too bad, since there's nothing I can do about it."

"Oh, but there is."

"No," Hongbo disagreed flatly, "there isn't. You know as well as I do how OFS works, Valery. Yes, for the most part the commissioners have pretty much free rein to manage their own sectors. And everybody knows that means all of us have 'special friends' who get preferential treatment. But in the end, all of us are subject to the Ministry's control, and I'm telling you the word's gone out. No more bad press out of Talbott, at least until the current mess has had a chance to settle and recede in the public's memory. Given the fact that the public in question has the attention span of a fruit fly, that shouldn't impose too great a delay on whatever it is your superiors want to accomplish, but for right now, my hands are tied."

Ottweiler cocked his head to one side, his expression thoughtful as he presented the appearance of a man carefully considering what Hongbo had just said. From the Solarian's position, it made perfectly good sense, of course. When he spoke of "the Ministry's control," he wasn't talking about anything as unimportant or ephemeral as the current Solarian Minister for Foreign Affairs, whoever that might happen to be at the moment. What he was really talking about was the deeply entrenched bureaucracy which truly ran the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, just as similar bureaucracies ran every other aspect of the League's government and military. And although the bureaucrats in question were effectively free of any interference by their nominal political masters, the Solarian public's occasional outbursts of indignation over government corruption could be unpleasant for all concerned. That was the real reason Governor Barregos—who had somehow acquired a towering reputation for efficiency and honesty—hadn't been recalled from the Maya Sector long since. So it was hardly surprising that Hongbo's superiors and Verrochio's fellow commissioners and sector governors wanted this whole business to go away as quickly as possible so they could all climb back under their rocks and get on with business as usual.

"I'm sorry," he repeated aloud after several seconds, "but I'm afraid my superiors are rather insistent in this case, Junyan."

"Aren't you listening to me?" Hongbo was beginning to sound exasperated. "There isn't anything I can do!"

"But there is." Ottweiler allowed a little deliberate patience to creep into his own tone. "I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you if there weren't."

"Valery—"

"Just listen for a minute, Junyan," Ottweiler interrupted, and Hongbo's eyes narrowed at the peremptory note in his voice. It was not the sort of note he was accustomed to hearing from anyone in his own office, and there was no mistaking the flare of anger in those dark, narrow eyes. But he throttled the anger, tightened his jaw, and nodded curtly.

"All right," the Mesan said then. "Cards on the table time. The people I work for—and you know who they really are, as well as I do—aren't happy. In fact, they're very unhappy, and they intend to do something about it. That's why I'm sitting here, and to be honest, I'm more than a little astonished myself at the resources they have available. Just for starters, did you really think it was a coincidence Admiral Byng wound up in command of the Frontier Fleet detachment they sent out here to bolster your position after Monica?Please!" He rolled his eyes. "Byng is one of those sanctimonious Battle Fleet pricks. He wouldn't have wound up commanding a Frontier Fleet detachment without somebody making damned sure he did. And just who do you suppose that 'somebody' was?"

Hongbo's eyes were even narrower than they had been, but speculation was beginning to replace—or supplement, at least—the anger which had filled them.

"Then there's the little matter that Admiral Crandall has decided to conduct 'training exercises' at McIntosh."

"What?" Hongbo straightened in his chair. "What are you talking about? Nobody's told us anything about any exercises at McIntosh!"

"I'm afraid you may have failed to get the memo. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Crandall is Battle Fleet, not Frontier Fleet. Battle Fleet doesn't really talk to you Frontier Security peasants very much, does it?"

"Battle Fleet," Hongbo repeated. The depth of his surprise over that particular bit of information was obvious. It was even deep enough to distract him from the flick of Ottweiler's whip as he emphasized Battle Fleet's deep contempt for Frontier Fleet and Frontier Security.

"Yes," the Mesan said, then shook his head. "Frankly, I didn't know anything about it before Monica, but it would appear Admiral Crandall has selected McIntosh as the site for her latest fleet exercises." He shrugged. "I know it's a bit unusual for Battle Fleet to venture this far out into the Verge, but apparently Crandall wanted to exercise the Fleet Train, as well as the battle squadrons. According to my information, it's been over ninety T-years since Battle Fleet has deployed more than a single squadron all the way out to the frontier, and there's been some question as to whether or not it still has the logistics capacity to support its own operations outside the Old League's established system of bases."

"So am I supposed to infer that Admiral Crandall is exercising in greater strength than 'a single squadron,' then?" Hongbo asked slowly.

"As a matter of fact, I believe she has somewhere around a hundred of the wall," Ottweiler said in an offhand sort of way, and Hongbo sat suddenly back, deep in his chair.

"What's occurred to my superiors," Ottweiler continued, "is that with three full squadrons of Frontier Fleet battlecruisers, with screening elements, already attached to the Madras Sector to reinforce your own units, and with such a powerful Battle Fleet backup fortuitously so close at hand, it may be time for Commissioner Verrochio to repair the damage the League's prestige has suffered out of this entire ugly situation in Monica. I'm sure I hardly need to point out to you how unfortunate it could be if other Verge systems began to take Frontier Security lightly or got the mistaken notion that OFS won't take punitive measures if someone steps on your toes in public this way. And all of that exercised public opinion you're so concerned about back home could certainly use pointing towards another target, don't you think? A target like . . . oh, the proof that, whatever Manticore may have been saying, and however their mouthpieces back on Old Terra may have managed to spin events at Monica, the truth is that they're just as imperialistic and exploitive as we've always known they are."

"And we would accomplish this retargeting exactly how?" Hongbo asked.

"According to my latest information, the New Tuscany System Government is already experiencing severe problems with the Talbott Cluster's new management," Ottweiler replied. "Indeed, I expect it won't be very much longer before you and Commissioner Verrochio receive a request for a Frontier Security investigation of Manticore's systematic harassment of New Tuscany's merchant shipping."

Hongbo's expression was a curious mixture of anticipation and unhappiness. Although his disposition was far less naturally choleric than Verrochio's, he clearly hadn't enjoyed his own humiliation after Monica. And Ottweiler's point about the damage to Frontier Security's reputation had also been well taken. OFS had worked hard to make sure no Verge system wanted to risk pissing Frontier Security off at it, and letting Manticore get away with what it had pulled off at Monica wasn't the best way to shore up that perception. So, for a lot reasons, Hongbo obviously wanted some of his own back. But, equally obviously, he hadn't forgotten how foolproof the Monica operation had been supposed to be, and he was leery of sticking his foot back into the bear trap. And he was also smart enough to realize—just as Ottweiler himself had—that Byng and Crandall's involvement suggested that the interests in play were both much more powerful and even more ruthless than he'd first thought.

"I don't know, Valery." He shook his head slowly. "Everything you say may make perfectly good sense, and under normal circumstances, I'd be only too happy to help your superiors out. You know that. But the messages we've been getting through official channels have been what you might call brutally clear. Lorcan and I are supposed to sit here and behave like good little boys until the powers that be tell us differently. Besides, even if that weren't the case, Lorcan is almost as scared as he is pissed off. What the Manties did to Monica's battlecruisers shook him up badly."

"I don't blame him for that," Ottweiler said frankly. "On the other hand, you can always point out to him that they were manned by Monicans, not Sollies. And that they didn't have the entire SLN standing directly behind them. I'm sure the Manties are aware of those minor differences, at any rate, and with the resumption of operations against Haven, they aren't going to have a lot of combat power to be diverting this way even if they were stupid enough to take the SLN on directly. Certainly not enough to pose any sort of significant threat in the face of Crandall's presence."

"But if they don't know any more about Crandall's presence than we did before you told me about her, then it's not likely to exercise very much of a deterrent effect on their thinking, is it? Unless, of course, someone is going to make this minor fact known to them, as well."

He was watching Ottweiler's face very carefully, and the Mesan shrugged.

"I don't have any official information on that either way," he said. "On the other hand, it's my strong impression that no one's going to be going out of his way to tell the Manties a damned thing. Still, Commissioner Verrochio is a sector governor, himself. If he felt the need to request it, I'm sure Admiral Crandall would move her forces from McIntosh to Meyers. Purely as a precautionary measure, you understand."

Hongbo nodded slowly, his expression intent. Ottweiler could almost literally see the calculations working themselves out behind his eyes and wondered if the Solarian would reach the same conclusions he had.

"That all sounds very comforting," Hongbo said finally. "But the fact remains that Lorcan isn't going to want to do it. To be honest, that's at least partly my fault. I didn't have any idea something like this might be in the wind, so when we started getting word from the home office, I did my very best to sit on Lorcan's temper, and that took some pretty firm sitting. You know how he is. I'm afraid I may have sat on it too hard. He's swung from breathing fire and brimstone to worrying that he may give the Manty bogeyman another excuse to jump on him. It's going to take time to turn that around."

"Time is something we don't have very much of," Ottweiler said flatly. "Trust me, New Tuscany is going to be ready to start moving on this very soon."

"You're sure of that? New Tuscany's three hundred and sixty light-years from here. How can you be so confident they're going to play along when they're over a month away even for a dispatch boat?"

"Trust me," Ottweiler repeated. "The representative my superiors are sending to New Tuscany is very convincing, and what the New Tuscans stand to get out of this is going to be very attractive to them. They'll come through for us."

"Maybe you're right. Maybe I even believe you're right. But Lorcan isn't going to jump for something like this until he's got confirmation of that. Even with that confirmation, he's not going to be happy about it. I expect him to dig his heels in every centimeter of the way."

"Then you're just going to have to be even more convincing than usual," Ottweiler told him. "Obviously, my superiors aren't going to forget what they owe the two of you for pulling this off, so I'm certain you can expect to be extremely well compensated for your efforts."

"I'm sure you're right about that much, at least. But that doesn't change the fact that I'm going to have to bring him around to this gradually."

"Our time window for this is too narrow for 'gradually,' " Ottweiler said. "Even though Crandall's set up for a lengthy deployment as part of her logistics test, she can't stay on station here forever. We've got to get this rolling while she's still around to back our play if it comes to that. That's what restricts our time frame so tightly, and I'm sure the commissioner is going to want to know she's around if he might need her. In any case, my instructions to get this all moving ASAP are about as firm as they get. So if you think you need a little more leverage with him, remind him of this. My superiors have records of all of their past transactions with him. And unlike him, they aren't citizens of the League and aren't subject to its laws."

Hongbo stiffened, and not just because of the icy chill which had invaded Ottweiler's voice. His eyes met the Mesan's, and their unspoken message was abundantly clear. If they had records of their transactions with Verrochio, then they just as certainly had records of their transactions with him. And if they were prepared to feed Verrochio to the wolves if he failed to follow instructions, then they were equally prepared to feed him to the same hungry fangs.

Hongbo Junyan had always recognized that Manpower and the other Mesan corporations could be dangerous benefactors. The chance of exposure was virtually nonexistent under normal circumstances, and everyone knew everyone else did exactly the same things. It was the way the system worked, how business was done. Even if some unfortunate personal arrangement should inadvertently intrude into the light, it could be expected to disappear quickly into the "business as usual," "everyone does it" basket. The rest of the system could be counted upon to make that happen smoothly and promptly.

But if Manpower chose to make his past dealings with them public knowledge, they could be counted upon to do it as loudly—and effectively—as possible. And after everything that had already gone wrong out here, the newsies would be just salivating for fresh, spectacular evidence of corruption and conspiracy. Which meant his fellows within the system would cheerfully throw both Verrochio and Hongbo to the howling mob. Indeed, his colleagues would probably lead the pack, shouting louder than anyone else as a way to prove their own innocence.

All of that was bad enough, but there was worse, because the Audubon Ballroom had made it abundantly clear over the years that bureaucrats and administrators who conspired and collaborated with Manpower when they were supposed to be working diligently to suppress the genetic slave trade were not among the Ballroom's favorite people. In fact, they'd made a point of coming up with especially inventive ways of demonstrating that fact. Ways that were usually punctuated with showers of body parts.

"I don't think the good commissioner is likely to prove too difficult if you bring that little point to his attention, do you, Junyan?" Valery Ottweiler asked softly.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Aldona Anisimovna had never expected to be back in the Talbott Cluster this quickly, and for more than one reason.

The mere thought of how disastrously the Monica operation had failed was enough to send cold chills down anyone's spine—even that of a Mesan alpha line. She'd been more than a little astonished that she and Isabel Bardasano had survived the catastrophic unraveling of the Strategy Council's carefully crafted plans.

But even allowing for her unanticipated survival, she wouldn't have imagined she could make the trip back to the Cluster so quickly. Then again, she hadn't known about the top-secret "streak drive," either. She was going to have to remember that it had taken her much longer—officially, at least—to make the voyage than it actually had.

And she supposed she might as well go ahead and admit there was another reason for her surprise; she'd never imagined it might be possible to mount a replacement for the disastrous failure in Monica this quickly.

It would have helped if Albrecht—and Isabel—had told me just what we'd really been supposed to achieve last time. Or how many resources were really available, for that matter, she thought as she and her new bodyguard rode the luxurious, if old-fashioned, elevator towards the upcoming meeting. Of course, I'm not sure exactly what else I could have done to make use of them, even if I'd known they were there. And I don't suppose they could tell me about them . . . not without telling me everything else, at least.

It was amazing how completely her galaxy had shifted with Albrecht's explanation of what was really going on. A part of her was absolutely stunned that the entire Mesan Strategy Council and all of its deep laid plans and machinations had really been only a part—and not the largest part—of the real strategy she'd served, albeit unknowingly, for so many decades. Another part of her was more than a little irked to discover just how much of what she'd thought she knew, even in an operational sense, had been less than complete or even deliberately falsified. Like the "fact" that the Congo Wormhole hadn't been properly surveyed before those Audubon Ballroom fanatics took the system away from Mesa, for example, or who'd really been in charge of "her" operation in Monica. Discovering that someone else could manage her puppet strings as well as she'd always prided herself on managing others' strings hadn't been especially reassuring. But her irritation over lack of complete information and need-to-know compartmentalization of knowledge was as nothing compared to the sheer shock of what was really happening. Aldona Anisimovna was a hardy soul, yet she was both awed and more than a little terrified by the grand, sweeping scope of the Mesan Alignment's true objectives and resources.

I thought it was just the usual dogfight over political power, she admitted to herself. And, to be honest, I always thought the political aspects were purely self-defense, a way to protect our operations and our economic power. I never dreamed anyone could be thinking on such a . . . grand scale.

Or that so much of the groundwork could already have been in place.

The elevator stopped. Kyrillos Taliadoros—the newly assigned bodyguard from the same gamma line which had produced Albrecht Detweiler's bodyguard—stepped through the opening doors first, glancing up and down the corridor. Taliadoros' physical senses had been sharply enhanced as part of his genotype's modifications, and Anisimovna knew additional odd bits and pieces of hardware had been surgically implanted to help suit him for his present function. She'd discovered that even Detweiler's bodyguard's fearsome reputation actually understated what he was capable of, and the same was true of Taliadoros. Which, in some ways, was almost as frightening as it was comforting.

Then again, a lot of the things she'd had to wrap her mind around in the past couple of weeks were almost as frightening as they were comforting.

She pushed that thought aside and followed Taliadoros out of the elevator when his tiny gesture indicated his satisfaction with their immediate surroundings. He fell back into his properly deferential position at her heels as she led the way down the short corridor, and the ornate secretary seated behind the desk at its far end looked up with a professional smile at her approach.

My, she's a pretty one, Anisimovna thought appreciatively, taking in the young woman's flowing raven hair, striking blue eyes, and near-perfect complexion. She'd almost do for one of the pleasure lines without any modification at all. Of course, there is that little mole. And I think her left eyebrow may be just a tad higher than the right. But in her case, that actually helps. I think she'd look . . . too perfect without those little flaws.

"Aldona Anisimovna," she said aloud. "I believe President Boutin is expecting me."

"Of course, Ms. Anisimovna." The secretary's voice was exactly the right melodious contralto to match her striking appearance, Anisimovna thought appreciatively. "Just a moment."

She pressed a button on her panel.

"Ms. Anisimovna is here, Mr. President," she said, and listened to her earbug for a moment. "Yes, Sir," she said then, and looked back up at Anisimovna. "President Boutin is ready to see you now, Ma'am." She pressed another button and a rather splendidly decorated door slid open. "Right through that door, Ma'am."

"Thank you." Anisimovna smiled a bit more warmly than she normally smiled at servants, then nodded to Taliadoros and the two of them stepped through the open door.

"Excuse me a moment, Ma'am," a broad shouldered young man said as they entered the anteroom of the luxurious office suite.

"Yes?" Anisimovna gave him a rather cool glance, and he smiled with just a touch of apology.

"I'm afraid some of your bodyguard's implants have flashed several alarms on our security scans. I'm sorry, but security regulations prohibit allowing someone with unidentified implanted hardware into the President's presence."

"I see." Anisimovna considered him for a moment, then turned to Taliadoros.

"I'm afraid you're going to have to wait here for me, Kyrillos," she said.

"Ma'am, under the regulations, I'm not supposed—" he began, exactly as if they hadn't already rehearsed this moment.

"I realize it's against the rules," her own tone mingled patience with just a touch of brusqueness, "but at the moment, we're guests on someone else's planet. It's only polite of us to abide by their rules and customs."

"I know that, Ma'am, but—"

"This discussion is finished, Kyrillos," she said firmly, then smiled. "I'll take full responsibility, but this time good manners trump the regulations. Anyway, I'm sure the President's security team is up to the task of protecting me, right along with him, if it comes to that. And I really don't expect anyone to try to assassinate me in the middle of a meeting with him, anyway."

"Yes, Ma'am," Taliadoros said with manifest unwillingness, and Anisimovna turned back to the broad-shouldered young man.

"I believe that's settled," she said crisply.

"Yes, Ma'am. Thank you for being so understanding. If you'll follow me, please?"

Anisimovna followed him across the anteroom. She wasn't certain that little bit of theater had been necessary, but it wouldn't hurt to make her hosts aware of her own importance, especially since she was officially here as a private person. Of course, most private persons didn't travel in their personal hyper-capable yachts or come equipped with personal enhanced bodyguards. And Taliadoros' reference to "the regulations" should also neatly suggest that whether she was supposed to be a private person or not, she actually wasn't.

Which is fair enough, since I'm not, even if everyone is about to spend the next few hours pretending I am.

She stepped through yet another door into an absolutely magnificent office overlooking downtown Siena, the capital of the planet of New Tuscany. Several people were waiting for her.

President Alain Boutin, the official head of state of the New Tuscany System, stood in courteous greeting behind his shuttle-sized desk as she entered. System Prime Minister Maxime Vézien, the real head of government, turned from the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the capital city of Livorno with a smile of welcome of his own, and Alesta Cardot, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Nicholas Pélisard, the Minister of War, turned from their quiet side conversation with Honorine Huppé, the Minister of Trade. Damien Dusserre, the New Tuscan Minister of Security, stood by himself by the bookcases lining one wall of the office, and his smile was much cooler—and less professional—than Vézien's.

I wish there'd been time for a little more research, Anisimovna thought as she crossed the large room to the desk. There'd barely been time on the voyage here for her to fully absorb the in-depth briefing on New Tuscany's current state of affairs; there certainly hadn't been enough time for any sort of detailed historical study, and she had absolutely no idea, for example, why a planet named for a region of Old Terra's Italy should be inhabited by people with almost uniformly French names.

"Ms. Anisimovna!" Boutin offered his hand across the desk. When she took it, he raised her hand to his lips and brushed a kiss across its back, and she smiled at him.

"It was most gracious of you to agree to see me, Mr. President. And especially on such short notice."

"Mr. Metcalf made it clear your business was urgent," Boutin replied. "And, to be frank, that you . . . unofficially represent, shall we say, import interests on Mesa."

"Yes, I suppose I do," she said with a whimsical smile. She rather wished that Valery Ottweiler, the Mesan attaché who had been her official aide in Meyers when the Monica operation was first mounted, had been available here, as well. She'd found his competence both impressive and comforting. But he was still back in Meyers, where he had his own part to play, and Jansen Metcalf, the Mesan trade attaché who had been upgraded into a full ambassador when New Tuscany withdrew from the Spindle Constitutional Convention, was supposed to be a competent type, as well. He wouldn't be present today, however, of course. The fact that Mesa's official representative was absent—and that he had emphasized her own "unofficial" status ahead of time—were two more of the little clues that, in fact, she not only did speak for the true rulers of Mesa but that what she had to say was very important indeed.

"Please, allow me to introduce my colleagues," Boutin said, and Anisimovna nodded pleasantly to each of the others in turn as the President murmured their names. Not that anyone in that room at that moment actually needed to be introduced to anyone else, she was quite certain.

Introductions completed, she settled into a comfortable chair, crossed her long legs, and leaned back. During her first visit to Roberto Tyler, Anisimovna had deliberately chosen a gown which emphasized the rich perfection of her own figure. Boutin and—even more importantly—Vézien were far less likely to be swayed by any physical charms, however provocatively displayed, and so she had chosen a severely tailored outfit in midnight blue. And, while she had no qualms about using whatever tactics—or attributes—would get the job done, she had to admit that she much preferred not feeling like a gussied up pleasure slave.

"And now, Ms. Anisimovna, may we know what it is that brings you to New Tuscany?"

"To be totally frank, Mr. President, I'm here in no small part because of the rather disastrous occurrences in Monica," she said, and hid a smile at the shock in the New Tuscans' faces.

Didn't expect me to own right up to the fact that we were involved in that little catastrophe, did you? she thought sardonically. Well, I've got a few more surprises in store for you, as well.

"I'm sure you're all well aware of what happened to the Union of Monica," she continued calmly. "That regrettable state of affairs was the result of a combination of coincidences no one could have predicted, coupled with a certain degree of botched execution on the Monicans' part."

"We have had reports on those . . . events," Boutin said slowly, his eyes flickering sideways to Dusserre. "May I ask exactly what about them has brought you to speak to us?"

"Frankly, Mr. President, we have no interest in seeing the Manties expanding their control and influence into this region of space," she replied with an air of total candor. "I'm sure all of you are very well aware of the long-standing hostility between the business community of Mesa and the Star Kingdom of Manticore. And as Manticore has demonstrated quite often in the past—and very recently, in Monica—the 'Star Kingdom' has never been shy about resorting to the use of naked force in the pursuit of its policy objectives. It seems very evident to us in the Mesa System that the establishment of a Manticoran bridgehead here in Talbott will almost inevitably lead to further harassment of Mesa and, quite possibly, to actual Manticoran military operations against Mesa in the not-too-distant future. That, to be completely honest, was the reason for our initial contacts with President Tyler.

"Unfortunately, as all of you are also aware, the Constitutional Convention in Spindle has ratified this new constitution, turning virtually the entire Cluster into another lobe of the Star Kingdom. Which means, of course, that what we hoped to prevent as a measure of self-defense by means of our support for President Tyler has become an established fact."

Several faces had tightened at her mention of the Constitutional Convention, and she concealed a mental smile of catlike satisfaction as she saw them. Frankly, she'd been flabbergasted—initially, at least—to learn that New Tuscany had, in fact, declined to ratify the new constitution. In their place, she would have been falling all over herself to get under the Manticoran security umbrella and share in the flood tide of commerce and investment which was likely to be coming the Cluster's way. Except, of course, for that other little problem they had. She'd already concluded, just in the short trip from the spaceport to this meeting, that Bardasano's analysis of the New Tuscan oligarchs and their motivations had been right on the money. In fact, the lid was screwed down even more tightly here on New Tuscany than she'd expected from Bardasano's briefings. Uniformed security forces had been a high-visibility part of the ground car drive from the shuttle pad, and she'd noticed an extraordinarily high number of extraordinarily obvious (for a planet with New Tuscany's tech base) security cameras on light standards and at intersections. No doubt there were other, far less obtrusive measures in place to monitor the situation without giving away their presence, but clearly the New Tuscan security forces wanted to do more than simply keep a close eye on things. They also wanted to make any potential troublemakers abundantly aware of the point that they were keeping that eye on things.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea, weren't you, Mr. President? Her mental tone was mocking, although she supposed it wasn't very funny from the New Tuscans' perspective. If you didn't ratify the constitution, you got left out in the cold where all that lovely investment and capital flow were involved. But if you did ratify it, you'd've had the Manties swarming all over New Tuscany, and they wouldn't have approved of your 'security measures' at all, would they?

Looked at from that perspective, she supposed the New Tuscan decision to opt out of the constitutional process when Manticore and their fellow Talbott delegates declined to give them the domestic security carte blanche they'd insisted upon actually made a degree of sense. The last thing any properly exploitative oligarchs could afford was for their social inferiors to get uppity notions, after all. Unfortunately for New Tuscany, the mere example of what was about to happen in the rest of the Cluster was virtually certain to contaminate their star system with those very notions. Their only real hope had been to siphon off enough of the increasing commerce and Manticoran investment to provide an at least modest but real improvement in the general New Tuscan standard of living. Frankly, the chance of their ever having been able to control the situation through any combination of carrot and stick had never been realistic, in Anisimovna's opinion, but it appeared to be the only one they'd been able to come up with.

Not surprisingly, since the only other approach would have been to recognize when they were beaten and try to make the best terms they could with the people they've been systematically pissing on—and pissing off—for the last two or three generations, she thought. Somehow, I don't think they would have enjoyed the only terms they could get.

"As you say, it would appear the organization of this 'Talbott Quadrant' is an accomplished fact, Ms. Anisimovna," Prime Minister Vézien said. His tone was sour, but she noticed he was regarding her shrewdly. "Yet somehow I can't avoid the suspicion that you wouldn't have come to call on us—or been so . . . forthcoming, shall we say?—about your involvement with Monica unless you thought that state of affairs could somehow still be . . . rectified."

"I see you're as perceptive as my briefings suggested you were, Mr. Prime Minister. Yes, we do believe the situation can be rectified, which I'm sure you here in New Tuscany would find almost as welcome as we would in Mesa. And, to anticipate your next question, yes, again. I have come here to discuss ways in which the two of us could assist one another in bringing that rectification about."

"Forgive me for pointing this out, Ms. Anisimovna," Alesta Cardot said, "but the last star system you recruited for this no doubt laudable objective doesn't seem to have fared very well."

"And there's also the little matter of certain collateral damage inflicted by your previous efforts, if you'll pardon me for saying so," Dusserre added. The Security Minister met Anisimovna's eyes very levelly, and she nodded slightly in acknowledgment of his point.

"Madam Minister," she said to Cardot, "you're absolutely correct about what happened to Monica. As I've already said, however, that was due to a completely unpredictable coincidence of circumstances—circumstances which are unlikely, at the very least, to ever repeat themselves. Moreover, even if they—or something like them—did repeat, they would have no significant impact on the strategy we have in mind this time. And, Mr. Dusserre," she said, turning to face the Security Minister squarely, "I'm afraid we must plead guilty to supplying Agnes Nordbrandt and her fellow lunatics with the wherewithal for their campaign against the Kornatian authorities. I'm sure that's made subsequent difficulties for you here on New Tuscany, and my own reading of events suggests that it helped Alquezar and his allies force through the constitutional provisions they favored all along. I regret that, but, in fairness, I ought to point out that at the time we decided to supply Nordbrandt, our objectives revolved around Monica, not anyone here in the Cluster itself. The consequences here on New Tuscany are unfortunate, but to be brutally honest, at that time New Tuscany was completely secondary to our calculations and concerns."

"Well, that's certainly frank enough, Ms. Anisimovna," Cardot said dryly.

"In this case, Madam Secretary," Anisimovna replied, "candor is clearly the best policy. And since that's the case, there's very little point in pretending that what I'm here to discuss is anything except a marriage of pragmatic self-interest. I'd be the first to admit you have a lovely planet here. Indeed, I quite enjoyed observing it from orbit and on the flight down, and the scenery around the spaceport is breathtaking. Nonetheless, it would be dishonest of me to pretend that Mesa has any intrinsic interest whatsoever in New Tuscany . . . aside from the fashion in which the two of us can assist one another in bringing about a state of affairs we both desire."

"I see." President Boutin folded his hands in front of him on his desk blotter and cocked his head to one side. "I think you're probably correct that there's no need for New Tuscany and Mesa to pretend they're bosom friends. At the same time, however, Alesta's point about what happened to Monica is entirely valid. I'm sure I speak for the rest of my colleagues when I say we have absolutely no interest in experiencing the same unfortunate consequences. And, to return candor for candor, Mesa's sheer distance from the Cluster, and your planet's habit of . . . acting from behind the scenes, shall we say, offers you quite a bit of protection which would not be available to us if we should arouse the Manties' ire. As you've already said, they have a pattern of using military force to achieve their policy ends, and please don't be offended, but I'd really prefer not to have the Royal Manticoran Navy do to us what it did to Monica."

"Mr. President, frankness is unlikely ever to offend me. And I entirely understand your feelings. However, I believe I can explain why what happened to Monica most definitely will not be happening to New Tuscany."

"Speaking for myself, as Minister of War, and, I'm sure, for all of us, I would be fascinated to hear that explanation," Nicholas Pélisard said, and his tone was even drier than Cardot's had been.

"The most important single difference between what we're envisioning this time around and the Monican operation is that we've decided our biggest mistake in Monica was attempting to maintain too great a degree of deniability. We stayed too far out of the loop—and relied too heavily on Monica to 'front' for us—when we arranged to supply President Tyler with the battlecruisers he required for his part of the operation."

"Which was?" Dusserre inquired mildly, and she looked at him. "We've heard several possible explanations. I was simply wondering which one—if any of them—was accurate?" the security minister added mildly, and he smiled.

It was cynical, that smile, but behind it she saw something else. Something not even his years of calculation and power could hide. Dusserre was a player, someone who gravitated as naturally to power—and to his own position as New Tuscany's chief policeman—as a moth gravitated towards an open flame, yet she wondered if he was truly aware of the fear she saw behind that smile. The sense that the entire power structure of his homeworld was sliding inexorably towards collapse . . . 

Albrecht and Isabel were right, Anisimovna thought. These people are desperate enough to save their little house of cards to be nicely receptive. What was it that Old Earth king said? Something about 'After me, the flood'? Well, these people already feel the water lapping around their ankles, don't they? That's good.

"The objective," she said aloud, looking him straight in the eye, "was for Tyler to secure control of the Lynx Terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction. Commissioner Verrochio, of the Office of Frontier Security, was prepared to support his actions—completely impartially, of course—while the League arranged for a new plebiscite, under OFS supervision, to determine the validity of the original plebiscite returns in favor of seeking annexation by Manticore. I'm afraid the commissioner anticipated discovering widespread fraud in the Manticoran plebiscite." She shook her head sadly. "If that had turned out to be the case, then obviously Frontier Security would have had no choice but to set those flawed results aside in favor of the results of its own plebiscite. Which would undoubtedly have led to the endorsement of a Cluster-wide government under the leadership and protection of the Monican Navy and recognized by the Solarian League as the legitimate government of the Cluster."

She had the satisfaction of seeing even Dusserre's eyes widen slightly as she admitted the breadth and scope of the original plan. She'd thought it was an audacious but workable plan herself, when she sold it to Roberto Tyler in the first place. Of course, she hadn't realized then what the Alignment's real objective was. And she had absolutely no intention of explaining that real objective to these people, either.

"I don't think New Tuscany would have liked that very much, Ms. Anisimovna," Honorine Huppé said after a moment, and Anisimovna chuckled.

"I don't imagine you would have, Madam Minister. Of course, that wasn't exactly foremost in our thinking when we formulated the plan. And, for that matter, New Tuscany's unhappiness would all have been a matter of perspective, wouldn't it?" She smiled winsomely as several of the New Tuscans bridled. "After all, the perspective is always different, depending upon who's on the bottom and who's on the top."

Boutin had been about to say something. Now the President paused, his expression arrested, and closed his mouth slowly.

"Are we to understand, Ms. Anisimovna," Cardot asked just a bit caustically, "that you now propose to take us to the mountaintop and show us the same vista you offered to President Tyler?"

"In general terms, yes," Anisimovna told the foreign minister calmly. "Except for a couple of minor changes."

"What sort of 'minor changes'?" Vézien asked.

"Instead of striking directly for the Lynx Terminus and using its disputed possession—plus, of course, the brutal repression of patriotic resistance groups spontaneously arising in reaction to the corrupt plebiscite—as the opening wedge for inviting Frontier Security to intervene to prevent additional bloodshed, we intend to demonstrate Manticoran vengefulness and arrogant imperialism to the galaxy at large," Anisimovna replied. "In particular, we're well aware of the fashion in which Baroness Medusa and Prime Minister Alquezar are already attempting to freeze New Tuscany out of the Cluster's new economic order. Alas, we have reason to believe this is only the first step in Manticore's attempt to punish New Tuscany for its principled stand against that bogus Constitutional Convention from which you withdrew your delegates. Worse, we feel confident, is still to come."

"What sort of 'worse'?" Huppé asked, her dark eyes narrow.

"Harassment of your shipping, violations of your territory, that sort of thing," Anisimovna replied with a sigh. "Indeed, I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover that they've already been harassing your merchant shipping, trying to squeeze you out of the Cluster's markets."

"And assuming we could provide you with documentation of such harassment, just what would you do with it?" Pélisard asked.

"Why, we wouldn't do anything with it." Anisimovna widened her eyes innocently. "I'm sure, however, that if you were to draw these weighty matters to the attention of Commissioner Verrochio, he would feel constrained to take them most seriously. Especially after the fashion in which Manticore brutally assaulted the Union of Monica in time of peace. Under the circumstances, I feel positive that he would dispatch a significant force here to New Tuscany to fully investigate matters. And, should it transpire that your allegations of harassment are justified, that same significant force would be under orders to protect you from further infringements of your territoriality."

"Forgive me for pointing this out," Pélisard said, "but the naval resources Commissioner Verrochio personally controls are quite limited. I'm afraid a handful of destroyers, or even a cruiser division or two, would scarcely constitute a significant deterrent to the Manticoran Navy."

"No, they wouldn't," Anisimovna agreed. "However, a full squadron or two of Frontier Fleet battlecruisers would, I suspect."

"A squadron or two?" Pélisard blinked.

"Or even three," she said calmly. "I just happen to know that a Frontier Fleet task force has been dispatched to the Madras Sector to reinforce Commissioner Verrochio's OFS naval detachment. It's under the command of an Admiral Byng, I understand. And it just happens I have a small file on him with me." She extracted a data chip folio from her slender purse and laid it on the corner of Boutin's desk. "It's fascinating viewing, actually. Or I think so, at least. Admiral Byng would appear to be the sort of League officer who recognizes Manticoran arrogance and imperialism for what they are. The sort of officer who would be naturally disposed to at least listen to the complaints of some single-system star nation which finds itself being bullied and harassed by the 'Star Kingdom.' If Commissioner Verrochio—or, for that matter, your own government—were to request him to send a detachment here to New Tuscany to investigate matters personally, I feel confident he would agree."

"And if it happened when he did that there was a . . . confrontation between him and the Manties . . ." Pélisard's voice trailed off, and Anisimovna nodded.

"Of course, by far the most likely outcome would be for the Manticorans to back down," she said. "They may have been willing enough to take on Solarian battlecruisers in Monican hands—after all, the Monican Navy had neither the experience to make full use of them nor the industrial power to replace them if they were damaged or destroyed—but I suspect they'd be far more leery of facing battlecruisers crewed by the Solarian Navy. And if they were foolish enough to do anything of the sort, I'm sure the SLN would make short work of them."

Pélisard looked less than confident of that last sentence's accuracy. On the other hand, Anisimovna thought, he had to be aware of the enormous imbalance between the Solarian League's resources and those of the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Ultimately, no other star nation had the wherewithal to resist the juggernaut might of the League. Which meant . . .

She could almost see the gears turning inside his head as he worked his way through the implications of what she'd just said. She could tell the exact moment when he reached the end of the process, because his eyes narrowed suddenly and he looked at her very intently.

"In some ways, it would almost be a pity if they did back down, wouldn't it?" he observed slowly.

"Well, it would mean the situation would remain . . . unresolved," Anisimovna agreed. "It's sometimes necessary to lance a boil to drain its poisons. It's seldom a pleasant experience, but that doesn't make it any less necessary in the long run. So, yes, it would be . . . suboptimal."

"But if their local commander chose to be imprudent," Pélisard said even more slowly, "and if there happened to be some sort of shooting incident, then this Admiral Byng you've mentioned would almost be forced to take steps."

"Not just a minute, Nicholas!" Dusserre said sharply. " 'Shooting incidents' are all very well, I suppose. But I'm not at all happy about the thought of having one of them right here in New Tuscany!"

"I don't blame you a bit, Mr. Dusserre," Anisimovna said calmly. "I wouldn't much care for the thought of having something like that happen in my star system, either. As I say, though, it would be unlikely for anything of the sort to happen if Admiral Byng were present in strength. I'm thinking—as I'm sure Mr. Pélisard was—more of an incident which occurs somewhere else. One that could be . . . suitably tweaked, shall we say, to demonstrate the ruthlessness and viciousness of the Manticorans. Say, one of your warships, badly damaged or even destroyed by an unprovoked Manty attack. The trick would be to time the incident properly. Ideally, we'd have Admiral Byng already in the vicinity when we complain about this atrocity to Commissioner Verrochio."

"At which point he would presumably move that detachment you referred to to New Tuscany immediately," Pélisard said. "With orders not to allow any further Manticoran aggression. In fact, he'd probably sail straight to Spindle to demand an explanation, wouldn't he?"

"Oh, I feel confident he would." Anisimovna smiled. "And I imagine the odds of an unfortunate confrontation between him and the Manties would be considerably enhanced when he did. Oh, and I suppose I should also mention that my sources tell me a sizable force fromBattle Fleet is also in this general neck of the galaxy. Carrying out training exercises in the McIntosh System, I believe."

It was very, very quiet in President Boutin's office. The McIntosh System was barely fifty light-years from Meyers, and Meyers was only a very little over three hundred light-years from New Tuscany. Which meant any task group carrying out exercises at McIntosh could reach New Tuscany in as little as thirty-two T-days.

"Given McIntosh's proximity to Meyers, I strongly suspect Commissioner Verrochio would send the Battle Fleet senior officer there a message, requesting her assistance, at the same time as he dispatched Admiral Byng—or one of the admiral's squadrons, at least—to New Tuscany to investigate your allegations. Which would mean, of course, that even if some Manticoran officer were foolish enough to fire upon New Tuscan units or anything of the sort, Admiral Byng would have ample forces in close proximity which he could call upon to . . . stabilize the situation once more."

The quiet was more intense than ever, and as Aldona Anisimovna listened to it, she knew she had their complete attention.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Just under twenty-five T-days after leaving Spindle, Michelle Henke's flagship crossed the alpha wall into the star system of Monica. Michelle sat in her command chair on Artemis' flag deck, watching her displays and wondering what sort of reception she and her ships were likely to receive.

The dispatch boat with O'Malley's orders had sailed directly from the Lynx Terminus to Monica, without detouring by Spindle. That had saved it the better part of eleven days in transit, and the boat which had brought copies of his orders to Spindle had arrived there three days before Michelle had departed. Which meant, by her math, that O'Malley's task group had received its marching orders just under two T-weeks ago. Assuming Hexapuma's and Warlock's repairs had completed on schedule, they should have been ready to head home even before that, which would have freed O'Malley from any concerns for their security if he withdrew immediately in response to his orders. So, assuming everything had gone the way it was supposed to, there would be no Manticoran warship waiting here in Monica to greet her.

And somehow I don't really think 'President Tyler' is going to be particularly happy to see me, either, even if we are"treaty partners" now, she thought sardonically. So maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to sort of scout the area before I head in-system.

The planet of Monica itself lay just over eleven light-minutes inside the G3 primary's 20.6-light-minute hyper limit, and Captain Conner's division's closing speed was barely two thousand kilometers per second. At maximum military power with zero safety margin on her inertial compensator,Artemis' maximum acceleration was better than 6.5 KPS2, which was a third again what any prewar ship of her tonnage could have turned out. Even at the eighty percent of maximum power which was the RMN's normal top acceleration, she could produce 5.3 KPS2, which was still the next best thing to half a kilometer per second better than the old-style compensators could have produced running flat out. Given the present . . . delicate state of affairs with the Solarian League, the Admiralty had decided it might be wiser not to flaunt all of the Navy's current capabilities where Solly warships might see them. According to ONI's best current appreciations, the Solarians remained unaware of many of those capabilities. Some people—including Michelle—took that appreciation with a certain grain of salt, although she had to admit it wasn't as preposterous as it might have been if they'd been talking about any other navy in space.

It was obvious to anyone who'd ever had to deal with the Solarian League Navy that the SLN suffered from an extraordinarily severe case of professional myopia. The League's navy was divided into two primary components: Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet. Of the two, Battle Fleet was the bigger and the more prestigious, but Frontier Fleet actually did the lion's share of the SLN's real work. Given the League's enormous size, population, and industrial power, it was scarcely surprising that the SLN was far and away the biggest fleet in human history. Unfortunately for the League, the SLN knew it was the biggest, most powerful, most advanced fleet in human history . . . and at least one—and possibly two—of those well known facts were no longer true.

The League's towering sense of superiority where any "neobarb" star nation was concerned, while scarcely one of its more endearing qualities, didn't normally constitute a direct threat to the League's security. When it's navy shared that same sense of superiority (and burnished it with the institutional arrogance of a service which had existed literally for centuries and never known defeat), that wasn't exactly the case, however. Despite the fact that several of the League's member planets had sent observers from their locally raised and maintained system-defense forces to both Manticore and Haven, the SLN itself, so far as Michelle was aware, never had. There was, after all, no reason for it to concern itself with what a couple of minor, neo-barbarian polities on the backside of beyond might be up to. Even assuming that Manticore and Haven hadn't been too busy killing each other (no doubt with the equivalent of clubs and flint hand-axes), both of them together couldn't possibly have built a fleet large enough to threaten the League, and the thought that two such insignificant so-called star nations could have appreciably improved upon the technology of the incomparable Solarian League Navy was ludicrous.

No one at ONI doubted for a moment that the SDF observers had offered their reports to the SLN. The majority opinion, however, was that the SLN's institutional blinkers were so solidly in place that those reports had been quietly filed and ignored . . . assuming they hadn't simply been tossed. The SDFs were only local defense forces, after all—the backup, second-string militia to the SLN's professional, first-string team. They were obviously going to be more parochial in their viewpoints, and, without the SLN's sound basis of training and vast experience, they were also likely to be unduly alarmist. Not to mention the fact that without the solid core of institutional and professional competence of the regular navy, their "observers" were far more prone to misunderstand—or even be deliberately misled by—what the neobarbs in question made sure they actually saw. Even if Solly naval intelligence was willing to grant their complete sincerity, the analytical methods already in place, relying upon tested and proven techniques, were bound to be more reliable than reports from what were little more than reservist observers who'd probably been steered to what the locals wanted them to see in the first place.

That, at any rate, was how ONI read the SLN's current attitudes and decision trees, and the Sollies' failure to deploy any significant improvements in their own military hardware certainly seemed to validate that interpretation, although Michelle, for one, preferred not to invest too much confidence in that particular assumption. The mere fact that no new hardware was being deployed didn't necessarily mean it wasn't being developed, after all, and for all its arrogance and condescension, the fact remained that the League had the greatest pool of human talent and wealth of any political unit in human history. If the SLN ever got its collective head out of its ass, that talent and wealth could almost certainly make it just as scary as it already thought it was.

Whether or not there was more R&D going on than anyone was mentioning, ONI's sources within the Solly navy all seemed pretty much in agreement that the vast majority of Solarian naval officers put very little credence in the obviously wildly exaggerated claims about Manticoran and Havenite military technology. Based on evidence from the Battle of Monica, the Sollies (or one of their major defense suppliers, at any rate) were at least experimenting with newer-generation missile pods, which was something they'd previously disdained, and their missiles' drives had proven surprisingly powerful and with greater endurance than anyone had really expected. But none of the missiles they'd fired—or, rather, supplied to Monica—had been MDMs, their pods hadn't had the new-generation grav-drivers which were so much a part of Manticore's designs, and there'd been no reports of increases in basic Solarian warship acceleration rates, which were incredibly low and inefficient compared to those of the Manticoran Alliance or even the Republic of Haven. After stirring all of that together and pondering it carefully, the Office of Naval Intelligence had come to the conclusion that at least some improvements could be anticipated out of the SLN, possibly as the result of privately sponsored in-house research and development by people like Technodyne, but that significant improvements were unlikely, at least in the short term.

Bearing that in mind, the Admiralty had instructed all of its captains not to exceed seventy percent of maximum military power in the presence of Solarian warships. The use of Ghost Rider and FTL coms was also to be minimized. And no MDM live-fire exercises were to be conducted in Solarian space.

All of which meant thatArtemis' maximum allowable acceleration was only 4.7 KPS2, and that it would take almost three and a half hours to reach a parking orbit around Monica. That was plenty of time for her to deploy recon drones to take a close look at the local real estate and report back, even using light-speed communications links.

"All right, Dominica," Michelle said, glancing at Commander Adenauer. "Confirm that the grav-pulse coms are shut down, then go ahead and fire them off."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," the operations officer replied. She checked her own readouts carefully, then keyed in the command. "Drones away, Ma'am."

"Very good."

Michelle tipped back her command chair, waiting patiently as Artemis and the other ships of her first-division accelerated steadily—if slowly—towards Monica.

"Well, this is a fine kettle of fish," Michelle murmured an hour later as she gazed at the data codes on the master plot.

Artemis' combat information center had analyzed the (slowly) arriving sublight transmissions from the recon probes, and it was apparent that there had, indeed, been some changes since Vice Admiral Khumalo had received Vice Admiral O'Malley's latest update. The absence of any Manticoran units was scarcely a surprise, and while she couldn't precisely call the arrival of a visiting squadron of Frontier Fleet battlecruisers a surprise, the number of ships present was certainly unpleasant.

"CIC makes these eight their newNevada-class, Ma'am," Dominica Adenauer said, highlighting the icons in question. "The other nine battlecruisers are Indefatigables. The IDs on the destroyers are a lot more tentative than that. CICthinks they're allRampart-class, but they can't guarantee it." She grimaced. "Frontier Fleet's modified and refitted so many of the Ramparts that no two of their emission signatures really match one another."

"I don't suppose the tin-cans really matter all that much," Michelle replied, still gazing at the icons. Then she turned and glanced at Edwards. "Still no communications from them, Bill?"

"No, Ma'am." Edwards' tone could not have been more respectful, but it was undeniably . . . patient, and a smile flitted across Michelle's lips.

Guess I must be a little more nervous than I'm trying to pretend. If anybody over there had wanted to talk to us, Bill would have told me. Maybe I need to ask less obviously time-killing questions if I want to look suitably imperturbable during these little moments of stress?

Still, she supposed she could forgive herself for feeling just a little tense, under the circumstances. Finding seventeen Solarian battlecruisers in orbit around the planet Monica constituted a rather significant escalation in potential threat levels. Whatever else might be happening, she had an unpleasant suspicion that their presence was evidence the Solarian League wasn't planning on pulling in its horns quietly after all.

Don't borrow trouble, she scolded herself. It could be as simple as a reassuring gesture to a longtime "ally" like President Tyler. Frontier Security wouldn't like the perception that it's prepared to abandon its stooges at the drop of a hat to get around, after all. For that matter, they could just be here to show the flag and shore up the League's prestige in the area after the hammering Monica took.

The problem with both of those comforting theories was that it didn't really require two full squadrons of battlecruisers to make either of those points. And the fact that no one had taken the slightest notice of the arrival of her own four ships struck her as ominous. Either they really hadn't noticed her, which seemed . . . unlikely, or else they were deliberately ignoring her as if she were unworthy of their attention. Which was precisely the sort of dismissive arrogance all too many Manticoran officers had experienced from Sollies in the past.

And if they did send these people out to make some kind of statement, and if the officer in command of them really is a typically arrogant, pompous twit, things could get messy, she thought grimly.

"Do you want to open communications with them, Ma'am?" Cynthia Lecter asked quietly.

"Eventually, one of us is going to have to talk to the other one," Michelle replied wryly. "But while I don't really want to get into some sort of stare-the-other-fellow-down pissing contest about it, I'll be damned if we're going to be the whiny, nervous little kid begging the great big bully to take notice of us, either."

Lecter nodded, although Michelle thought she detected at least a faint shadow of concern behind the chief of staff's eyes. If so, she wasn't exactly surprised. One of the jobs of a good chief of staff was to worry about the mistakes her boss might be making rather than play yes-woman.

"We're still two and a half hours out of Monica orbit," Michelle observed, "and they're the people already in orbit. Besides, we're squawking our transponders, and technically this is still Monican space."

Lecter nodded again. The accepted interstellar convention was that the fleet in possession of a star system or a planet initiated contact with any newcomers. If contact wasn't initiated, if no challenge was offered, it indicated the fleet in possession wasn't planning on shooting at anyone who got too close. Besides, as Michelle had just pointed out, the Union of Monica was not a member system of the Solarian League, which made any Solarian units in Monican space at least as much visitors as the First Division. No doubt everyone understood perfectly well that Monica's sovereignty—such as it was, and what there was of it—currently existed only on sufferance, but there were still appearances to maintain. Which meant that unless the Sollies had, in fact, occupied the star system, any contact—or challenges—should be coming from Monican traffic control, not from the Sollies.

Or, for that matter, from Manticore.

"Somehow, I think this is going to be an interesting port call, Ma'am," Lecter said quietly.

"Oh, I think you could safely put the odd thousand-dollar bet on that one, Cindy."

"We've been hailed by the Monicans, Ma'am," Captain Armstrong said from Michelle's com screen. "Finally."

Her voice was dust-dry, and Michelle chuckled as her flag captain added the final word.

"And they said?" she inquired.

"And they said we're welcome to Monica, Ma'am. Personally, I expect they're lying diplomatically through their teeth, given what happened the last time Queen's ships came calling here, but at least they're being polite."

"Did they happen to mention their Solarian visitors?"

"Not in so many words. They did instruct us to assume a parking orbit a minimum of eight thousand klicks clear of the closest Solly, though."

"Probably not a bad idea even if they hadn't made the suggestion official," Michelle said. "All right, Vicki. Go ahead and park us."

"Yes, Ma'am. Clear."

Armstrong nodded respectfully to Michelle, then disappeared from the display, and Michelle turned to Lecter, Edwards, and Adenauer, who stood in a loose semicircle around her command chair.

"So far, so good," she said. "And God knows I don't want to ruffle any Solly feathers any more than we have to. Nonetheless, Dominica, I think it would be a good idea to keep a very close eye on them. Let's make it passives only, but if a gnat breaks wind aboard one of those ships, I want to know about it. And inform all units that we'll maintain our own status at Readiness Two indefinitely."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Adenauer's expression was sober, and Michelle didn't blame her. Readiness Two was also known as "General Quarters." It meant that all of a ship's engineering and life-support systems were fully manned, of course, but it also meant her combat information center and tactical department were fully manned, as well. That her passive sensors were fully manned; that her active sensors were at immediate readiness; that her point defense laser clusters were active and enabled under computer control; that her counter-missile launchers had rounds in the tubes and backup rounds in the loading arms; that her passive defensive systems and EW were on-line, ready for instant activation; that her offensive missile tubes were prepped and loaded; and that the human backup crews for half her energy weapons were sealed into their armored capsules with the atmosphere in the surrounding spaces evacuated to protect them against the effects of blast. The other half of her energy weapons would be brought up and manned on a rotating basis to allow crew rest for the on-mount personnel, and twenty-five percent of her watch personnel from all other departments would be allowed rotating rest breaks, in order to allow her to remain at Readiness Two for extended periods.

In short, except for bringing up her wedge and sidewalls and running out her energy weapons,Artemis and every one of Michelle's other battlecruisers would be ready to respond almost instantly to any Solarian act of aggression.

Of course, it's that "almost instantly" that's the killer, Michelle reflected. Especially at this piddling little range. They could reach us with their damned laser clusters, far less their broadside mounts! Keeping our wedges and sidewalls up in parking orbit would certainly be construed as a hostile act by the Sollies or the Monicans, and rightly so. But that means that if someone else decides to pull the trigger, they'll probably blow the ever-loving shit out of us before we can respond, anyway. Still, it's the thought that counts.

"I don't want to do anything that could be construed as provocative, Cindy," she continued aloud, switching her attention to the chief of staff.

It wasn't as if Lecter didn't already know that perfectly well, but Michelle had learned a long time ago that it was far better to make absolutely certain of something like that than it was to discover the hard way that someone hadn't in fact known something "perfectly" . . . or, for that matter, at all.

"At the same time," Michelle went on as Lecter nodded, "I don't have any intention of letting these people 'Thunderbolt' us while we sit here fat, happy, and stupid. So I want you to help Dominica ride herd on CIC. If we pick up any status change aboard any of those Solly ships, I want to know about it before they do."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Good. And now," Michelle drew a deep breath and turned her attention to Edwards, "I suppose it's time I did my duty and checked in with our hosts personally. And, of course," she smiled without any humor at all, "with our fellow visitors to this pleasant little corner of the universe. Please raise the Monican port admiral for me, Bill."

"Yes, Ma'am."

The conversation with Rear Admiral Jane Garcia, Monica Traffic Control's senior officer, went rather better than Michelle had anticipated.

Garcia didn't even attempt to pretend she was happy to see Michelle's battlecruisers, for which Michelle couldn't blame her. Having been a prisoner of war herself, she had a better appreciation than many Manticoran officers might have of just how bitter a pill it must have been to see the destruction of virtually Monica's entire navy. Undoubtedly a great many of Garcia's personal friends—quite probably family members, as well, given the way military service tended to run in families in most star nations—had been killed along the way. And however much Manticore might have regarded Monica as a corrupt, venal tool of Frontier Security, the Union was Garcia's star nation. Its ignominious surrender, and the fashion in which Manticore had dictated peace terms afterward, could only have made Garcia's anger worse.

Despite that, the other woman's demeanor had been crisp and professional. Although she hadn't welcomed Michelle to Monica, she'd been surprisingly courteous otherwise. Her lips might have tightened just a moment when Michelle asked her to pass her compliments to President Tyler, but she'd nodded almost naturally, then asked if Michelle had any pressing service requirements.

With that out of the way, unfortunately, Michelle no longer had any excuse for not contacting theSolarian senior officer. Fortunately, Garcia had volunteered the Solly's name.

"All right, Bill," Michelle sighed. "Go ahead and raise Admiral Byng's flagship. I suppose—"

"Just a minute, Ma'am," Cynthia Lecter interrupted respectfully. Michelle paused and looked at her chief of staff, one eyebrow arched, and Lecter nodded towards the display in front of her at her own command station.

"I've just been looking at ONI's records, Ma'am," she said. "I punched in Admiral Byng's name, and it looks like I got a direct hit."

"Really?"

Both of Michelle's eyes rose in surprise. The Office of Naval Intelligence did its best to keep track of the senior personnel of other navies, but its records on the SLN were sparser than on, say, the Republic of Haven or the Andermani Empire. Despite the Manticoran merchant marine's deep penetration of the League's carrying trade, the Solarian Navy had been assigned a far lower priority than more local—and pressing—threats over the past half-century or so. And the fact that the SLN was so damned big didn't help. The same absolute number of officers represented a far smaller percentage of the total Solly officer corps, all of which helped to explain why it was actually unusualto find any given Solarian officer in the database.

"I think so, at any rate," Lecter replied. "It's always possible they have more than one Admiral Josef Byng, I suppose."

"Given the size of their damned navy?" Michelle snorted. "I'd say the odds were pretty good, actually." She shrugged. "Well, go ahead and shoot me whatever you've found."

"Yes, Ma'am."

The entry which appeared on Michelle's display a moment later was surprisingly long. For reasons which became depressingly clear as she skimmed through it.

The file imagery showed a tall, aristocratic-looking man with chestnut hair, just starting to go gray at the temples, and sharp blue eyes. He had a strong chin and sported a bristling mustache and a neatly trimmed goatee. Indeed, he looked every centimeter the complete professional naval officer in his immaculately tailored dress whites.

The biographical synopsis which went with that sharp, taut imagery, however, was . . . less aesthetically pleasing.

"It says here he's a Battle Fleet officer," Michelle said aloud, and even to herself, her tone sounded plaintive, like someone protesting that there surely had to be some sort of mistake.

"I know, Ma'am." Lecter looked profoundly unhappy.

"I hope—oh, how I hope—that either you've got the wrong man or else this is just a very unhappy coincidence," Michelle said, and Lecter nodded.

In many ways, Josef Byng was a typical product of the SLN, according to the ONI file. He came from a family which had been providing senior officers to the League Navy for the better part of seven hundred T-years; he'd graduated from the naval academy on Old Terra; and he'd gone directly into Battle Fleet, which was far more prestigious than Frontier Fleet. He was a second-generation prolong recipient who was just over a T-century old, and he'd been an admiral for the last thirty-two T-years. Unlike the Royal Manticoran Navy, the SLN had not developed the habit of routinely rotating senior officers in and out of fleet command to keep them current both operationally and administratively, and it looked as if Byng (or his family) had possessed sufficient pull to keep him in what were at least technically space-going commands for virtually his entire flag career.

That didn't mean as much in Battle Fleet as it might have in other navies, given the huge percentage of Battle Fleet's wall which spent virtually all of its time in what the SLN euphemistically referred to as "Ready Reserve Status." It was quite possible for an admiral to spend several T-years in command of a squadron of superdreadnoughts, accruing the seniority—and drawing the pay—which went with that assignment, while the superdreadnoughts in question simply went right on floating around in their mothballed parking orbits without a single soul on board.

What was much more interesting to Michelle at the moment, however, was the fact that fifty-nine T-years ago, a young, up-and-coming Captain Josef Byng had been officially reprimanded—and moved back two hundred names on the seniority list—for harassing Manticoran shipping interests.

Her skimming eyes slowed down as she reread that particular portion of the entry again, and she grimaced. Despite the ONI analyst's dry, rather pedantic writing style, it was easy enough to read between the lines. Captain Byng had clearly been one of those Solly officers who regarded neobarbs—like Manticorans—as two or three steps below chimpanzees on the evolutionary tree. It also appeared that his wealthy and aristocratic family (although, of course, Old Terra didn't have an aristocracy . . . officially) was deeply involved in interstellar commerce.

It was common enough in Manticore for families involved in the Star Kingdom's vast shipping industry to provide officers for the Navy, as well, and Michelle was perfectly well aware that more than one of those officers had used and abused her authority in her family's interest. When the RMN became aware of those instances of abuse, however, it usually took action. On those rare occasions—which no longer occurred with anything like the frequency they once had—when the officer involved had proved too well connected for the JAG to deal with the situation, she'd normally been eased out of any command which might give her the opportunity to repeat the offense.

That, unfortunately, was not the case in the Solarian League, where cronyism and the abuse of power were both common and accepted. Especially in the Shell and the Verge, officers with "comfortable" relationships with the local OFS structure routinely used their positions to feather their own nests or promote their own interests. Captain Byng had obviously seen no reason why he shouldn't do the same thing, but his harassment had been far more blatant than most. He'd gone so far as to impound three Manticoran freighters on trumped up smuggling charges, and the crew of one of them had spent almost two T-years in prison without ever even being given the opportunity to face a judge.

The Star Kingdom had attempted to deal with the problem locally, without raising it to the level of a major diplomatic incident, but Byng had flatly refused even to discuss the matter with the local Manticoran trade and legal attachés. The terms in which he had expressed his refusal had been . . . less than diplomatic, and the second time around, the legal attaché, without Byng's knowledge, had recorded the entire conversation. Which had then been presented formally to the Solarian Foreign Minister by the Manticoran ambassador to the Solarian League—who'd happened to be an admiral himself—with a polite but pointed request that the minister look into the problem. Soon.

Unfortunately for Captain Byng, the Star Kingdom of Manticore carried far more clout than the "neobarbs" he was accustomed to browbeating. Faced with the politely veiled suggestion that failure to return the impounded vessels—and to free the imprisoned crewmen, with apologies and reparations—might very well result in higher junction transit fees for all Solarian merchantmen, the League's bureaucracy had sprung ponderously into action. It had taken another six T-months, but eventually, the ships and the imprisoned crewmen had been released, the League had paid a sizable damages award, and Captain Byng had been required to apologize formally for "exceeding his authority." Despite that, he'd gotten off incredibly lightly for someone whose actions—and stupidity—had embarrassed an entire star nation, Michelle thought. He'd been allowed to make his apology in written form, rather than in person, and any Manticoran officer who'd acted in the same fashion would undoubtedly have been dismissed from the Queen's service. In Byng's case, however, there'd never really been any possibility of that outcome. In fact, it was astonishing he'd even been moved back on the promotion lists.

It would appear from his subsequent record that he held everyone but himself responsible for that outcome, however. It had undoubtedly delayed his promotion to flag rank by several T-years, and it seemed evident that he blamed Manticore for his misfortunes.

Michelle would have found all of that sufficiently unhappy reading under any circumstances, but the fact that he was out here commanding a Frontier Fleet task force—and what looked, despite the fact that it was far larger than one normally saw in the Verge, to be a rather small one, for an officer of his seniority—made her even more unhappy.

Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet were not fond of one another. Battle Fleet, despite the fact that none of its capital ships had fired a shot in anger in over two T-centuries, received the lion's share of the SLN's funding and was by far the more prestigious of the two organizations. Its officer corps was populated almost exclusively with officers whose family backgrounds were similar to Byng's, making it virtually a closed caste. Whereas the RMN had a surprisingly high percentage of "mustangs"—officers who had risen from the enlisted ranks to obtain commissions—there were none at all of them in Battle Fleet. That helped contribute to an incredible (by Manticoran standards) narrowness of focus and interest on the part of the vast majority of Battle Fleet officers. Who not only tended to look down particularly long and snobbish noses at all non-Solarian navies—and even the planetary defense forces of major Solarian planets—but even looked down upon their Frontier Fleet counterparts as little more than jumped up policeman, customs agents and neobarb-bashers who obviously hadn't been able to make the cut for service in a real navy.

Frontier Fleet, for its part, regarded Battle Fleet officers as overbred, under-brained drones whose obsolescent capital ships—as outmoded and useless as they were themselves—soaked up enormous amounts of funding Frontier Fleet desperately needed. Personally, Michelle would have been even more incensed by the fact that so much of the funding officially spent on those same capital ships actually disappeared into the pockets of various Battle Fleet officers and their friends and families, but she supposed it would have been unrealistic to expect Frontier Fleet to feel the same way. After all, graft and "family interest" were as deeply ingrained a part of Frontier Fleet's institutional culture as they were for Battle Fleet. And to be fair, Frontier Fleet was also dominated by its hereditary officer caste, which resented the hell out of the juicier opportunities for peculation which came the way of its Battle Fleet counterpart. Still, its commissioned ranks contained a significantly higher percentage of "outsiders," and even a relatively tiny handful of mustangs of its own.

Bearing all of that in mind, no Battle Fleet admiral would have been happy to find herself assigned to command a mere Frontier Fleet task force. And no Frontier Fleet task force would have been happy to find her assigned to command it, either. Under any circumstances Michelle could think of, a Battle Fleet officer of Byng's seniority would have to regard a command like this as a demotion, probably even a professional insult, and he damned well ought to have had the family connections to avoid it.

If, of course, he'd wanted to avoid it.

Oh, I don't like this at all, she thought. This bastard must have "I hate Manticore" embroidered on his underwear, which means the situation out here just got one hell of a lot more . . . delicate. I wonder if it was all his idea? In fact, I hope it was. Because if it wasn't, if someone elsepulled strings to get him assigned to this particular task force and he went along with it willingly, I think we can all be damned sure it's not going to be for a reason we're going to like. On the other hand, I doubt anything I could say to him is going to make him like us any better, so I suppose I can just go ahead and be my normal, infinitely tactful sort.

"Well," she said finally, "I suppose I'd better go ahead and talk to him. Give me a minute to get my happy face put back on, Bill, then go on and hail him."

Chapter Twenty-Four

"Sir, the Manty admiral is on the com," Captain Willard MaCuill said. "It's a Vice Admiral Gold Peak. She's asking to speak to you."

"Oh, she is, is she?" Admiral Josef Byng smiled sardonically as he turned his command chair to face his staff communications officer. "Took her long enough to get around to it, didn't it? I wonder why that was?"

"Probably took her that long to get back out of the head after she changed her underwear, Sir," Rear Admiral Karlotte Thimár, Byng's chief of staff, replied with a nasty chuckle. "Not quite like the last time one of their ships was here, after all."

"No, it isn't," Byng agreed, and glanced at the tactical display on SLNS Jean Bart's flag bridge.

He didn't quite curl his lip as he considered the flag bridge's old-fashioned instrumentation and cramped size. He understood that Frontier Fleet had a lower priority for the Fleet 2000 upgrades, after all, so he'd also known from the beginning that it was unrealistic to expect better, but he didn't exactly attempt to conceal his feelings, either. There was no need, since all of his staff officers had come over with him from Battle Fleet. All of them shared his awareness of the step down they'd been forced to take for this particular mission, although they did do their best to conceal their feelings whenever any of their Frontier Fleet "brothers in arms" were present.

Not that anyone on either side of that particular division was actually likely to fool anyone very much, he supposed.

Still, even though they were only battlecruisers—and Frontier Fleet battlecruisers, at that—rather than the superdreadnought squadrons he should have had under command, Karlotte was undoubtedly correct about the Manties' reaction when they found seventeen Solarian League warships sitting here to greet them. Indeed, Byng's only real regret was that the Manty ships which had previously occupied the system had already withdrawn before his own command came over the hyper wall. He would've loved to see their reaction to his arrival. Or, for that matter, how they would respond when his third battlecruiser squadron arrived in a couple of T-weeks.

His eyes moved to the scarlet icons of the Manticoran ships, and this time his lip did curl ever so slightly as he considered CIC's data bars. Of course, it was a Frontier Fleet combat information center with a Frontier Fleet tactical crew, so one had to take its analyses with a grain of salt. Still, at this piddling little range, it was unlikely that even Frontier Fleet could get its sums wrong. Which meant the "battlecruisers" on his plot really did mass well over two million tons apiece.

Just like them and their so-called "navy," he thought contemptuously. No wonder the doomsayers have been whining and moaning about how "dangerous" Manty warships are all of a sudden. Hell, if we built "battlecruisers" twice the size of anyone else's, we could probably stick a lot of firepower into them, too! Sure, I'll bet they can take a lot of damage, too, but ONI's right. The real reason they're building them that damned big is the fact that they realize they couldn't go toe-to-toe with a real first-line navy without the tonnage advantage. And the biggest frigging "battlecruisers" in the galaxy won't help them if they ever come face to face with Battle Fleet!

Before deploying to command Task Group 3021, Byng had dutifully read through all of the intelligence appreciations. Not surprisingly, those from Frontier Fleet's analysts had been much more alarmist than anyone else's. Frontier Fleet had always had a tendency to jump at shadows, in large part because viewing with alarm was one way to try to twist the accountants' arms into diverting additional funding to it. Then too, one had to consider the quality of the officers making those reports.

Still, even Frontier Fleet's reports had sounded almost rational and reasonable compared to the ludicrous claims being made by some of the system-defense forces. God only knew why any of them had bothered to send observers to watch two batches of neobarbs five hundred light-years from nowhere in particular butchering each other with muzzle-loading cannon and cutlasses in the first place. Perhaps that was part of the explanation for the wild exaggerations some of those observers had included in their reports? Not even an SDF admiral was going to send a competent officer that far out to the back of beyond. No, he was going to send someone whose services could be easily dispensed with . . . and who wouldn't be missed for the weeks or months he'd spend in transit.

Oh, there was no doubt the Manties and their Havenite dance partners had managed to fall into at least some innovations as they stumbled about the dance floor with one another. For example, they obviously had improved their compensator performance to at least some extent, although clearly not to the level some of those "observers" were claiming. And even though it irritated him to admit it, fair was fair; that improvement in their compensators had sparked Solarian R&D efforts in the same direction. Given the difference between the basic capabilities of their respective scientific communities, however, there was no doubt that the Manties' advantage—never as great as those exaggerated reports had asserted—had already been pared away. He only had to look at the acceleration rate of those outsized "battlecruisers" to know that!

Oh, well, he thought. I suppose I'd better get this over with.

"Very well, Willard," he said, turning back from the plot. "Go ahead and put her through."

Well, so much for my hope that there were two Josef Byngs on the Solly officer list, Michelle thought as the Solarian admiral's face appeared on her display.

It had taken him long enough to get around to taking her call, but that had scarcely been surprising. A lot of Solarian naval officers liked to keep their inferiors waiting as a not-so-subtle way of emphasizing that inferiority.

"I'm Admiral Josef Byng, Solarian League Navy," the white-uniformed man on her display said. "To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?"

Michelle managed to keep her jaw from tightening. She'd never thought much of SLN officers' efficiency, but she rather suspected that Byng's subordinates had at least bothered to inform him of the identity of his caller. And she'd asked for him by name and rank, which made his self-introduction a deliberate and patronizing insult.

I can already see how this is going to go, she thought.

"Vice Admiral Gold Peak," she replied. "Royal Manticoran Navy," she added helpfully, just in case he hadn't recognized the uniform, and had the satisfaction of seeing his lips tighten ever so slightly.

"What can I do for you today . . . Admiral Gold Peak?" he inquired after a moment.

"I only screened to extend my respects. It's not often we see a full Frontier Fleet admiral this far out in the sticks."

From the look in Byng's eyes, he appreciated being called a Frontier Fleet officer even less than Michelle had expected him to. That was nice.

"Well, it's not often we have the sort of . . . incident which occurred here in Monica, either, Admiral Gold Peak," Byng replied after a moment. "Given the Union of Monica's long-standing and friendly relations with the League, I'm sure you can understand why it seemed like a good idea to send someone of our own out here for a firsthand impression of events."

"I certainly can," Michelle agreed. "We felt a need to do the same thing after the unfortunate events here in Monica." She shook her head. "I'm sure all of us regret what happened after Captain Terekhov attempted to ascertain exactly what President Tyler's intentions were. According to our own investigations, those battlecruisers provided to him for his projected attack on the Lynx Terminus were supplied by Technodyne. Have your people been able to turn up anything more about that, Admiral?"

"No." Byng showed his teeth in something a professional diplomat might have described as a smile. "No, we haven't. In fact, according to the briefings I received when I was dispatched, we still haven't managed to confirm where they came from."

"Aside from the fact that they obviously came from the SLN. Originally, I mean." Michelle smiled, adding the carefully timed qualifier as Byng appeared to swell visibly. "Obviously, once ships are listed for disposal and handed over to private hands for scrapping, the Navy's responsibility for them is pretty much at an end. And the paper trail can easily become . . . obscured, as we all know. Especially if some criminal—and civilian, of course—type is doing his best to make it obscure."

"No doubt. My own experience in those areas is somewhat limited, however. I'm sure our own investigation will be looking very carefully at the recordkeeping of our various suppliers. No doubt Technodyne will be included in that process."

Michelle toyed with the notion of telling him about the indictments which had already been handed down against several of Technodyne's senior executives. Given the Beowulf Terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction, her own information loop from the Old League was far shorter than Byng's could possibly be. She strongly suspected that he must at least have known which way the wind was setting before he set out for Monica, and the possibility that she might be able to push his blood pressure up into stroke levels made the temptation to rub his nose in the evidence that Technodyne had been caught with its hand in the cookie jar clear to the elbow almost overwhelming.

Down, girl, she told herself, suppressing the desire right womanfully.

"I'm sure it will be," she said instead. "In the meantime, however, may I assume you're also here in something of the role of observer of the Talbott Quadrant's integration into the Star Empire?"

"Star Empire?" Byng repeated, raising his eyebrows in polite surprise. "Is that what you've decided to call it?" He gave her a small, almost apologetic wave of his hand. "I'm afraid I hadn't heard that before I was deployed."

His tone made his own opinion of the delusions of grandeur involved in calling something the size of Manticore's new star nation an "empire," and Michelle smiled sweetly at him.

"Well, we had to call it something, Admiral. And given the political arrangements the Talbotters came up with at their constitutional convention, the term sounded logical. Of course, it's early days yet, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is." Byng smiled back at her, but his smile was considerably colder than hers had been. "I'm sure it's going to be interesting to see how . . . successfully your experiment works out."

"So far, it seems to be going quite well," Michelle said.

"So far," he agreed, with another of those smiles. "In answer to your question, however, yes. I have been instructed to observe events out here in the Talbott area. I'm sure you're aware the public back home was deeply interested in events out here. Especially after that unfortunate business on Kornati began to make it into the newsfaxes." He shook his head sadly. "Personally, I'm confident the entire affair was grossly exaggerated—newsies do need to sell subscriptions, after all. Still, the Foreign Ministry does feel a certain responsibility to get a firsthand impression of events there, as well as throughout the Cluster. I'm sure you can understand why that would be the case."

"Oh, believe me," Michelle assured him with deadly affability, "I can understand exactly why that would be the case, Admiral Byng. And, speaking for Her Majesty and Her Majesty's government, I'm sure all of the Star Empire's new member systems will be prepared to extend every possible courtesy to you."

"That's very welcome news, Admiral."

"And, while you're here, Admiral, if there's any way Her Majesty's Navy can assist you—for example, if you would care to set up joint anti-piracy or anti-slavery patrols—I'm sure Admiral Khumalo would be as delighted as I would to coordinate our operations with you."

"That's very kind of you." Byng smiled again. "Of course, unlike your new Star Empire, the League has no direct territorial interests in this region. Aside from the security of our own allies in the area, that is. And, of course, the security—and territorial integrity—of those star systems which have been taken under the protection of the Office of Frontier Security. I believe we can see to those obligations out of our own resources. At least, it's difficult for me to conceive of a threat to those interests which we couldn't deal with out of our own resources."

"No doubt." Michelle smiled back at him. "Well, in that case, Admiral Byng, I won't keep you any longer. We won't be in Monica for very long. This was just in the nature of making certain our new allies here were secure, so I imagine we'll be on our way to Tillerman shortly. I need to pay a courtesy call on President Tyler first, however. Governor General Medusa has instructed me to inform him that the Star Empire is prepared to extend government-guaranteed loans to any of its citizens who might be interested in investing here." Her smile turned sweeter. "I believe Baroness Medusa—and Her Majesty—believe it's the least we can do to help Monica recover from the consequences of that unfortunate event."

"That's remarkably generous of your Star Empire," Byng said.

"As I said, I'm sure everyone regrets what happened here, Admiral Byng. And Manticore's experience has been that extending a helping hand to ex-enemies and treating them as equals is one of the better ways to see to it that there's no repetition of all that unpleasantness."

"I see." Byng nodded. "Well, since you seem to have quite a lot that still needs doing, Admiral Gold Peak, I'll bid you good day."

"Thank you, Admiral. I hope your mission here is a successful one. Henke, clear."

Chapter Twenty-Five

"Take a seat, Matt," Commander Ursula Zeiss invited, pointing at one of the chairs in front of her desk as Lieutenant Maitland Askew stepped through her shipboard office door.

Askew obeyed the polite command, seating himself in the indicated chair, then watched as she punched the console button to close the door behind him.

Askew was twenty-eight T-years old, with sandy-brown hair, brown eyes, and a wiry build. He was slightly below average in height—in fact, the compactly but solidly built Zeiss was at least a centimeter taller than he was—and something about him gave an impression of continual bemusement. Zeiss was one of the people who knew better than to take that "bemusement" at face value. There was a brain behind those mild brown eyes, and it seldom truly shut down.

Which, of course, was part of her current problem, she thought, sitting back and contemplating him thoughtfully across her desk.

"You wanted to see me, Ma'am?" he observed after several moments of her silent scrutiny, and she snorted.

"Of course I wanted to see you. I always want to see you, don't I?"

Askew's lips twitched ever so slightly at her acerbic tone. Zeiss was SLNS Jean Bart's tactical officer, and Askew had been her assistant tac officer for almost two T-years now. They'd worked well together over that time, but there was no denying that they had fundamentally different personalities. Zeiss was an excellent training officer, and her main interest—and strength—lay in recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of her human material and adjusting for them. Askew's personnel management skills, while adequate, were nowhere near as strong as hers were, and his main interest was in what he called the "nuts and bolts" of the tactical officer's trade. As a result, Zeiss tended to leave hardware issues in his hands while she got on with other things. As a rule, that worked well, but sometimes the difference in their emphases led to a certain amount of . . . friction, perhaps. That wasn't really the exact word Askew was searching for, but it came closer than anything else he could come up with.

"I'd like to think you're usually able to at least tolerate my presence, Ma'am," he said now. "On the other hand, I had the impression that there was something specific you wanted to discuss with me."

"You had the right impression, then," Zeiss said, straightening in her chair with a considerably more serious expression. She looked at him for another few moments, then waggled one hand in the air in front of her.

"Captain Mizawa had a little discussion with Captain Aberu yesterday," she said, "and it would appear your name came up."

"My name?" Askew repeated carefully, and frowned when Zeiss nodded.

Captain Warden Mizawa, Jean Bart's CO, was one of the better officers Askew had ever served under. He was also career Frontier Fleet, like Askew—and, for that matter, Zeiss—and not particularly fond of Battle Fleet officers, like Ingeborg Aberu, Admiral Byng's staff operations officer. It wasn't likely the two of them had just gotten together for a friendly chat over a stein of beer. Coupled with Zeiss' expression, that lent a somewhat ominous aspect to the thought that his name might have come up in conversation between them.

"May I ask the context, Ma'am?" he inquired even more cautiously..

"It would appear, Matt, that Captain Aberu is not one of your greater admirers. Did you do something at some point that might have personally stepped on her toes? Something that might explain why she'd take a certain degree of dislike to you?"

"Ma'am," Askew said, "I don't even know Captain Aberu. Aside from the dinner party Captain Mizawa hosted when the admiral and his staff came aboard, I don't think I've ever even been introduced to her."

Which, he did not add aloud, would not be the case if she were on the staff of a Frontier Fleet Admiral.

There was remarkably little love lost between Battle Fleet and Frontier Fleet at the best of times, and Askew wasn't immune to that institutional lack of mutual admiration. All the same, Admiral Byng and his staff seemed to have taken the traditional rivalry between the two services to an all-time high. There'd been virtually no social interaction between them and Captain Mizawa's officers, despite the lengthy voyage involved in just getting to the Madras Sector. Obviously, they'd had better things to do with their time. And they'd made it abundantly—one might almost have said painfully—clear that the sole function of the none-too-bright ship's company of SLNS Jean Bart was to chauffeur them around the galaxy while they got on with the business of sorting out everything Frontier Security and the local Frontier Fleet detachment had managed to screw up beyond all repair here in the Madras Sector. Probably because none of them knew how to seal their flies after taking a leak.

So why, after totally ignoring Jean Bart's entire company ever since they'd come aboard, should Captain Aberu find herself "discussing" Maitland Askew with Captain Mizawa? Right offhand, he couldn't think of a single reason, and he doubted very much that he was going to like where this was headed.

"I didn't think you'd ever crossed swords with her," Zeiss said, "but apparently you've managed to really piss her off. I suspect this had a little something to do with it."

She reached into her drawer, withdrew a fairly thick sheaf of hard copy, and slid it across the deck to him. He picked it up, glanced at the header on the first page, then looked quickly back at her with his eyes full of questions.

"No," she answered the first of those questions, "I don't know how Aberu got hold of it. I suspect that neither the Captain, nor I, nor the Exec is going to be very happy if we ever manage to find out. The salient point in your case, however, is that the Admiral's operations officer has apparently read your little treatise and been singularly . . . unimpressed by it."

Askew looked back down at the header. "A Preliminary Appreciation of Potential Technology Advances of the Royal Manticoran Navy," it said, and in the originating officer's name block it said "Askew, Maitland, LT."

"Ma'am, this is the report the captain asked me for," he began carefully, "and I never meant for it to—"

"I'm well aware that it was never intended for general circulation, Matt," Zeiss interrupted him. "That's why I said I don't expect to be particularly happy when I find out how it came to be in Aberu's hands. One thing I do know, though, is that it didn't get there by accident. So either someone from the ship's company gave it to her, or else . . ."

The tactical officer let her voice trail off, and Askew nodded. Bad enough if someone in their own company was passing potentially "interesting" information on to Admiral Byng's staff without authorization. But if it had come into Aberu's possession because Byng's people were hacked into the tactical department's information net—or, even worse, Captain Mizawa's personal internal com channels—it said even worse things about Task Force 3021's command structure.

And in either case—whether she got it from a spy or through some illegal hack—the fact that Aberu decided to tell the captain she had the access isn't exactly a good sign either, now that I come to think about it.

"Should I take it that she complained about my conclusions to the Captain, Ma'am?" he asked after a moment.

"She objected to your conclusions, your assumptions, your estimates, and your sources," Zeiss said almost dispassionately. "She characterized you as alarmist, credulous, ignorant, incompetent, and 'obviously not to be trusted with any significant independent analysis.' That last phrase is a direct quote, by the way. And she informed the Captain that if this represented the caliber of his officers' work and capabilities, the entire task force was obviously in deep and desperate trouble."

Askew swallowed. Naval service had run in his family for the last eight generations, but all of those generations had been spent in Frontier Fleet. That wouldn't cut a lot of ice with a Battle Fleet captain—or admiral—and he couldn't even begin to call upon the level of patronage and family alliances someone like Aberu could. If Byng or his staff decided an example had to be made of Maitland Askew, the destruction of his own naval career would become a virtual certainty.

"Ma'am—" he began, with absolutely no idea where he meant to take the sentence. Fortunately, Zeiss interrupted him again before he had to find out.

"You did exactly what the captain and I asked you to do, Matt," she said firmly. "I realize that may seem like cold comfort if someone like Aberu decides to set her sights on you, but neither of us have any intention of simply cutting your air line because she's a little miffed. Having said that, however, I have to admit that what she's chosen to be miffed over actually worries me more than the potential fate of one of my subordinates, however much I like and value him."

Askew couldn't pretend he was happy about that last sentence, but neither could he argue with her professional priorities.

Captain Mizawa had commissioned the report to which Aberu had taken such exception as part of his own background planning for their current mission. Askew had no idea how much of the report's content Mizawa was prepared to take at face value. For that matter, the assistant tactical officer wasn't really certain how much of it he was prepared to take at face value. Nonetheless, he was now convinced—and he knew Zeiss was, as well—that the official ONI estimates of the Manties' capabilities were badly flawed . . . to put it mildly.

Askew hadn't given much thought to the Royal Manticoran Navy himself before Jean Bart had been posted to the Madras Sector in the wake of the attack on the Republic of Monica. He knew the RMN was a lot bigger than most of the neobarb fleets floating around out in the Verge and beyond. It could hardly be otherwise, given the size of the Manticoran merchant marine, the need to protect it, and the fact that Manticore and the People's Republic of Haven had been at war with one another for the last twenty-odd T-years. That much he'd been prepared to admit, in a sort of offhand, casually incurious way, but his own assignments had kept him clear on the other side of the Solarian League's vast volume. He'd had rather more pressing concerns in his own area of operations. So even if he'd been vaguely aware of the Manty navy's sheer size, that awareness hadn't inspired him to think about it with any particular urgency. And if he'd thought about the ridiculous rumors about new "super weapons" coming out of the so-called Havenite Wars at all, it had mostly been to dismiss them as the sort of wildly exaggerated propaganda claims to be expected out of such a backward and distant corner of the explored galaxy. He certainly would have agreed that it was ludicrous to suggest that a single neobarb star system, be it ever so deeply involved in interstellar commerce, could have put together an R&D effort that could manage to outpace that of the Solarian League Navy!

Askew had found it extremely difficult to wrap his mind around the possibility that his initial estimate of the situation might have been seriously defective, but Captain Mizawa had asked him to keep an open mind when he undertook his appreciation of the Manticoran threat's severity. He'd done his dead level best to do exactly that, and the more he'd looked, the more . . . concerned Maitland Askew had become.

The actual hard data available to him was painfully limited. There'd never been much of it to begin with, and he'd decided at the outset that if he was going to come at his task with the "open mind" Captain Mizawa wanted, he'd have to start out by discarding the ONI reports which flatly dismissed the possibility of any threatening Manticoran breakthroughs. That left him gathering data on his own, and since they'd already been in hyper-space, on their way to their new duty station, there'd been precious little of that around until they reached the Meyers System, the Madras Sector's administrative center, and he was able to quietly talk things over with some of the officers of the Frontier Fleet detachment on permanent assignment to Commissioner Verrochio's office.

Commodore Thurgood, the senior officer in Meyers prior to Admiral Byng's arrival, had been more than willing to share all of the information, analysis, and speculation available to him. At first, Askew had been strongly inclined to dismiss Thurgood as an alarmist, but he'd dug into the commodore's documentation, anyway. And, as he'd dug, he'd begun to feel more than a little alarmed himself.

There was virtually no hard data from the actual attack on Monica. Any sensor data which had been available had either been destroyed along with Eroica Station's military components and the ships the Manticorans had engaged, or else swept up afterward by the Manticoran "investigation teams" which had swarmed over the Monican wreckage. Yet even though hard data was effectively impossible to come by, Thurgood had drawn certain very disturbing conclusions from the reports of as many Monican survivors as he'd been able to interview.

First, unlike a majority of Solarian Navy officers, Thurgood had declined to write off what had happened as due solely to Monican incompetence. He'd personally known the Monican flag officers involved—especially Isidor Hegedusic and Janko Horster, the two admirals who had actually engaged the Manticorans and gotten themselves killed for their pains. While the highest levels of the Republic of Monica's military had been as riddled by cronyism and political favoritism as any other Verge "star nation," Thurgood had respected the personal abilities of both Hegedusic and Horster, and he'd also informed Askew that the Monican Navy's basic level of competence had been surprisingly high.

Second, although he wasn't supposed to have been, Thurgood had been briefed on the missile pods Technodyne had made available to Monica. As a consequence, he'd been aware that the missiles in those pods had possessed a substantially higher rate of acceleration and drive endurance—and therefore a substantially greater effective range—than the standard missiles of the Solarian League Navy.

Third, ten Manticoran warships, four of them mere destroyers and only three of them as powerful as a heavy cruiser, had taken the combined fire of all of the pre-deployed missile pods and, although quite obviously surprised by the missiles' range and sheer numbers, not only survived as a fighting force but managed to destroy the entire military component of Eroica Station and nine of the fourteen modern battlecruisers Technodyne had provided to the Monicans. Not only that, but the six damaged Manticoran survivors of the engagement with Eroica Station had destroyed three more modern, fully functional battlecruisers in stand up combat. And they'd apparently managed to do that using nothing but their internal missile tubes, without any interference from pods at all.

Fourth, although there was no hard sensor data to explain exactly how they'd done it, it had been made abundantly clear—both during the engagement against Horster's three battlecruisers and afterward—that the Manticorans had managed to emplace what amounted to a system-wide surveillance system without being caught at it. And while Thurgood readily admitted that the supporting evidence and logic were much more speculative, the speed of the Manties' reaction to both Horster's attack and Admiral Bourmont's later maneuvers suggested that they might very well be capable of FTL communication with their recon platforms, after all.

There'd been more, but even Thurgood had conceded that a lot of it—like the preposterous missile attack ranges some of the system-defense forces observers had been reporting from the main Manticore-Haven front and the ridiculously high acceleration rates attributed to Manticoran starships—sounded unlikely. On the other hand, he'd pointed out, he had absolutely no effective way of personally testing or evaluating those outrageous claims. He hadn't said so in so many words, but it had been evident to Askew that whether or not he could test or evaluate the claims in question himself, he was . . . strongly disinclined to reject them out of hand.

Askew had been taken aback by Thurgood's attitude. His original response had been strongly skeptical, but rather than simply reject the commodore's concerns, he'd painstakingly retraced Thurgood's logic, searching for the flaws he suspected had to be there. Unfortunately, he hadn't found them. In fact, as he'd dutifully searched for them, he'd come more and more firmly to the belief that Thurgood had a point. In fact, it looked as if he had several points.

And that was what he'd reported to Mizawa, Zeiss, and Commander Bourget, Jean Bart's executive officer. He'd been a bit cautious about the way he'd reported it, of course. He was an SLN officer, after all, well versed in the ways of equivocation and careful word choices, and his own initial reaction to Thurgood had suggested how his superiors would probably respond to any wild-eyed, panicky warnings about Manticoran super weapons. Besides, even though the analysis had been requested only for Captain Mizawa's internal use, there'd always been the possibility that it might—as, indeed, appeared to be the case—have come into someone else's possession. If that happened, some other superior officer might prove rather less understanding than Captain Mizawa if young Lieutenant Askew came across as too alarmist.

Apparently I wasn't cautious enough, he reflected grimly.

"Should I assume, Ma'am, from what you said about Captain Aberu's response, that Admiral Byng feels the same way?" he asked.

"I don't have any idea how Admiral Byng feels," Zeiss told him. She shook her head and grimaced. "From the way Captain Mizawa described the 'conversation' to me, it sounds like Aberu was expressing her own opinions. From what I've seen of her so far, I'd guess she's one of those staffers who sees it as her duty to prevent obvious nonsense from cluttering up her admiral's desk. So I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out that she'd taken it upon herself to quash this sort of 'panicky defeatism' on her own, without ever discussing it with Admiral Byng at all. Unfortunately, Matt, we don't know that that's the case. It's equally possible that Admiral Byng sent her out to suggest rather firmly to the Captain that he leave the threat analysis business to the task force staff without the Admiral himself getting involved."

"I see, Ma'am." Askew gazed at her for several silent seconds, then cleared his throat. "May I ask what the captain intends to do about Captain Aberu's concerns?"

"He's not about to toss you out the nearest airlock, if that's what's worrying you." Zeiss actually produced a chuckle, but then her expression sobered again. "At the same time, though, he has to be a bit cautious about how he proceeds."

Askew nodded glumly. Captain Mizawa's family connections went quite a bit higher than Askew's own, but they still ended well short of the lofty sort of influence Byng could bring to bear. Given that, especially against the background of the traditional Battle Fleet-Frontier Fleet rivalry, Mizawa would have to pick his ground carefully for any quarrel with Byng. Coming to the impassioned defense of his assistant tactical officer probably wouldn't be the most career-enhancing move a flag captain could make.

And it wouldn't solve the problem of Aberu's pigheadedness, either, he thought.

"For the moment," Zeiss continued, "he wants you to lie as low as possible. Just go about your duties, and he and I—and the Exec—will keep you as far away from Flag Bridge and the Admiral's staff as we can. Bearing in mind that we don't know exactly how your report came into Captain Aberu's hands, it would probably be a good idea for you to keep your mouth shut about its contents, as well."

She looked at him levelly, and he nodded again. If they did have someone working as Byng's—or Aberu's—informant, talking about his and Thurgood's theories could very well get him charged with spreading defeatism.

"Yes, Ma'am," he said. Then, a bit more daringly, "And may I ask how the Captain reacted to my analysis?"

Zeiss rocked back in her chair, regarding him narrowly for several heartbeats, then shrugged.

"Captain Mizawa—like Commander Bourget and myself—is inclined to take your more alarming hypotheses with a sizable grain of salt. I think the Captain was as impressed as I was by the caliber of your work, but as you yourself point out, the supporting data is really pretty damned thin on the ground, Matt. You and Commodore Thurgood may very well be onto something, but I think we're all inclined to reserve judgment for the moment. I will say that your appreciation of the potential threat is likely to make all three of us approach the situation much more cautiously than we might have otherwise. It's just that until we've acquired some of that missing hard data we can't afford to get overly timid in our relations with the Manties." She gave him another of those hard, level looks, then added, "Or with anyone else."

"Yes, Ma'am. I understand."

Askew didn't try to keep his own worry—and not just for the possible implications for his naval career—out of his own voice, but he understood, all right.

"I thought you would, Matt," Zeiss said quietly. "I thought you would."

Chapter Twenty-Six

"I understand you're not a professional reporter, Captain," the attractive brunette said in an almost soothing tone. "And I know it makes people a bit nervous the first time they have to go through an interview like this. But I promise you, I've done this hundreds of times, and none of my interviewees have ever died yet."

The man sitting across the small desk from her in the uniform of a merchant service deck officer grinned and chuckled just a bit nervously. Then he nodded.

"I'll, uh, try to bear that in mind, Ms. Brulé."

"Good. And remember, we don't have to get it perfect the first time. Just tell us what really happened, in your own words, and then we'll play it back and if you realize you've misspoken at some point, we can correct it. And if you realize you've left anything out, we can put it in at that point, too. The object is to get all of the information into the right people's hands, not to try to be perfect while we do it. Okay?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Good," the brunette repeated, then looked directly into the waiting pickup.

"This is a recorded interview with Captain Tanguy Carmouche, commander of the New Tuscany-registry freighterAntelope, concerning certain events which occurred in the San Miguel System. I am Anne-Louise Brulé, conducting this interview for the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Trade, and the Treasury. This record is being made on July 7, 1921 Post Diaspora, on the planet of New Tuscany."

She finished the official tag, then turned back to Captain Carmouche.

"Very well, Captain Carmouche. Could you please explain to us, in your own words, exactly what happened?"

"In San Miguel, you mean?" Carmouche said, then grimaced in obvious embarrassment. "Sorry. I guess I really am a little nervous."

Brulé smiled encouragingly, and the captain cleared his throat and straightened slightly in his chair.

"Well, we'd arrived in San Miguel early last month to collect a cargo which had been chartered before this Constitutional Convention in Spindle voted out its 'constitution.' Now, San Miguel's always been part of the Rembrandt Trade Union, and the Union's always favored using its own bottoms instead of chartering foreign-registry ships, so there've been occasional problems for skippers who don't belong to the RTU, but generally, we've been able to work things out without too much trouble.

"This time, though, whenAntelope made her parking orbit, we were boarded by aManticoran customs party, not one from San Miguel or the Trade Union. That was unusual, but I just figured it was part of the new political set up, so I didn't worry about it too much. Until, that is, the Manties started tearing the ship apart looking for 'contraband.' "

Carmouche's face tightened in remembered anger, and he shrugged jerkily.

"I wasn't any too happy about that," he said. "I mean, I can understand wanting to keep a handle on smuggling, especially out here in the Verge. I don't have a problem with that. For that matter, I know our own customs people keep a close eye on ships entering New Tuscany, especially if they aren't regular visitors on this run. But there's courteous ways to go about it, and then there's ways that . . . aren't so courteous. Like the way these bas—"

He broke off, shook himself, and grimaced.

"Sorry," he said again. "I meant like the way these people did it. I don't necessarily expect anyone to bow down to me. I mean, I know I'm merchant service, not the Navy. But, by God,Antelope is my ship! I'm the one responsible to the owners, and even if I'm only merchant service, there's a certain amount of respect any skipper has a right to expect out of visitors aboard his ship. I don't care who they are!

"But these people didn't waste any respect on anyone aboard Antelope. They were rude, insulting, and what I have to think was deliberately antagonistic. They didn't make requests; they demanded whatever it was they wanted. They insisted on bringing aboard all kinds of scanners and detection equipmet, too, and they went through every cargo space with a fine tooth comb. Took hours, given the size of our holds, but they insisted. Just like they insisted on checking every bill of lading individually against its cargo container—didn't matter whether or not the container's port-of-origin customs seals were intact, either. They even made us open a whole stack of containers so they could physically eyeball the contents! And they made it pretty clear that if we didn't do exactly what they wanted, they'd refuse us entry for the planet and prohibit any orbital cargo transshipment."

Carmouche leaned forward in his chair, his face and body language both more animated in an evident combination of anger and increasing confidence under Brulé's encouraging, gravely sympathetic expression.

"Well, I managed to put up with their 'customs inspection' without popping a blood vessel or slugging anyone, but it wasn't easy. We got them back off the ship—finally—and we got our clearances from them, but that was when we found out we were going to have to submit to a medical examination before we were allowed to take on or discharge cargo. We weren't discharging cargo, anyway, and they damned well knew it. And I've never been asked for a medical certification to take on cargo! At a port of entry, sure. Anyone wants to keep a close eye on anyone who might be bringing in some kind of contagion. But when there's not going to be any contact between any of my people or the planetary environment—for that matter, not even between any of my people and an orbital warehouse, for God's sake, since the cargo was coming aboard in San Miguel shuttles!—it didn't make any sense at all. For that matter, they'd checked our current medical records as part of their customs inspection!

"I didn't understand it then, but it started making sense later, when I realized it didn't have anything to do with medical precautions. Not really. No matter what we did, there was always another hoop waiting for us to jump through before we were going to be allowed to load our cargo. After the medical examination, they insisted on checking our engineering logs to make sure we weren't going to suffer some sort of catastrophic impeller casualty in heavily traveled volumes of the star system. And after that, they decided they had to inspect our enviro plant's waste recycling and disposal systems, since they didn't want us littering in their precious star system!"

He shook his head angrily.

"The only thing I could come up with, since every one of those 'inspections' of theirs was completely bogus, as far as I could tell, was that it was a systematic effort to make it very clear thatAntelope wasn't welcome in San Miguel. The RTU's always been protective of its own interests, but I was under the impression from everything everyone was saying before the Constitutional Convention that the Manties supported free trade. Well, maybe they do, and maybe they don't, but I can tell you this—if they do think free trade is a good idea, they obviously don't think it's a good idea foreveryone! And after I figured out what was going on, I asked around. There were a couple of other ships in orbit, but we were the only one from New Tuscany. And by the oddest coincidence, we were also the only one being subjected to all those 'inspections.' Which suggested to me that maybe what this was all about was the fact that we hadn't ratified their 'constitution,' and this was an example of payback. I don't know about that for sure, of course, but as soon as I got back to New Tuscany, I spoke to the Ministry of Trade about it, and I don't mind telling you I was just a bit hot when I did. Apparently, I'm not the only New Tuscan skipper this has happened to, either. Or that was my impression, anyway, when they asked me to make an official statement for the record."

He looked at Brulé and raised an eyebrow, but she shook her head with a commiserating smile.

"I'm afraid I don't really know about that, Captain Carmouche," she said, in the tone of voice someone used to add "and if I did know, I couldn't tell you," without ever saying so out loud.

"Well, whatever," Carmouche said after a moment, "that's about the size of it. Were there any specific questions you wanted to ask, Ma'am?"

"There were a few points where the ministries wanted a little more detail, Captain," Brulé said, keying a memo pad and glancing down at the display. "Let me see . . . All right, first, did you get the name and rank of the Manticoran officer in charge of the original customs inspection?"

"No," Carmouche replied with another grimace. "Never offered it. Suppose I should have insisted, but it's the first time I ever had a regular navy officer come aboard my ship and not give his name and rank. Personally, I think he didn't want me to have it in case I ended up lodging any formal protests. Of course, I didn't know then that I was going to be doing that, either. So, instead of asking, I—"

They were good, Aldona Anisimovna thought, watching approvingly from the studio's control room. In fact, the New Tuscan Information Ministry had shown a far more sophisticated touch where little things like propaganda and special effects were concerned than she would have expected out of someone with a Verge tech base. Of course, they'd probably needed a bit more sophistication than most, given their local proles' evident unhappiness.

She particularly liked the touch with the pre-interview conversation and Brulé's efforts to put Captain Carmouche more at his ease. They wouldn't be part of the formal report, of course . . . but they would "just happen" to have been left attached to the raw footage which would accompany the formal report. Where, of course, Commissioner Verrochio's people would "just happen" to discover them. They'd give a certain additional sense of veracity to the final report when it was presented to Verrochio as part of the evidence supporting claims of harassment. Of course, while there'd been no particular effort to hide the fact that Anne-Louise Brulé worked for the Ministry of Information, no one had bothered to mention the fact that 'Captain Carmouche' was actually being portrayed by one Oliver Ratté, who was also employed by the Ministry of Information. Unlike Brulé, whoever, who was a recognizable anchor from the New Tuscan news broadcasts, Ratté was effectively anonymous. Although he'd appeared in innumerable propaganda efforts, he'd never appeared under his own face. Instead, his job had been to provide the body language, voice, and facial expressions the computers transformed into someone else entirely.

It was still the best and simplest way to produce high-quality CGI, especially for someone whose tech base might not have all of the latest bells and whistles. In fact, New Tuscany's computer technology was probably at least a couple of centuries behind that of the Solarian League in general. They'd demonstrated over the years just how much could be accomplished by substituting technique and practice for technology, however, and this time around, Ratté was appearing under his own face. There would be absolutely no computer chicanery with this little masterpiece, and the same held true for all the others the New Tuscans were working up. After all, it would never do for any of the Manties' contacts in the League to demonstrate that sort of fancy tricks by analyzing the recording.

And by the time Dusserre and his little helpers over at the Security Ministry get done massaging the planetary database, there won't be any way to prove that Captain Carmouche and the good ship Antelope have never existed. In fact, she thought with amused satisfaction, there'll be all kinds of evidence that they have existed. Of course the Manties are going to claim that neither of them have ever visited San Miguel, but who is Frontier Security supposed to believe? The poor, harassed New Tuscans who are asking for their intervention, or the nasty Manties who are trying to come up with reasons why Frontier Security shouldn't investigate?

It was a nice touch, although it was scarcely necessary. Not that she had any intention of telling the New Tuscans that. From their viewpoint, there was every reason to set up an invulnerable defense in depth, since they could anticipate the Manties' protestations of innocence. Especially given the fact that the Manties were innocent, she admitted. But what the Mesan Alignment in the person of one Aldona Anisimovna had seen no reason to worry New Tuscany over was that it really didn't matter at all. No one was going to be looking at any records on New Tuscany. The Solarian League wouldn't feel any particular need to do so; the Manties weren't going to be in a position to do so; and both sides were going to be far too busy with what the Alignment really wanted them to be doing to each other for it to matter one way or the other to anyone.

She watched Brulé and Ratté working their way smoothly through the well-written and carefully rehearsed script and wondered if the sense of almost godlike power she felt as she watched the entire New Tuscany System dancing to the Alignment's script was the same sort of thing Albert Detweiler felt? And if so, was it as addictive for him as she realized it could easily become for her? For that matter, if it was, did he care?

Iunderstand what we're trying to accomplish and why—now, at least, she thought. I wouldn't have understood before he and Isabel explained it all to me, but I do now. But knowing only makes the game even more intoxicating. It defines the scope, the scale, in a way nothing else ever has before. But ambitious as it is, it's still all . . . intellectual for me. The game is what's real. I wonder if it's that way for Albrecht and the others? And if it is, what are they going to do when we've finally pulled it off and there are no more games to play?

"He said what?"

Lieutenant Commander Lewis Denton frowned at Ensign Rachel Monahan. The ensign sat just a little nervously in a chair across the desk from him in his compact day cabin. Despite the fact that Denton was only a lieutenant commander, and that HMS Reprise was only a somewhat elderly and increasingly obsolescent destroyer, he was still the captain of one of Her Majesty's starships, and at the moment, Monahan seemed only too well aware of the fact that she was the most junior officer aboard that same starship.

She was also conscientious and, although Denton had absolutely no intention of saying so to a single living soul, remarkably easy on the eye. She wasn't the very smartest junior officer he'd ever encountered, but she had a generous helping of common sense, and she was a long, long way from stupid. In fact, Denton was one of those officers who preferred attention to duty and common sense to erratic or careless (or, even worse, lazy) intelligence, and he'd been entirely satisfied with her performance since she'd joinedReprise's ship's company. That was one of the reasons he'd been giving her progressively bigger opportunities to demonstrate her competence and self-confidence, and, so far, she'd met all of them quite handily.

Which was what had led directly to her request for this interview, even if Denton didn't have a clue in Hell what was going on.

"He said he was going to formally complain about our 'harassment,' Sir," Monahan repeated now.

"Your harassment," Denton said in the tone of a man trying to get some ridiculous concept straight in his own mind.

"Yes, Sir."

Monahan sounded more than a little anxious, and Denton could understand that well enough. A great many junior officers who'd screwed up would make it their first order of business to get their version of what had happened in front of their commanding officers before any inconvenient little truths could come along to make matters worse. In Monahan's case, though, that very notion was preposterous.

"About the harassing you obviously hadn't done, Rachel. Is that what he was implying?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Had you done anything that could have gotten him pissed off enough at you to fabricate some sort of complaint in an effort to make trouble for you?"

"Sir, I can't think of a single thing," she said, shaking her head. "I did everything exactly by The Book, the way I've done it every time before. But it was like . . . I don't know, exactly, Sir, but it was like he was waiting for me to do something he could complain about. And if I wasn't going to do it, then he was ready to claim I had, anyway! I've never seen anything like it, Sir."

She was obviously even more confused than she was worried, and Denton made another mental check mark of approval for her end-of-deployment evaluation. Despite her evident concern that he might wonder if she was trying to cover her posterior, she'd reported the entire episode to the XO as soon as she'd come back aboard ship. And the XO had been sufficiently perplexed—and concerned—to pass her report along to Denton before she'd even left his office. Which was the reason Monahan was now sitting in Denton's day cabin repeating her account of the customs inspection.

"So you went aboard, asked for his papers, checked them, and did a quick walk-through, right?"

"Yes, Sir."

"And he was giving you grief from the very beginning?"

"Yes, Sir. From the minute I cleared the personnel tube. It was like he was on some kind of hair trigger, ready to bite my head off over anything, no matter how polite my people and I were. Skipper, I think I could have complimented him on the color of the bulkheads and he would have managed to turn it into some sort of mortal insult!"

The young woman—she was only twenty-two T-years old—had clearly never experienced anything like it. Denton had, on the other hand, although it had usually been from a Solarian merchant spacer, not someone from New Tuscany. Some Sollies went out of their way to attempt to provoke a Manticoran officer into providing a basis for complaints and allegations of harassment. It was something Astro Control back in the home system encountered with depressing frequency from Solarian ships passing through the Manticoran Wormhole Junction, as well. Some Sollies simply resented the hell out of the fact that a single little out-system star nation dominated such a huge percentage of the League's total carrying trade. They went around with planet-sized chips on their shoulders where the Star Kingdom was concerned as a consequence.

But the Sollies who did that also knew they were representatives of the Solarian League. They were armed and armored with all of the arrogant Solly assurance that there was nothing any mere Manticoran could really do to punish them if they got out of line. That was one of the things Denton himself personally most hated about Solarians. And it was also what puzzled him about this incident, because New Tuscany was a single-system star nation, so poor it didn't have a pot to piss in. So what could possibly possess a New Tuscan merchant skipper to risk deliberately antagonizing the Royal Manticoran Navy here in a star system which had just become Manticoran territory?

"Sir?"

Denton shook himself back up out of his thoughts and looked back at Monahan.

"Sorry, Rachel." He gave her a quick smile. "Wool gathering, I'm afraid. You had something else you wanted to add?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Well, add away," he encouraged.

"Sir, it's just, well . . ." She seemed a bit hesitant, then visibly steeled herself for the plunge.

"Sir, it's just that I had this funny feeling that he wasn't really saying any of it for my benefit."

"What do you mean?" Denton's eyes narrowed.

"It was more like he was talking about me than to me," she said, sounding as if she were picking her words carefully, trying to find the ones to explain whatever it was she was groping towards. "Like . . . like somebody in one of the Academy's training holos, almost."

"Like he knew it was being recorded," Denton said slowly. "Is that what it felt like?"

"Maybe, Sir." Monahan looked more worried than ever. "And it wasn't just me he was complaining about, either."

"Meaning?" Denton tried to keep any note of tension out of his voice, but it was hard, given the mental alarm bells trying to ring somewhere deep down inside him.

"Meaning that he didn't say just 'you' when he was complaining about what a hard time I'd been giving him. He said that, but he also said things like 'you people,' too. Like there were dozens of me, all trying to give him and his friends trouble."

"I see."

Denton sat in thought for several more seconds, not particularly liking the speculations chasing around the inside of his brain like hamsters in an exercise wheel, then returned his attention to the ensign sitting before him.

"Rachel, I want you to know that you did exactly the right thing reporting this. And that neither the XO nor I believe for a minute that you did a single thing wrong aboard that ship. I don't know exactly what his problem was, but I'm sure you handled yourself just as well as you always have in the past."

"I tried to, Sir," she said, unable to hide her enormous relief at his firmly supportive tone. "The more it went on, though, the more I started wondering if I had done something to tick him off!"

"I doubt very much that you did anything at all," Denton said in that same firm tone of voice. "Unfortunately, you may well encounter the same thing again. God knows most of us have run into it a time or two, although it's usually from the Sollies, not from someone like the New Tuscans. I'm sorry it happened to you here, but it's probably just as well to get the first dose out of the way early in your career."

"Yes, Sir," she said, and he flashed her a smile of approval.

"All right," he said with an air of finality. "I think you've probably given me everything you've got, so there's no point our sitting here chewing it over any more or wondering what kind of wild hair might have inspired him to go off that way. I would like you to go ahead and record a formal report on this, though. If he does actually decide to complain to someone, I want to have your version of the encounter already on the record to help shoot him down."

"Yes, Sir," she said again.

"In that case, why don't you go ahead and get that taken care of right now, while events are still fresh in your mind?"

"Yes, Sir."

Monahan obviously recognized her dismissal, and she rose, braced briefly to attention, and left. Denton gazed at the closed door for several moments, then punched a combination into his com terminal.

"Bridge, XO speaking," a voice said. "What can I do for you, Skipper?"

"I've just finished talking with Rachel, Pete. I see why you sent her to see me."

"She did seem more than a little upset," Lieutenant Peter Koslov said. "But it was the nature of what that New Tuscan bastard said that really worried me."

"Agreed. I don't want to make a big thing out of this and worry her any more than she already is, especially not before she gets her formal report together for me. But, that said, I want you to have a word with the rest of her boarding party, especially Chief Fitzhugh. And have a quiet word with any of the other JOs who've been running the customs inspections. See if any of them may have heard some of the same kind of remarks and just not been as willing as Rachel to bring them to our attention. And if they have heard anything like that, I want details of time, place, and content."

"Yes, Sir."

Koslov sounded rather grimmer than he had a moment ago, Denton noticed.

"One other thing," the CO continued. "I want every party that goes aboard anybody's merchant shipping wired for sound and vision. I don't especially want you to mention it to anyone aboard ship, either, because I don't want anyone obviously playing to the camera from our side. So find someplace to put a parasite cam. I don't want to give away any image quality unless we have to, but I'm less worried about picture than I am about sound."

"Skipper, I don't think I like what I think you're thinking."

"Well, if you hadn't been thinking in the same direction yourself, you wouldn't have gotten Rachel in to see me quite this promptly, now would you?" Denton shot back.

"It was more an itch than any sort of full-blown suspicion, Sir."

"In that case, your instincts may just have been serving you entirely too well, I'm afraid," Denton said grimly. "I don't have any idea why this might be going on, and it may be that you and I are both just imagining things. But it may be that we aren't, either, and Admiral Khumalo made the point that he wanted us to keep our eyes and ears open when he sent us out. So go ahead and make those inquiries for me. And get those bugs planted. Maybe we can sneak them into the boarding officer's memo boards or something. I don't know, but I do know I want the best hard records we can get of every visit to a New Tuscan ship. And I want the same thing from our inspections of anyone else's shipping, as well, to serve as a base for comparison. Clear?"

"Clear, Skipper," Koslov replied. "I don't like where we seem to be going with this, but it's clear."

Chapter Twenty-Seven

"Not much of a picket, is it?" Michelle Henke commented quietly to Cynthia Lecter, twelve days after her conversation with Josef Byng, as HMS Artemis and the other three ships of the first division of Battlecruiser Squadron 106 decelerated towards a leisurely rendezvous with the ships Augustus Khumalo had detached to keep an eye on the Tillerman System when he returned to Spindle from Monica.

"No, Ma'am," Lecter agreed, equally quietly. "On the other hand, Admiral Khumalo didn't have a lot to work with. And I don't think anyone expected Vice Admiral O'Malley to be recalled quite so . . . precipitously."

"You do have a way with words, don't you, Cindy?" Michelle smiled without very much humor, but she had to admit that Lecter had made an excellent point. Two of them, in fact.

Which leaves me with a not-so-minor problem of my own, she thought dryly. Nobody had a clue the Sollies were going to send such a big-assed task force straight out to Monica to wave in our face. But now we know they have . . . and that we are going back to war with Haven, too. So do I reinforce Tillerman by detaching a couple of battlecruisers, or do I leave Tillerman like it is and take everybody I've got back to Spindle to keep things concentrated?

The question was, unfortunately, one she wouldn't be able to duck, much as she might have wished she could do exactly that. The mere notion of dividing her forces in the face of any potential threat from the Solarian League was calculated to inflict insomnia on any fleet commander. On the one hand, the three days she'd spent in Monica had convinced her that whatever else Josef Byng might be in the vicinity to accomplish, it wasn't to reassure one Michelle Henke of his friendly and pacific intent. So if she didn't reinforce the pair of over-aged light cruisers and the single destroyer Khumalo had been able to station here, she risked sending the entirely wrong signal not just to him but to everyone else in the Talbott Quadrant. She dared not give anyone—especially Byng—the impression that she would be unwilling to run serious risks, or even fight, to defend the territory and citizens of the newborn Star Empire of Manticore. For that matter, she had both a legal and a moral responsibility to do just that, regardless of the nature of the threat.

On the other hand, even a pair of Nikes might find themselves hard-pressed against all of Byng's battlecruisers at once. Despite the advantages in range and hitting power the Mark 16 and Mark 23 provided for the RMN, enough effective missile defense could go a long way towards blunting that advantage, and no one had any way to assess just how effective SLN missile-defense doctrine might actually be. Michelle strongly doubted that it would be enough to tip the odds in the Sollies' favor, but she couldn't be positive of that before the fact. Worse, even if it turned out after the fact that two Nikes were, indeed, a match for everything Byng had, Byng wouldn't know that ahead of time, either. For that matter, he'd never admit it—probably even to himself—no matter how much evidence anyone presented to him before the shooting started. Michelle had seen enough Manticoran officers who were capable of that sort of self-delusion when it suited their prejudices. Someone like Byng would be able to pull that off effortlessly.

And if he doesn't recognize—or admit—the threat even exists, then the "threat" won't deter him for a moment, will it? she thought bitingly. Aside, of course, from the possibility that taking out our "outnumbered and outgunned" picket would be crossing a line he may have specific orders not to cross.

Yeah. Sure he does. If you're willing to bank on that, girl, don't be accepting any real estate deals that involve bridges or magic beans!

She grimaced, then inhaled deeply and glanced over her shoulder at Lieutenant Commander Edwards.

"Contact Devastation, Bill. My compliments to Commander Cramer, and would it be convenient for him to join me for dinner here aboard Artemis at, say, eighteen-thirty hours?"

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," the com officer replied, and Michelle turned her attention to Gervais Archer.

"As for you, Gwen," she said with a smile, "you get to go tell Chris that Commander Cramer will be joining us for dinner. Make sure Captain Armstrong and Commander Dallas know they're invited, as well."

"Yes, Ma'am," Gervais replied gravely. He supposed some might argue that the admiral was being just a bit presumptuous to be organizing dinner parties when the guest of honor hadn't confirmed that he'd be present. On the other hand, it was just a bit difficult for Gervais to conceive of any commander who wouldn't somehow find it possible to fit an invitation from any admiral into his schedule, no matter how busy it might be.

"Oh, and, Bill," Michelle said, glancing back at Edwards. "While you're sending out the invitations, go ahead and invite Captain Conner and Commander Houseman, too."

Commander Wesley Cramer of Her Majesty's StarshipDevastation was a hard-bitten looking officer, forty-one T-years old (which made him three T-months younger than his own cruiser), with dark hair and quartz-hard gray eyes. His neatly clipped mustache mostly hid a scar on his upper lip, one of several souvenirs of a bruising Saganami Island rugby career, and it didn't look as if he'd mellowed a great deal since leaving the Academy.

Which, Michelle reflected, suited her just fine, under the circumstances.

She examined him with carefully hidden intensity as Gervais Archer ushered him into the magnificent dining cabin BuShips had seen fit to provide for her. Despite the fact that he was both the commander of a Queen's ship and currently the senior officer assigned to Tillerman, he was also junior to every officer in the compartment except Archer himself. If he was particularly aware of that fact, however, it didn't seem to weigh too heavily upon him.

"Commander Cramer," Gervais murmured to her by way of formal introdmction, and she extended her right hand.

"Commander," she said.

"Milady," Cramer responded, gripping the offered hand firmly.

"Let me introduce you to everyone," she continued, turning to her other guests. "Captain Armstrong, of the Artemis, and her XO, Commander Dallas. Captain Conner, of the Penelope, and his XO, Commander Houseman."

Cramer was busy shaking hands as she spoke, and she gave him a moment to catch up before she turned to the members of her own staff who were present.

"Captain Lecter, my chief of staff; Commander Adenauer, my ops officer; and Lieutenant Commander Treacher, my logistics officer. And I believe you've already met Lieutenant Archer, my flag lieutenant."

It took Cramer a few more moments to shake all of the newly introduced hands, and then Michelle nodded towards the large table under its snow white tablecloth and burden of plates, crystal, and gleaming tableware.

"One of my own previous COs was firmly of the opinion that a good meal was often the basis for the most effective officers' conferences," she observed. "Which, in case any of you somehow failed to catch my subtle implication, was an invitation to eat."

It was fascinating to watch Admiral Gold Peak in action, Gervais Archer reflected some time later. Despite her lofty birth, there was an undeniable earthiness about her basic personality, and he'd come to wonder if she might not have developed that trait deliberately. He'd already seen ample evidence of her effortless mastery of the proper rules of etiquette and her ability to project the public persona appropriate to someone who stood only five heartbeats away from the Crown of Manticore. Very few people, watching her operate in that mode, would ever have grounds to suspect how much she clearly loved escaping from it, he thought, but anyone who'd worked with—or for—her for any length of time knew exactly how little she liked playing that particular role. And it wasn't as if she needed to remind anyone in the Navy that the Queen was her cousin. First, because however much she might have wished they didn't, everyone already knew. But second, and more importantly, because she needed no aristocratic airs to underscore her authority. She'd demonstrated her competence too many times, and even if she hadn't, five or ten minutes in her presence would have made that competence painfully clear to anyone, however "casual" or "earthy" she might choose to appear.

Now she leaned back in her chair at the head of the table, nursing a cup of coffee instead of one of the wineglasses several of her guests preferred, and favored Commander Cramer with a smile which held very little humor.

"Now that we've impressed you with my hospitality, Commander," she said dryly, "I suppose we probably ought to get down to business."

Cramer nodded politely in acknowledgment, and a trace of true amusement worked its way into her smile.

"I've read your reports," she continued, and Gervais knew she truly had read them, not simply skimmed them, after they'd been burst-transmitted to Artemis. "I'm very pleased with what you've managed to accomplish here," she went on. "On the other hand, there's not much point any of us pretending that you're in any position to hold off some sort of serious attack on Tillerman."

Cramer nodded again, and the admiral sipped from her coffee cup again.

"Under almost any other set of circumstances, Commander, I would be completely satisfied to leave Tillerman in your care. Given our recent encounter with so many Solarian battlecruisers at Monica, however, and given the proximity of both Meyers and Monica to Tillerman, I think we need something a bit more . . . impressive here in the system. Mind you, I'm not happy about the notion of spreading our forces out in penny packets. We're too thin on the ground—for the moment, at least—to go around diluting our combat power that way. Unfortunately, I don't see any real option here. At least for the foreseeable future, Tillerman's going to be our most advanced picket in an area where we've already crossed swords with a Solarian client state. Given that, it turns the entire region into a potential flashpoint that I believe requires a force which is not simply more powerful than yours but is self-evidently more powerful. Powerful enough to give any reasonable potential adversary pause. My judgment in that regard represents absolutely no reflection on you, any of your people, or the other ships under your command here."

She held his eyes levelly, letting him see the sincerity in her own, then twitched her head at Jerome Conner.

"I'll be returning to Spindle by way of Talbott, Scarlet, Marian, Dresden, and Montana—I think this entire area needs a little reassurance, after what happened in Monica and Vice Admiral O'Malley's recall—but Captain Conner is going to be taking over as Tillerman's senior officer. I'm detaching his ship and Captain Ning's Romulus. Unless something changes, I'll be sending up additional destroyers as soon as some of them arrive from Manticore. In the meantime, I'll expect Devastation, Inspired, and Victorious to conduct anti-piracy patrols and generally show the flag in this vicinity while Captain Conner's battlecruisers stay home and mind the store. As soon as we can get some more modern destroyers, and possibly a few heavy cruisers, out here to replace you, I'll withdraw your ships to Spindle for a well deserved rest."

"I understand, Milady," Cramer replied, when she paused. It was, Gervais reflected, a rather tactful way for the admiral to describe pulling the older, less capable ships back for secondary duties elsewhere.

"Until we have the hulls in-quadrant to do that, however," she continued after a moment, "I'll expect you to make your own local knowledge and advice available to Captain Conner. It's clear to me from your reports that you haven't let any grass grow under your feet, Commander. The time you've spent making contacts with the local system government, emplacing the system surveillance platforms, and deploying missile pods for defensive use has been very well-used—a point I intend to make in my own report when I unreservedly endorse your actions and conduct here in Tillerman. You've done a great deal to make Captain Conner's job easier, and I'm confident that you'll be equally helpful during his settling-in period."

This time, there was an obvious flicker of appreciation in those hard gray eyes. Cramer was never going to be one of those officers who gushed effusively—especially to their superiors—Gervais thought. But it was clear he recognized genuine praise when he heard it . . . and that he realized when it was well deserved, as well.

"Jerome," the admiral went on, turning her attention to Captain Conner. "As I told the Commander, I'm not happy about leaving you and Kwo-Lai out here with only two battlecruisers. Unfortunately, for right now I don't see any option. I'll get you reinforced as quickly as I can, but in the meantime, you're going to be in what might charitably be called a somewhat exposed position. And, to be honest, after talking to that jackass Byng, I'm even less happy about that state of affairs than I might have been otherwise."

"I can't say I'm delighted about all the aspects of my new, independent command, either, Admiral," Conner replied with a faint smile. "Not that I'm not grateful for the opportunity to distinguish myself, of course."

"Don't you mean to further distinguish yourself?" the admiral inquired, and a quiet laugh ran around the table. But then her expression sobered, and she sat forward, setting her coffee cup back on the table and folding her hands in front of her.

"Commander Cramer made a good start deploying pods from Volcano in strategic positions," she said very seriously. "On the other hand, he didn't begin to have the control links to take full advantage of them. Penelope and Romulus, on the other hand, both have Keyhole. They're going to be able to control a hell of a lot more pods than the Commander could have with a pair of light cruisers, and Volcano's pods are loaded with all-up Mark 23s. I've had Jackson here"—she nodded at Lieutenant Commander Jackson Treacher, her logistics officer—"confer with Commander Badmachin. She tells him that Vice Admiral O'Malley topped off Volcano's missile holds from his own fleet train before he headed back to the Lynx Terminus, so you've got plenty of pods. Which means you should be able to raise holy howling hell with anything that's likely to come at you out here."

She paused, waiting until Conner had nodded, then went on levelly.

"I'm fully aware that the Admiralty would prefer for us not to advertise all of our capabilities unless we have to. Nonetheless, I'm specifically authorizing you to use any weapon available to you—including the Mark 23s—to their full capabilities in defense of this star system . . . against anyone. If anybody, and I'm specifically including the Solarian League Navy in that 'anybody,' attacks this star system, you are to defend it as if it were the Manticore Home System itself. My formal written orders to you will emphasize those points, and they will further authorize you to use deadly force against anyone—once again, specifically including the Solarian League Navy—who violates the territorial sovereignty of this system."

She paused once more, and Gervais realized he was almost holding his breath. What she was doing was telling Conner he had carte blanche to do whatever he thought he had to do in the defense of Tillerman. It was obvious she wouldn't have done that if she hadn't trusted his judgment, but the fact remained that her orders would cover anything he did, including starting a shooting war with the Solarian League, and that the responsibility would be hers.

"I understand, Ma'am," the captain said quietly after a moment.

"I believe you do," she agreed, sitting back and reaching for her coffee cup once more. "On the other hand, I also want you to understand this. Defending this star system does not mean throwing away the ships under your command. I expect you to use all of the resources at your disposal, if necessary, to accomplish that mission. If it becomes evident, however, that you aren't going to be able to stop an attack, then I also expect you to pull your ships out. Kick as much hell out of the other side as you can, but get them out intact. Losing them, in addition to losing the system, won't help anyone, no matter how 'gloriously' you all die. Keeping them intact for when we come back to kick the Bad Guys back out of Tillerman on their asses, will. Strive to bear that in mind, please? I had the misfortune to make Elvis Santino's acquaintance too many years ago. The Royal Navy doesn't need another one of him."

"I understand, Ma'am," Conner repeated, and this time the admiral chuckled.

"I'm delighted to hear that. On the other hand, I'm not going to pull out and leave you here on your own tomorrow. Given the importance Tillerman looks like assuming, I think it would be a very good idea for me to make President Cummings' acquaintance and get to know as many senior members of the system government as I can. And it won't hurt for me to express my confidence in you in the proper quarters, either. So I'll probably be spending at least a couple of weeks in the vicinity before I go haring off."

"Yes, Ma'am. I understand. And I appreciate the thought, for that matter. I think it would have to help get us off on the right foot here."

"I'm glad you agree. I thought it was a rather clever notion myself."

She grinned at him, then drained her coffee cup and stood.

"And now that we have those details out of the way, I suggest that all of us adjourn to the flag bridge, where Commander Cramer will walk us all through his sensor platform deployment patterns. What I'd really like to do, Jerome, is to give you a day or so to look the situation over, then run a couple of simulations with Penelope and Romulus defending the system against several different levels of threat."

"Should I assume that you intend to be commanding the opposition force, Ma'am?" Conner asked just a bit warily.

"Me?" the admiral said innocently. "Oh, no, Jerome! I'm just going to be advising. Vicki here will be actually running the attack," she nodded to Captain Armstrong, who grinned challengingly at Conner. "And, I suppose that just to make it interesting, we ought to let Commander Cramer command a couple of units of that op force you were talking about." She smiled sweetly at Conner, then glanced at Cramer, who was obviously trying very hard not to smile himself. "You might want to bear that division of command responsibility in mind while you brief Captain Conner on your sensor deployments, Commander."

"Oh, thank you, Ma'am," Conner said. "Thank you ever so much!"

Chapter Twenty-Eight

"—so that just about takes care of the domestic side," Joachim Alquezar said, looking across the conference table at Dame Estelle Matsuko, Baroness Medusa. "I'm not entirely happy about the situation at Marian, but I think it's mostly a tempest in a teapot. Someone in the local planetary government with too big an opinion of what he's due feels like he got his toes stepped on, and he's pissing and moaning about it. No one's going to let him get away with it long enough for it to become a real problem, but I'm afraid this is hardly going to be the only place something like this is going to come up before all's said and done. So it might not be a bad idea for Samiha to send someone from her ministry out to read them the riot act just to make sure his own people step on him hard enough."

Alquezar, Medusa was pleased to note, showed no signs—as yet—of developing the sort of formality-craving sense of self-importance she'd seen out of altogether too many political leaders over the decades. Of course, there was plenty of time for that, she supposed, reminding herself not to let her hopes get too high.

After all, all of a pessimist's surprises are pleasant ones, she thought drily. Although I have to say, I think he's a lot less likely to go that way than some of the politicians I've seen back home! Than lotsof the politicos I've seen back home, actually . . . or than that poisonous little twerp Van Scheldt would likehim to be, for that matter.

She wondered—again—why Alquezar didn't just go ahead and fire Van Scheldt. The man was certainly efficient, but if there was anyone in the entire Alquezar Government whom she trusted less in the dark . . . 

"As you say, Mr. Prime Minister," she said out loud after a moment, "this is a domestic matter for the Talbott Quadrant. It doesn't really come under my umbrella as the Imperial Governor unless things get so out of hand I need to step in and squash someone. So far, this doesn't strike me as even beginning to reach that level. Would you concur, Madam Secretary?"

"Oh, I'd say that was definitely the case, Madam Governor," Samiha Lababibi replied with a smile. "Joachim is absolutely right about what's going on, except that in this case, I'm fairly sure it's not a 'he' who's doing the pissing and moaning. I've got a pretty good idea exactly who it is, as a matter of fact, and if I'm right, it's a 'she.' It's not really that she got her toes stepped on, either; it's that she was hoping for a little better opportunity to line her own pockets off of the investment credits program." Lababibi shook her head. "I'm afraid a few people are still having a bit of difficulty realizing it isn't going to go on being business as usual. As Joachim says, it's not the last time something like this is going to come up, either. I can think of some people right here in Spindle—and not visitors to my fair home world, either, I'm afraid—who feel exactly the same way and may actually be stupid enough to try to do something similar."

And that's something pretty remarkable, too, Medusa thought with a sense of profound satisfaction. Back during the Constitutional Convention, it would never have occurred to Lababibi to say something like that. Not because she's ever been deliberately corrupt herself, but just because she's always been part of the topmost layer of the political and economic structures here in Spindle, with all of the insulation from everyone else's reality that comes with that. She might have sympathized intellectually with someone like Krietzmann, but she could never really have understood where Henri comes from. It was just too far outside her own experience. I wondered if putting her inside the Star Empire's fiscal policies as the Quadrant's treasurer would shake up her own comfortable little perceptions of the universe. I always knew she was smart enough for it to, at least, but smart doesn't necessarily equate to wise, and I'm glad to see it seems to be working out in this case, at least.

"In this case, though," Lababibi continued, blissfully unaware of the governor's thoughts, "I believe I can . . . reason with the culprit. If I point out, speaking as the Quadrant's Treasury Secretary, that the investment credits are being offered solely on a private citizen basis and that both the Alquezar Government and Her Majesty would look with . . . profound displeasure, shall we say, on any effort by local governments to interfere with that, I think she'll get the message."

"Good." Medusa smiled, then sobered slightly. "As I say, this does strike me as an internal matter for the Quadrant, and you're quite right, Samiha. This entire credit programis being offered to private citizens, which means that, aside from the tax credit portion of it, it's not properly a matter for government control or intrusion at all. You might want to deliver your message in a fashion which makes it clear my office and I are being kept in the loop, however. Let me do a little ominous looming in the background, but don't make me any sort of explicit big stick. Let them draw any inferences they want, but not only is it not my place to be interfering in a matter like this unless you or Joachim request it, I want everyone to understand both that I know it isn't and that the Quadrant government is all grown up and able to make its own decisions and do any hammering you people think is required."

Lababibi nodded, and Medusa nodded back with another flicker of satisfaction at how well the former president of the Split System was working out handling Treasury matters for the Quadrant. And not, this time, simply because of the shift in her attitude away from the "way things are" view of oligarchical privilege. Her awareness of the need to find the right balance between local decision and policy making—and enforcement—and imperial authority was another huge plus in Medusa's opinion.

The entire situation was still something of a two-headed monster for everyone involved, of course. Under the new constitution, Alquezar, as the Quadrant's Prime Minister, was the legal head of government for the Quadrant. That gave him and the rest of the Quadrant an enormous degree of local autonomy . . . and the accountability that went with it. However, the entire Quadrant was responsible for accommodating itself to the policies of the Star Empire of Manticore, represented and enunciated in this case by one Baroness Medusa. While she could not normally overrule specific policy decisions or acts of local legislation, she had complete authority—and the power of the veto—when it came to making certain those decisions and pieces of legislation fitted smoothly into imperial guidelines in those areas where the Empress' authority was paramount. Despite the Quadrant Constitution's neatly delimited articles and sections, actually implementing its provisions remained a work in progress, and that wasn't going to change anytime soon. It was going to take some time for the lot of them to work out exactly how and where the pragmatic limits of specified authority and responsibility fell, but so far things seemed to be headed in the right direction. At least all of the members of the Alquezar Government seemed determined to see to it that they did.

The investment credits program and how Alquezar's Cabinet approached it provided a case in point, in Medusa's opinion.

Empress Elizabeth had decided, long before the Constitutional Convention had finally voted out the provisions of the Quadrant's new constitution, that her newer subjects were not going to be taken to the financial cleaners by her older ones. At the same time, it was clearly imperative—for a lot of reasons—to push investment in the Talbott Cluster as hard and fast as possible. The Quadrant had a lot of people and a lot of star systems, but its seriously backward technology base urgently required updating and expansion, and investment capital was hard to come by locally. So Elizabeth and Prime Minister Grantville had decided that for the first ten T-years of operation, any new startup endeavor in the Quadrant would enjoy a reduction in taxation equal to the percentage of ownership held by citizens of the Quadrant. After ten T-years, the tax break would reduce by five percent per T-year for another ten T-years, then terminate completely in the twenty-first T-year. That gave tremendous incentive for investors from the Old Star Kingdom to seek out local partners, and all government really had to do was to keep track of that percentage of local ownership and administer the tax breaks. It most emphatically did not have any role in creating the partnerships in question.

Some of the local oligarchs appeared unable (or unwilling) to grasp that point. They'd expected to control ownership of the new enterprises much as they had dominated the pre-annexation financial structures of the Talbott Cluster. The smarter of them, on the other hand, had recognized early on that there were going to be enormous changes. They'd realized that they'd better adjust to the realization that elements of their populations who previously had been insignificant blips as far as local financial markets were concerned were about to find themselves highly attractive to Manticoran investment partners.

Which was exactly the way things were working out, much to the satisfaction of Elizabeth Winton. Many of the Star Kingdom's investors were allowing their newfound Talbott partners to finance their share of ownership as a percentage of the tax credits, which had the effect of tremendously reducing the amount of startup capital the Talbotters required. That was allowing people from far outside the ranks of the traditional oligarchies to become significant players, which was about to both expand and strengthen the overall economy of the Quadrant while simultaneously severely curtailing the "old guard's" control over that economy. Joachim Alquezar, his Cabinet, and his Constitutional Union Party (which held an outright majority of over eighteen percent in the Quadrant's new Parliament), all understood that, and they were working hard to push the process along.

Which brought Medusa back to the situation in Marian. Apparently one of the local oligarchs—and, like Lababibi, Medusa thought she could make a fairly accurate guess as to exactly who the oligarch in question might be—had decided she ought to receive a "commission" for brokering and expediting the formation of partnerships between Manticoran investors and their Talbott colleagues. Words like extortion, graft, and bribery came to mind whenever Medusa thought about it, and she almost hoped the culprit would prove less amenable to sweet reason than Alquezar and Lababibi expected. She couldn't remember exactly who it was back on Old Terra who'd been in favor of shooting a few people "to encourage the others," but in this case, Estelle Matsuko was prepared to pay for the ammunition herself.

Figuratively speaking, of course.

"All right," Alquezar said now, looking around the conference table, "does anyone have anything else we need to deal with before adjourning?"

Another sign of how new things still were, Medusa reflected. It wouldn't be all that much longer, she was sure, before things like ironbound agendas for meetings like this would become the rule. For now, things were still remarkably—and thankfully—flexible, however, and Alquezar looked in her direction when she cleared her throat.

"There is one matter Vice Admiral Khumalo tells me he'd like to bring to your attention, Mr. Prime Minister," she said. "I apologize for not having mentioned this to anyone ahead of this meeting, but the dispatch boat arrived only a few hours before we were scheduled to meet, and it took the admiral some time to digest the content of its messages and to share them with me."

"Of course, Madame Governor." Alquezar's voice didn't sharpen dramatically, but he'd obviously picked up on her own formality, and he raised one eyebrow at her slightly, before he turned his attention to the uniformed officer sitting to her right.

"Admiral?" he invited.

"Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister." Augustus Khumalo's voice was considerably deeper than Alquezar's. He nodded respectfully to the Prime Minister, then turned very slightly in his chair to glance around the rest of the conference table.

"What Baroness Medusa is referring to," he said, "is a dispatch from Lieutenant Commander Denton, the commanding officer of the destroyerReprise."

"Reprise?" Henri Krietzmann repeated, cocking his head thoughtfully. Then his eyes sharpened. "She's the picket in the Pequod System, isn't she, Admiral?"

"She is, Mr. Secretary," Khumalo acknowledged.

"And the significance of Commander Denton's dispatch is?" Alquezar inquired, his own eyes narrowing.

"Apparently, there's being some friction with New Tuscany-registry merchantships, Mr. Prime Minister."

Khumalo seemed to be choosing words with some care, Alquezar observed.

"What sort of 'friction'?" the Prime Minister asked.

"Well, that's the peculiar thing about it, Sir," Khumalo replied. "We haven't received any formal communication about this from anyone aside from Denton at this point, but his report makes interesting reading. Apparently, there's been more New Tuscan traffic into Pequod of late then there ever was before the annexation. In a lot of ways, that isn't too surprising, given Pequod's relative proximity to New Tuscany. It's less than a T-week even for a merchie between the two systems, after all. But as we all know, Pequod is scarcely what anyone might call a major hub of commercial activity, and most of the shipping in and out of the system has been dominated by the RTU for a long time."

Alquezar nodded. His own home star system of San Miguel was under a hundred and thirty light-years from New Tuscany, and it had been the first non-Rembrandt star system to affiliate itself with the Rembrandt Trade Union. For that matter, Alquezar and his family controlled twelve percent of the RTU's voting shares. If anyone had a firm grasp of the realities of interstellar shipping and commerce throughout the Talbott Cluster, it was Joachim Alquezar.

"Now, I fully realize that the new political and financial relationships being worked out are going to result in a major reconfiguration of local shipping conditions, especially in concert with all of the additional traffic being attracted to the Lynx Terminus," Khumalo continued. "As such it probably makes sense for local shippers to be prospecting. There probably aren't going to be many local cargoes available on spec yet, but there may well be a few, and establishing contacts for future reference has just become a lot more important for a lot of reasons.

"Despite that, however, it seems to me we're seeing more New Tuscan ships in Pequod than the situation justifies. I wouldn't have worried about that—in fact, I doubt very much that anyone on my staff even would have noticed it—if not for Commander Denton's report about how the officers of some of those New Tuscan ships are conducting themselves."

"In what way, Admiral?" Bernardus Van Dort asked, his blue eyes intent.

"They seem to be exceptionally . . . prickly," Khumalo said. "They're quick to take offense. In fact, it seems to Commander Denton that they're actively looking for opportunities to do just that. Or even manufacturing such opportunities."

"Allow me to interrupt for a moment before Admiral Khumalo goes any further," Medusa said. Everyone looked at her, and she smiled without much humor. "I'm sure it's going to occur to many of us that Commander Denton might just be sending us observations to that effect because he's managed to give the New Tuscans legitimate cause to take offense. Neither Admiral Khumalo nor I believe that to be the case, however. I can't say I know Commander Denton personally. I believe I was introduced to him on at least one occasion, shortly afterReprise was first assigned to Admiral Khumalo's command, but, to be perfectly frank, I really don't remember him very well at all. But I have perused his personnel file since the Admiral shared his dispatches with me. From his record, he doesn't strike me as the sort of officer who would antagonize merchant service officers just for his own entertainment. And he definitely doesn't strike me as the sort who would try to falsely imply that the New Tuscans were being hyper-sensitive as a means to cover himself against any sort of reasonable complaints they might make because of his own actions."

"Governor Medusa's right about that," Khumalo rumbled. "I know Denton better than she does, of course, and I didn't deploy him to Pequod because he's stupid. He's not going to be going around stepping on anyone, and even if he'd been tempted to cover himself for some reason, he'd know any sort of deceptive reports would be bound to come unglued, which would only make things worse for him in the long run. In other words, I don't think he'd screw up in the first place, or be dumb enough to think he could cover it up if he had."

"If both you and the Governor feel that way, I'm certainly prepared to accept your judgment," Van Dort said. "Why does Commander Denton feel the New Tuscans are acting in this fashion?"

"If you're asking if he has any explanation for why they're being 'prickly,' as the Admiral put it," Medusa said, "he doesn't. But if you're asking what evidence of their prickliness he's presented, there's quite a bit of it, actually, Bernardus."

Van Dort's expression was an unspoken question, and Medusa gave Khumalo a small, inviting gesture.

"The Commander's attention was originally drawn to this matter by the report of one of his junior officers," the vice admiral told Van Dort. "After checking with others of his officers who have been conducting customs inspections and generally backstopping the Pequod System's local forces in managing the expansion of their traffic, he found that many of them acknowledged similar experiences, although most of them hadn't reported them at the time."

"And the Pequod System's customs agents," Alquezar said intently. "Do we have similar reports from them?"

"No, Mr. Prime Minister, we don't," Khumalo replied, his tone acknowledging the significance of Alquezar's question. "In fact, Commander Denton specifically inquired of his Pequod counterparts before he sent his dispatch to Spindle. They confirmed his own impression that New Tuscan traffic to Pequod is up very substantially, especially over the last few T-weeks before the Commander sent off his dispatch. None of them, however, have experienced the same degree of touchiness out of the New Tuscans."

Alquezar nodded slowly, his frown thoughtful.

"According to Commander Denton's inquiries, almost all of the New Tuscan ships which his personnel had boarded in the last ten local days prior to his dispatch had demonstrated the same pattern of behavior. The ships' officers were confrontational, acted as if they were highly suspicious of our personnel's motivations, cooperated as grudgingly as possible with requests for documentation and inspection, and generally appeared to be attempting to deliberately provoke naval personnel into some sort of open incident. Not only that, but Commander Denton suspects that in at least several of these cases the New Tuscans were using shipboard surveillance systems to record the entire episode.

"Because of those suspicions, he arranged to surreptitiously record several of our inspection visits himself. Obviously, I haven't had the time yet to view those records in their entirety myself. I have, however, viewed several clips which he included with his official report, and he sent the full recordings with them. At the moment, Commander Chandler and Captain Shoupe are viewing those records but, to be honest, I don't expect the result of their examination to change my own impression, which is that Commander Denton has accurately summarized the situation. There's very little question in my mind that the New Tuscans, for whatever reason, are deliberately pushing our personnel—and specifically our naval personnel—in what I can only construe as an effort to provoke some sort of incident."

"Forgive me, Admiral," Lababibi put in, "but if this had only been happening for less than two T-weeks before the Commander became aware of it, how many such visits could there have been? I mean, I don't question your observations, I'm simply wondering how large a base we have for drawing conclusions?"

"As a matter of fact, Madam Secretary," it was obvious Khumalo hadn't taken any sort of offense from Lababibi's question, "that's one of the reasons I think Commander Denton may have put his finger on something important here. In the ten local days before he sent his dispatch, six New Tuscan-registered merchant ships visited Pequod."

"Six?" Bernardus Van Dort sat suddenly upright in his chair, and Khumalo nodded.

"Is that number significant, Bernardus?" Lababibi asked, looking at her colleague, and Van Dort snorted harshly.

"You might say that, Samiha," he replied. "I know we're all still in the process of really coming to have a good feel for the other star systems in the Quadrant with us, but, believe me, Pequod is not Spindle. As the Secretary of the Treasury, I'm sure you're aware that it's nowhere near as poverty-stricken as Nuncio, but it's a much, much poorer star system than Spindle. In fact, if Henri will forgive me, Pequod is probably almost as poor as Dresden was thirty or forty T-years ago."

Lababibi nodded slowly, watching Van Dort carefully. While Joachim Alquezar was intimately familiar with the internal workings of the Rembrandt Trade Union, Bernardus Van Dort had virtually single-handedly created the Trade Union. In many ways, Lababibi had thought from the beginning that Van Dort would have made a far better treasury secretary than she herself had, since no one in the entire galaxy had a better feel for the economic realities of the Talbott Cluster. Unfortunately, he was still too polarizing a figure in too many eyes for him to have been handed that particular cabinet post. And, Lababibi admitted, not without a certain degree of reason. She herself trusted him completely, but the RTU had been too unpopular with too many of the Cluster's inhabitants for far too long for Bernardus Van Dort to have been acceptable as the Quadrant's chief treasury official.

"What you may not—yet—fully realize is what that means in terms of interstellar trade, though," Van Dort continued. "I'd have to check with our central records back on Rembrandt to confirm this, but I'd be surprised if Pequod ever saw more than a couple of freighters a T-monthprior to the discovery of the Lynx Terminus. And if you glance at a star map, the system is hardly on a direct approach to Lynx. There's going to be a general upsurge in system visits by ships vectoring through the Terminus and looking for cargoes of opportunity, and Pequod will probably see at least some of it. But six ships from a single local star system in less than two T-weeks?" He shook his head. "No way. For that matter, the New Tuscan merchant marine isn't particularly huge. Six hyper-capable freighters represent a hefty percentage of their total merchant fleet, and probably two-thirds of its ships are registered elsewhere for tax purposes. That's what makes it significant that the Admiral mentioned New Tuscany-registered vessels, because there are only a relatively small handful of ships which are both owned and registered in New Tuscany. I can't conceive of any sound business reason that would send that many ships, out of such a limited pool, to a system like Pequod."

"I don't like the sound of that," Krietzmann half-muttered.

"You wouldn't like the sound of anything coming out of New Tuscany, Henri," Lababibi said rather tartly. But then she shook her own head. "On the other hand, in this case, I have to agree with you. Although I can't begin to offer any explanation of what's going on . . . or why."

"Neither can I," Baroness Medusa acknowledged. "I think, though, that given the . . . friction between the New Tuscan government and the Quadrant since New Tuscany's withdrawal from the Constitutional Convention, we have to approach this situation with a bit of caution."

"I can't disagree with that, either, Madam Governor," Lababibi said unhappily. "They're still pressing for a 'more equitable' distribution of Manticoran investment in the region, and at least some members of their delegation have made it clear that—as individuals, at least—they feel our refusal to give it to them represents economic retaliation against them for declining to ratify the Constitution as members of the Star Empire."

"Are you suggesting those delegation members and these merchant spacers miraculously appearing in such numbers in Pequod are part of some officially concerted effort?" Alquezar sounded even more unhappy than Lababibi, and she shrugged.

"I don't know," she admitted. "On the one hand, it's very tempting to conclude exactly that. But if I'm going to be honest, that's at least partly because of how thoroughly I detest New Tuscany on a personal basis. There's a part of me that would like to think that they're Up To Something. On the other hand, the timing of it seems to me to argue against it. If they were going to set up some sort of concerted effort, as you put it, Joachim, then why did they wait so long to begin sending ships to Pequod? Their delegation's been here in Spindle ever since the Constitutional Convention, and they've been whining and complaining about our 'unfair' efforts to restrict Manticoran investment in New Tuscany from the very beginning."

She looked at Khumalo.

"What's the dispatch boat flight time from Pequod to Spindle, Admiral?" she asked.

"Right on seventeen T-days, Madam Secretary."

"Well, if we take this spike in their merchant ships' appearances in Pequod and assume it extends back over only ten days before Commander Denton reported it to us, that's still less than a T-month," Lababibi pointed out. "It's been over six T-months since the Constitution was voted out, and the next best thing to five months since Parliament and Her Majesty ratified it. So why would they have waited so long and then crammed so many ships into Pequod in such a short timeframe that it had to create this kind of spike?"

"You're right." Alquezar nodded. "If it were a concerted effort of some sort, they would have started cycling their ships through Pequod sooner, wouldn't they? Done it in a way which wouldn't be obvious when we started looking at it?"

"Maybe, and maybe not," Van Dort said thoughtfully. The others looked at him, and he shrugged. "Without a better idea of what they're up to—or what they may be up to, at any rate—we don't have any solid basis for evaluating their tactics. And, frankly, at this point I don't have any idea of what it is they could hope to accomplish in the end. Aside from thoroughly pissing off the Star Empire, of course, which would appear to be something of a case of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face."

"I have to agree with that," Medusa said, "and that's the real reason I wanted to call this to the attention of the Quadrant's government. When I can't think of a reason for someone who I know doesn't like me very much to be doing something, it makes me nervous."

"I feel the same way," Alquezar agreed.

"And while we're all feeling nervous," Krietzmann pointed out, "think about this. I have to agree with Samiha's analysis that the original complaints from members of the New Tuscan trade delegation probably weren't designed as part of a coherent strategy. Or, at least, not of a coherent strategy directly connected to what's happening in Pequod right now. But the fact that they weren't part of that kind of strategythen, doesn't mean they aren't part of that kind of strategy now. Or that whoever's pulling the strings in Pequod didn't choose to incorporate what was originally a totally unconnected situation into an entirely new strategy. I know New Tuscany is only a single star system, and one that's not remotely in the Star Empire's—or even the Star Kingdom's—league. For that matter, they're a small enough fish they ought to be nervous about pissing off just the folks here in the Quadrant, if they're feeling rational about things. And I know I have a tendency to look under beds for plots by people like Andrieaux Yvernau, too. I admit it, and—no offense to anyone sitting around this table—I think Dresden's experience with people like him justifies that tendency. In this case, though, I really don't think it's just a matter of lower-class paranoia. I think the bastards really are up to something, and much as I hate them I don't really think they're stupid enough to be pissing in our soup just because they don't like us. If they are doing something, then there's a method to their madness somewhere, and given the general situation after the Battle of Monica and how early it is in the process of integrating the Quadrant into the Star Empire, I think we'd damned well better figure out what it is."

Chapter Twenty-Nine

HMS Hexapuma and HMS Warlock emerged from the central terminus of the Manticoran Wormhole Junction exactly one T-year from the day Midshipwoman Helen Zilwicki, Midshipman Aikawa Kagiyama, and Midshipwoman Ragnhild Pavletic had reported aboard her. Now Ensign Zilwicki tried to wrap her mind around how truly monumental the events of that year had been as she sat beside Lieutenant Senior Grade Abigail Hearns at Tactical. Abigail was undoubtedly too junior for permanent duty as aSaganami-C-class heavy cruiser's tactical officer, but Captain Terekhov had flatly refused to allow anyone to replace her before Hexapuma'sreturn to Manticore.

Helen was glad. And she was glad some other people were still aboard, as well.

She glanced over her shoulder and hid a broad mental smile as her eye met Paulo's. Ansten FitzGerald was still in obvious pain and more than a little shaky. That wasn't especially amusing to anyone who knew and respected the exec, but watching Aikawa Kagiyama hovering in the background while he kept an anxious eye on FitzGerald certainly was.

"Message from Invictus, Sir," Lieutenant Commander Nagchaudhuri announced from Communications.

"Yes?" Terekhov turned his command chair to face Nagchaudhuri. HMSInvictus was the flagship of Home Fleet, no doubt in orbit about the planet of Manticore.

"Message begins," Nagchaudhuri began, and something in his tone made Helen look at him sharply.

" 'To Captain Aivars Terekhov and the men and women of HMSHexapuma and HMSWarlock, from Admiral of the Green Sebastian D'Orville, Commanding Officer, Home Fleet. Well done.' Message ends."

Helen frowned, but before the message had time to sink in, the main tactical display changed abruptly. In one perfectly synchronized moment, forty-two superdreadnoughts, sixteen CLACs, twelve battlecruisers, thirty-six heavy and light cruisers, thirty-two destroyers, and over a thousand LACs, activated their impeller wedges. They appeared on the display like lightning flickering outward from a common center, a stupendous globe thousands of kilometers in diameter, andHexapuma andWarlock were at its exact center.

Helen recognized that formation. She'd seen it before. Every man and woman in Navy uniform had seen it, once every year, on Coronation Day, when Home Fleet passed in review before the Queen . . . with its flagship in exactly the position Hexapuma and Warlock now held.

Even as she stared at the display, another icon appeared upon it. The crowned, golden icon of HMSDuke of Cromarty, the battlecruiser which had replaced the murdered HMSQueen Adrienne as the royal yacht, sitting just beyond the threshold of the Junction. A Junction, Helen sudden realized, which had been cleared of shipping—all shipping—except for Home Fleet itself.

The vast globe accelerated towardsCromarty, matching its acceleration rate exactly toHexapuma's, holding formation on the heavy cruiser and her single escort, and the raised wedge of every ship in that huge formation flashed off and then on again in the traditional underway salute to a fleet flagship.

"Additional message, Sir," Nagchaudhuri said. He stopped and cleared his throat, then continued, and despite his throat clearing, his voice seemed to waver about the edges.

"Message begins. 'Yours is the honor.' " He looked up from his display, meeting Aivars Terekhov's eyes.

"Message ends, Sir," he said softly.

"Hey, Helen!"

Helen Zilwicki looked up from the footlocker she was packing, and Paulo d'Arezzo waved at her, then pointed at the com unit on the outsized table in the commons area of HMS Hexapuma's Snotty Row.

"The Skipper wants to see you," he continued.

"Wants to see me?" Helen repeated carefully. "As in, 'I'd like to see you around sometime,' or as in 'Get your butt up here right now, Ms. Zilwicki'?"

"The latter," Paulo told her with a smile. "As in 'Mr. d'Arezzo, ask Ms. Zilwicki to come by my day cabin at her earliest convenience.' "

"Crap." Helen sat back on her heels, trying to think of anything she might have done to earn her a last-minute 'counseling interview' with Captain Terekhov. She couldn't come up with anything right off the top of her head, but that wasn't necessarily reassuring; it was the unanticipated reamings that smarted the most, she'd discovered. Of course, it was always possible he just wanted her to stop by because he'd heard a really good joke and wanted to share it with her, but somehow she didn't find that possibility extremely likely.

"I don't suppose he said anything about why he wants to see me?"

"Nope," Paulo said with what Helen privately considered to be appallingly callous cheerfulness.

"Great." She sighed, and stood up.

She looked down at the open locker for a second or two, then shrugged philosophically. She and Paulo were due to catch the regularly scheduled ferry flight from HMS Hephaestus to Saganami Island in order to clear the final Academy bits and pieces of paperwork required to formally graduate them and confirm their acting promotions to ensign. She'd been dreading it in some ways, since it would inevitably mean new assignments for both of them, and she was still working her way around the edges of turning her friendship with the stunningly handsome—and terminally standoffish—Mr. D'Arrezo into something deeper and more enduring. Given his hatred for the Manpower Incorporated genetic manipulation which was responsible for those looks of his, that wasn't the easiest job in the universe, and she didn't really like the thought of letting him get out of arm's reach before she was done working on him. At the same time, she was eager to see what new challenges the Navy was going to offer her. But if she didn't get done packing in the next twenty minutes, she was going to miss the ferry shuttle, and it seemed unlikely she could get up to the captain's day cabin, find out what he wanted, get back down here, and finish packing in that tight a time window.

"Unlikely," ha! Try "no way in hell," honey, she told herself sourly.

"Looks like I'll be catching the evening shuttle, instead," she told Paulo resignedly.

"Well, we won't be assigned a formal mess billet yet," he pointed out. "I'll save you a place in the cafeteria."

"Gee, thanks. Your generosity and thoughtfulness overwhelm me."

"I'm just a naturally generous and thoughtful kind of guy," he told her with a broad grin few other people had ever seen out of him. "A natural born philanthropist, too, now that I think about it. A veritable paragon. A giant among men, a—ooph!"

He broke off as the flying boot hit him in the region of his navel. Helen was an extraordinarily strong young woman, thanks to both natural aptitude and rigorous training, and she'd actually tossed the boot quite gently . . . for her. It seemed unlikely Paulo would have agreed with that particular adverb, and he sat down rather abruptly.

"And the strong silent type, too, I see," Helen observed sweetly, smiled at him, and headed out of the compartment.

"Ensign Zilwicki to see the Captain," Helen told the Marine sentry outside Captain Terekhov's quarters five minutes later.

"You're expected, Ma'am," the corporal told her, and reached back one hand to press the button for the admittance chime.

"Yes, Corporal Sanders?" Helen recognized the voice of Chief Steward Joanna Agnelli, Captain Terekhov's personal steward.

"Ms. Zilwicki is here," Sanders said.

"Thank you."

The hatch slid open a moment later, and Helen stepped through it . . . then paused in surprise. There were rather more people in the captain's day cabin than she'd anticipated.

Terekhov himself sat behind his desk, in the act of sipping from a cup of coffee. That much, at least, she'd expected. But Lieutenant Abigail Hearns sat in one of the comfortable armchairs facing his desk, and there were three other officers present, as well. One of them was Commander Kaplan, and Helen was both astonished and delighted to see how much better Kaplan looked than she had the last time Helen saw her, but the other two were a commander and a senior-grade captain Helen had never seen before in her life, and she braced quickly to attention.

"You wanted to see me, Captain?"

"At ease, Helen," Terekhov said, then smiled and waved his coffee cup at the chair beside Lieutenant Hearns. "And have a seat," he added.

"Thank you, Sir."

Helen obeyed his command and sat, hoping she sounded less mystified than she felt as she parked herself in the indicated chair. She sensed a presence at her shoulder and looked up to see Agnelli standing there with another cup and saucer in one hand and the coffee pot in the other. Helen was scarcely accustomed to sitting around sipping coffee with such astronomically superior officers, but she knew better than to decline the offer . . . which presumably indicated that this was at least marginally a social occasion. She took the saucer and held the cup while Agnelli filled it, then took a sip and nodded in appreciation before she turned her attention back to Terekhov.

"I realize this is a bit irregular," he said then, "but so is our situation. Abigail, I know you and Helen are both well acquainted with Commander Kaplan. However, you may not be aware—as I wasn't, up until about—" he glanced at the time display on the bulkhead "—fifty-seven minutes ago—that she is also the brand-new commanding officer of HMS Tristram."

Helen's eyes flipped to the petite, fine-boned blonde with the improbably dark complexion. Kaplan happened to be looking at her at the moment, and the commander smiled at Helen's obvious surprise. And her chagrin, for that matter, as she scolded herself for not noticing the white beret of a starship's CO tucked under Kaplan's epaulet.

"These other two gentlemen," Terekhov continued, pulling her attention back from Kaplan, "are Captain Frederick Carlson, the commanding officer of HMS Quentin Saint-James, and Commander Tom Pope . . . my new chief of staff."

This time both of Helen's eyebrows rose in astonishment.Hexapuma had been back in home space for substantially less than two days. In fact, she'd only docked here at Hephaestus three hours ago. The captain hadn't even been off the ship yet—couldn't even have had so much as the opportunity to give his wife a hug! Things simply didn't change this quickly and drastically—not even in the Navy!

Not usually, at least.

"As I'm sure both of you were already aware, things have changed considerably since we first deployed to Talbott," Terekhov said, almost as if he'd heard her thoughts, and smiled thinly. "Quite a bit of that seems to be our fault, as far as the Admiralty is concerned, so they've decided we ought to do something about it.

"Obviously," he continued, "the Navy's deployment plans in general are in what we might charitably call a state of flux. The cancellation of the summit talks with Haven and the decision to resume active operations make it even more unlikely that the Admiralty is going to be able to free up wallers to reinforce Admiral Khumalo anytime soon. In addition, it's effectively anchored Admiral Blaine to the Lynx Terminus, where he can get home in a hurry if he has to. Which has lent added emphasis to the Admiralty's decision to reinforce Talbott primarily with lighter units.

"In addition to the ships Vice Admiral Gold Peak already has, an additional squadron ofNikes is in the process of forming. Admiral Oversteegen is its commander (designate), and as soon as all of its units have joined up, it—and he—will be transferred from Eighth Fleet to Tenth Fleet. In addition, however, the Admiralty is already prepared to deploy a full squadron of brand new Saganami-Cs and one of the new Roland-class destroyer squadrons to Talbott.Tristram—" he nodded at Kaplan "—is one of the Rolands. And I, to my considerable surprise, am the newly designated commodore of CruRon 94. Commander FitzGerald will take over Hexapuma, Commander Pope will be acting as my chief of staff, and Captain Carlson will be my flag captain."

Helen glanced at Lieutenant Hearns, who seemed remarkably composed, given how caught-in-the-slipstream Helen felt as the captain's—no, the commodore's—explanation rolled over her. She hoped she looked like she was at least managing to keep up with him, although she was at a loss to understand how he could be so calm about it all. He sounded as if things like this happened to him every day!

"I'm sure that by now both of you are wondering why I've dragged a pair of such relatively junior officers in to explain all of this to them. Well, I do have a reason. Two of them, in fact.

"With so many ships moving in so many directions in such a short period of time, the Admiralty is finding it just a bit difficult to meet everyone's manning requirements. For example, Commander Pope didn't know until last week that he was going to be anyone's chief of staff, and the decision that he was going to be my chief of staff was actually made this morning. It looks as if we're going to be deploying at least one or two people short for the rest of the staff, as well, although BuPers has given me permission to poach additional officers from Admiral Khumalo when we get back to Spindle. Commodore Chatterjee, the senior officer of Commander Kaplan's destroyer squadron, is in rather better shape than that where his staff is concerned, but several of his units are undermanned.

"And the reason we've called the two of you in for this little conversation is that one of the slots I still need to fill is the flag lieutenant's billet, andTristram needs a good tac officer.

"Helen," he looked directly at her, "you worked out very well as my liaison with Mr. Van Dort. I believe we have an established and efficient working relationship, and you're already very familiar—especially for an officer of your youthfulness—with the political and military realities of the Cluster. I mean, the Quadrant. Normally, the flag lieutenant's slot would be filled by someone rather more senior than you are at the moment, and I'm well aware that what you would really prefer at this point in your career is to move directly into a tactical department slot somewhere. I don't want you to feel pressured, and if you decide you want a tactical assignment, I will unreservedly recommend you for it. At the same time, the opportunity for this sort of experience, this early in your career, doesn't happen along every day. And, unfortunately, given the time constraints involved, I need your decision almost immediately—within the next twelve hours, at the latest. And I, also unfortunately, am about to leave for several hours of conferences at Admiralty House. Since I needed to speak to you personally about this, I had to cram it at you before I leave the ship, as it were.

"As for you, Abigail," he turned to the lieutenant, "Commander Kaplan has specifically requested you as Tristram's tactical officer."

Helen's brain had been doing its best to imitate a chipmunk in the headlights as she tried to assimilate Captain—No, damn it! she told herself sharply—Commodore Terekhov's offer. Now, despite herself, her head snapped around towards Abigail.

At a hundred and eighty-nine thousand tons, the Roland was bigger than a pre-MDM light cruiser . . . and she was armed with Mark 16s, just likeHexapuma. She and her sisters were the plum assignments of the Navy's destroyer force, and they were offering aRoland's tactical department to a brand new senior-grade lieutenant?

"I'm flattered, Sir, of course—" Abigail began, but Commander Kaplan interrupted her.

"With your permission, Sir?" she said to Commodore Terekhov. He nodded, and Kaplan turned to Abigail.

"Before you turn it down because you think you're too junior for the slot, or because you think it's time you moved back over to the GSN, let me explain a few things to you. First, you arguably have more tactical experience actually using the Mark 16 in combat than anyone else in the entire Navy—in fact, than anyone else in either of your two navies—given how quickly AuxCon—and I—got taken out of action in Monica. While there may be someone else whose overall experience with the Mark 16 matches yours, I can't think of any other officer of your rank who's been responsible for managing an entire squadron's—hell, an entire light task group's—fire in a furball like that one. So, yes, you are junior for the slot. But you've also demonstrated your competence under fire, which a lot of tactical officers senior to you haven't, and you bring with you a lot of very valuable experience with Tristram's primary armament.

"And as far as moving back over to the GSN is concerned, this is the first squadron ofRolands to be formed. For a change, we're actually ahead of Grayson in deploying a new class, and High Admiral Matthews has specifically requested that Grayson personnel be assigned to it to help develop doctrine and accrue experience with the new class and its weapons. I'm thinking you'd be an extremely logical choice for that assignment. You're already fully experienced in how we Manties do things, and, let's face it, you're still the first Grayson-born female officer in the entire GSN. Getting your ticket punched as a full-fledged tactical officer, in command of your own department, is only going to bolster your authority when you finally return full-time to Grayson. And when you do, unless I very much miss my guess, High Admiral Matthews is probably planning to assign you to relatively light units, where your example will be most direct and where you're least likely to get shoved away into some admiral's convenient flagship pigeonhole just because he can't—or doesn't want to—figure out what to do with you. That being the case, adding demonstrated familiarity with the new destroyers and cruisers—and their main weapons systems—to your résumé strikes me as a very good idea."

"Ma'am, I really appreciate the offer," Abigail said. "And under other circumstances, I'd probably be willing to kill to get it. But if I run off with a prize like this, it's going to be a blatant case of string-pulling!"

"Of course it is!" Kaplan replied, and snorted at her expression. "Abigail, that's what happens with officers who demonstrate superior performance. Oh," she waved one hand in midair, "it happens for other reasons, too, and a lot of those other reasons suck, when you come right down to it. God knows we all know that! And I suppose there probably will be at least a few people who think you got this assignment because of who your father is. I rather doubt anyone who knows Steadholder Owens is going to think he pulled the string in question, but that's not going to keep some people from whining and bitching about the fact that you got it and they didn't. And most of those people who are going to be doing the whining and bitching aren't going to want to consider the possibility that you got it because you were better than they were, which is why—as far as they're concerned—it's obviously going to be a case of nepotism. Well, guess what? That happens, too. Or do you think there weren't plenty of officers who thought Duchess Harrington was being pushed up faster than she deserved, even after Basilisk Station, because of favoritism from people like Admiral Courvoissier and Earl White Haven?"

"I'm not Duchess Harrington!" Abigail protested. "I don't have anywhere near her record!"

"And she wasn't 'Duchess Harrington' at the time, either," Kaplan replied. "That's my point. She was given the opportunity to achieve what she achieved because of the ability she'd already demonstrated. I'm offering you this slot for the same reason. There's nothing wrong with pulling strings as long as the result is to put the right officer in the right billet at the right time, and if I didn't think that was what was happening here, I wouldn't have made the offer. You know that."

She held Abigail's eye firmly until the younger woman finally pulled away from her gaze to glance appealingly at Terekhov.

"I suppose that all sounds pretty embarrassing," the newly promoted commodore told her with a crooked smile. "As it happens, though, I concur with Commander Kaplan's assessment of you and your capabilities. I think she's right about the reasons you'd be a perfect fit for this particular slot, too. And, to be honest, Abigail, I think you need to consider very carefully whether your reasons you should turn it down are anywhere near as good as her reasons why you should take it. Not just from the personal perspective of your own career, either. I think this is where the Navy—all of the Alliance's navies—will get the maximum benefit from your experience and your talents."

Abigail looked at him for several seconds, then looked back at Kaplan and managed a smile of her own.

"Am I on as tight a time schedule for making up my mind as Helen is, Ma'am?"

"Not quite." Kaplan smiled back, then twitched her head in Terekhov's direction. "I figured I might need the Skipper—I mean, the Commodore—to help twist your arm, so I asked him to play rabbi for this little discussion. Unlike Helen, you have, oh, eighteen hours before you have to decide, though."

"Gee, thanks." Abigail looked back and forth between her and Terekhov for another moment, then shrugged. "Actually, I don't need that long," she said. "I've just discovered that I'm neither sufficiently selfless nor concerned enough about whether or not people think I'm using 'influence' to turn something like this down. If you're really serious about wanting me, Ma'am, you've got me! And . . . thank you."

"Remember that sense of gratitude when I start working you till you drop." Kaplan's smile segued into a grin, and Abigail chuckled.

"Which brings us back to you, Helen," Terekhov said, and Helen's eyes popped back to him. "As I say, you have a few hours to think it over."

She stared at him, her mind racing as it dashed off down all the branching futures radiating from this moment.

He was right. She had been anticipating a stint as a very junior assistant tactical officer squirreled away aboard a battlecruiser or a superdreadnought somewhere. An assignment which would punch her ticket for the next stage of her desired career track. And, she admitted to herself, an assignment which would be unspeakably boring after Hexapuma's deployment to Talbott. Then there were all the people she'd met in Talbott, the sense that she had a personal stake in making certain the Quadrant's integration into the Star Empire went smoothly, without still more bloodshed. Obviously, one lowly ensign—even if she was a commodore's flag lieutenant—was hardly going to be a maker and a shaker at that level of politics, but she found that she still wanted to be there.

Yet if she took this assignment, it would divert her from the tactical track. She'd lose ground on the other ensigns and junior-grade lieutenants who were putting in that boring time, laboring away in the bowels of some capital ship's tactical department.

Oh, get real! she scolded herself. You're planning on making the Navy your career! You'll have plenty of time to make up for any ground you lose here. And Master Tye always did tell you you needed to cultivate more patience, didn't he? So if you're going to find an excuse, find a better one than that!

Which brought her face-to-face with the real reason she was hesitating. A reason named Paulo d'Arezzo. He was almost certainly going to draw the same sort of assignment she'd expected—right here in Home Fleet, more likely than not—and she'd suddenly discovered that she really, really didn't want to be clear across the Talbott Quadrant from him.

Oh, that's even better than the last excuse, she thought sourly. Or it's less logical, at least. You know damned well they'd assign the two of you to two different ships, don't you? Which means you'd see almost as little of each other even if you were both assigned to Home Fleet as you'd see with him here and you off in Talbott again.

It seemed to her that it took forever for those thoughts to flow through her mind, even though she knew better. But, finally, they trickled to an end, and she drew a deep breath and looked up Terekhov again.

"It wasn't what I had in mind, Sir—obviously. But, like Abigail says, if you're serious about wanting me, you've got me."

Chapter Thirty

I wonder if this was really such a good idea, after all? Helen Zilwicki asked herself wryly as she stepped into the lift car and punched in the proper combination.

She'd been half afraid the commodore might reconsider his choice of flag lieutenants once he discovered how unsuited to the position an officer as junior as she was truly was. She probably shouldn't have, since she'd had ample opportunity to observe just how decisive he was, but so far he actually seemed not even to have experienced any serious qualms. Which was more than she could say.

She grimaced at the thought, but there was at least some truth to it. Once upon a time, she'd thought the pressure a midshipwoman experienced on her snotty cruise was intense, and she supposed it was. She'd certainly felt more than sufficiently exhausted at the time, at any rate! But her present assignment had an intensity all its own.

Oh, stop whining, she told herself sternly."This, too, shall pass," as Master Tye was always so fond of telling you. You'll get your feet under yourself this time, too. After all, you've only beena flag lieutenant for four days! Scant comfort as she went scurrying about the passages of HMS Quentin Saint-James on Commodore Terekhov's missions.

When she thought about it, she rather suspected that the commodore was running her harder than he actually had to. For example, there was her present mission. There was absolutely no reason she could think of why the commodore couldn't have simply screened Commander Horace Lynch,Quentin Saint-James' tactical officer, for this particular message. In fact, it probably would have been more efficient. But, no; he'd decided Ensign Zilwicki should trot right on over to the TO's office and deliver it in person. Helen didn't mind the exercise, and the actual message was pretty interesting, but the fact remained that there had been other—and arguably much more efficient—ways for the commodore to deliver it.

But this one keeps me busy, she thought, watching the lift car's position indicator flicker across the display panel.And he's been doing a lot of that ever since we found out about that assassination attempt on Torch. Despite herself, she shivered at the thought of how close her sister had come to death. And she knew Berry entirely too well. She knew exactly how she must have taken the deaths of so many other people, especially as a consequence of an effort to murder her. And she could also understand why there'd been no message from her father about it. There probably was one chasing its way off towards Spindle, where he could expect it to be relayed toHexapuma, but she had no doubt that he—and probably that scary son-of-a-bitch Cachat, too, now that I think about it—were off . . . looking into who had truly been responsible for it.

Unlike most subjects of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, Helen was less than convinced that Haven had orchestrated the attack on Torch. Of course, she had the unfair advantage of her sister's and her father's letters, which was why she knew Victor Cachat, that otherwise apparently unfeeling juggernaut of a Havenite secret agent, was madly in love with one Thandi Palane, who happened to be Berry's "unofficial big sister," as well as the commander-in-chief of the Torch armed forces. Not only would Cachat have refused to have anything to do with an assassination attempt which might so readily have caught Palane in its path, but he had to know how she would have reacted to his complicity in any attempt to kill Berry or Princess Ruth. And if he hadn't had anything to do with it, then it was for damned sure no other Havenite agent had. Not the way Cachat, the Audobon Ballroom—and my own dear Daddy, of course—were wired into the intelligence community.

Unfortunately, Helen Zilwicki was only one of the Royal Manticoran Navy's newest ensigns. The fact that she was convinced someone else had pulled the trigger wasn't going to cut very much ice with the powers that were. For that matter, she felt quite confident that one Anton Zilwicki had already reached as high up the intelligence food chain as he could in an effort to convince Manticore of that glaringly self-evident (in her own modest opinion) fact. If he hadn't been able to get anyone to listen to him, then no one was going to be listening to her anytime soon.

And fair's fair, she admitted grudgingly. We Zilwickis have had just a bit more experience than most people with the sordid world of espionage and dirty tricks in general. And too much of that experience has been with the ladies and gentlemen of Manpower. I suppose we're as naturally predisposed to look for the Mesa connection as other people are to look for the Haven connection. But I do wish some of those people thinking "Haven done it!"would stop and think about the weapon they used. Sure, the People's Republic carried out plenty of assassinations, but so far as anyone on our side knows, they never used a sophisticated neurotoxin like that. They thought in terms of bombs and pulser darts and missiles. But Manpower, now . . . they think in bioscience terms.

But there wasn't very much she could do about it, especially considering the fact thatQuentin Saint-James (which had already come to be known asJimmy Boy by her crew, despite the fact that she was less than three T-months old) was headed in exactly the wrong direction. And, since that was the case, she did her best to put it out of her mind once more and, as the lift car stopped and the doors slid open, turned her attention to the other reason she suspected Commodore Terekhov was keeping her so enthusiastically on the run.

She hadn't really thought about it when the commodore offered her the flag lieutenant's slot, but there were several very good reasons—two of which had presented themselves strongly to her over the last few days—why that particular position was never offered to someone who wasn't at least a lieutenant.

First, the reason a flag officer needed a personal aide to help keep him, his schedule, and his workload organized was fairly glaringly apparent. And, generally speaking, it took someone with rather more experience than any ensign could have accrued to do all that organizing. Helen had never actually realized—not in any emotional way, at least—just how much time a flag lieutenant spent making certain her flag officer's time was spent as efficiently and productively as possible.

When she'd discovered just how thoroughly she was supposed to be tapped into all of the squadron's departments, even her naturally hardy soul had quailed. The responsibility for learning what went on in the administration and coordination of all those various departments—plus operations and logistics—and their respective duties had come as something of a shock to Helen. And the fact that they still didn't have an operations officer, a staff astrogator, a staff communications officer, or a staff intelligence officer didn't help any, either. At the moment, Commander Lynch was holding down the operations department for Commodore Terekhov, and Lieutenant Commander Barnabé Johansen and Lieutenant Commander Iona Török,Quentin Saint-James' astrogator and com officer, respectively, were filling in as his astrogator and communications officers, but the whole arrangement had an undeniably temporary, makeshift feeling do it.

Helen suspected that everyone felt as off-balance in that regard as she did herself, but at least all of them were the heads of their own departments aboard the squadron flagship. That meant they had a far better understanding of what they were supposed to be doing than she did. Despite the fact that a midshipwoman on her snotty cruise was given experience working in every ship's department, Helen's perspective during her time aboardHexapuma had always been that of a relative peon. Now she had to understand not simply what each department did, but how it did it in relationship to every other department, which was another kettle of fish entirely. Besides, even Lieutenant Ramón Morozov, Terekhov's logistics officer, was monumentally senior to her. Dealing with all of those other department heads on a "The-commodore-says-you-have-to-do-this-right-now!" basis could be . . . daunting, to say the least.

Even worse was the fear that she might drop some critical ball simply because of her own lack of experience. She knew she could count on Commodore Terekhov to keep an eye on her, but she'd also learned—the hard way, which, she often thought, was the way she tended to learn most things—that failure taught more than success. The commodore, unfortunately, was also aware of that minor fact, and she had no doubt at all that he was prepared to allow her to fail as part of the learning process. Which was probably all well and good from his perspective, but tended to suck vacuum from hers. Helen Zilwicki was unaccustomed to failing. She didn't like it when it happened, she didn't handle it well, and, she admitted to herself as she trotted down the ship's passage towards Lynch's office, she absolutely hated the thought of letting someone else down through her own ineptitude.

But that brought her to the other reason her present assignment was usually reserved for a full lieutenant. A flag lieutenant didn't exist simply because a flag officer needed an aide. She existed because an assignment as a flag lieutenant was a teaching experience, too. Well, in fairness,every naval assignment was a teaching experience—or it damned well ought to be, at any rate. But Manticoran flag lieutenants were far more than just aides and what were still called go-fors, and RMN flag lieutenacies were normally reserved for officers being carefully groomed for bigger and better things. The experience of managing a flag officer's schedule and sitting in on staff discussions and decision making processes other lieutenants never got to see was supposed to give a flag lieutenant a deeper insight into a flag officer's responsibilities. It was supposed to teach someone whose superiors felt she had already demonstrated the potential for eventual flag rank herself how the job was supposed to be done . . . and also how it wasn't supposed to be done.

So far, none of the senior officers she'd found herself working with seemed to resent the fact that she was a mere ensign. She didn't know how long that was going to last, though, and she had a sinking sensation that more than one lieutenant she ran into was going to resent it. Not to mention the fact that she could absolutely guarantee that at some point in her future career some officer to whom she'd just reported was going to have looked in her personnel jacket, examined her Form 210, noted her present assignment, and concluded she was receiving preferential treatment from Commodore Terekhov.

Which, after all, is only the truth, she admitted. It wasn't the first time that thought had crossed her mind, and she tried to banish it with the memory of Commander Kaplan's comments to Abigail. Which, of course, only made her wonder if she was reading too much into them in her own case . . . and if she was headed for what her father had always called a terminal case of infinitely expanding ego.

She reached her destination and pressed the admittance chime.

"Yes?" a velvety tenor inquired over the speaker above the button.

"Ensign Zilwicki, Commander," she said crisply. "Commodore Terekhov sent me."

The door opened, and she stepped through it.

Lynch's office was considerably larger than Helen's modest cubbyhole. In fact, it was larger than many an executive officer might have boasted aboard an older, more manpower-intensive ship. With a crew as small as a Saganami-C carried, there was room to give personnel a bit more cubage.

The commander was seated at his workstation in his uniform blouse, and the desktop around his terminal was mostly covered in neat stacks of data chips and sheafs of hardcopy. He was a man of moderate height, with sandy hair and deep set brown eyes, and he had a magnificent singing voice. He also appeared to be quite good at his job.

"And what can I do for the Commodore this morning, Ms. Zilwicki?" he asked.

"He asked me to bring you this, Sir," she said, placing a chip folio on the corner of his desk. "It's some thoughts he's been having about the new laser head modifications."

"I see." Lynch drew the folio closer to him, but he wasn't looking at it. Instead, he had cocked his head and those sharp brown eyes were studying Helen. "And would it happen that he discussed some of those thoughts with you before he sent you to see me?"

"As a matter of fact, he did say a little something about them," Helen acknowledged a bit cautiously.

"I rather thought he might have." Helen's eyes widened slightly, and Lynch chuckled, then pointed at a chair stacked high with what looked like tactical manuals of one sort or another. "Dump that stuff somewhere and have a seat, Ms. Zilwicki," he invited.

Helen obeyed, and Lynch tipped back his chair and gazed at her thoughtfully. She wondered what he was thinking, but the commander would have made an excellent poker player. His expression gave away virtually nothing, and she tried not to sit too nervously upright.

"Tell me, Ms. Zilwicki—Helen. What do you think of the new laser heads?"

"I think they're a great idea, Sir," she said after a moment, then grimaced. "Sorry, Sir. That sounded pretty stupid, didn't it? Of course they're a great idea."

Lynch's lips might have twitched ever so slightly, but if they had, he managed to suppress the smile quite handily.

"I think we might agree to consider that a prefatory remark," he said gravely. "But with that out of the way, what do you think of them?"

The faint twinkle Helen thought she might have seen in his eyes eased some of her tension, and she felt herself relax a bit in the chair.

"I think they're going to have a very significant tactical impact, Sir," she said. "The Mark 16 is a big enough advantage against other cruisers and battlecruisers as it stands, but with the new laser heads, they're actually going to be able to hurt genuine capital ships, as well." She shook her head. "I don't think the Havenites are going to like that one bit."

"No doubt," Lynch agreed. "Although I trust," he continued more dryly, "that what you've just said doesn't mean you think it's going to be a good idea for a heavy cruiser to take on a superdreadnought, even with the new laser heads?"

"No, Sir. Of course not," Helen said quickly. "I guess I was just thinking about Monica, Sir. If we'd had the new laser heads there, I don't think those battlecruisers would have gotten into their effective range of us in the first place. Or, at least, if they had, they would've had a lot more of the stuffing kicked out of them first."

"Now that, Ms. Zilwicki, is a very valid observation," Lynch said.

"I also think it's bound to have at least some implications for all-up MDMs," she continued. "I mean, I don't see any reason why the same engineering can't be applied to bigger laser heads, as well."

This time, Lynch simply nodded.

There was a reason it had taken so long for the laser head to replace the contact nuclear warhead as the deep-space long-ranged weapon of choice. The basic concept for a laser head was actually quite simple, dating back to pre-Diaspora days on Old Terra. In its most basic terms, a hair-thin, cylindrical rod of some suitable material (the Royal Manticoran Navy used a Hafnium medium) was subjected to the x-ray pulse of a nuclear detonation, causing it to lase in Gamma-rays until the thermal pulse of the detonation's core expansion reached the rod and destroyed it. The problem had always been that the process was inherently extraordinarily inefficient. Under normal conditions, only a few percent of the billions of megajoules released by a megaton-range nuclear warhead would actually end up in any single x-ray laser beam, mostly because—under normal conditions—a nuclear detonation propagated in a sphere, and each rod represented only a ridiculously tiny portion of the total spherical area of the explosion and so could be subjected to only a tiny percentage of the total pulse of any detonation. Which meant the overwhelming majority of the destructive effect was completely lost.

Given the toughness of warship armor, even two or three T-centuries ago, that was simply too little to have any appreciable effect, especially since the resultant laser still had to blast its way through not just a warship's sidewalls, but also its anti-radiation shielding, just to reach the armor in question. So even though the odds of achieving what was effectively a direct hit with a contact nuke were not exactly good, most navies had opted to go with a weapon which could at least hope to inflict some damage if it actually managed to hit the target. Indeed, pre-laser head missiles had been most destructive when they achieved skin-to-skin contact as purely kinetic projectiles. That, unfortunately, had been all but impossible to achieve, even with the best sidewall penetrators, so the proximity-fused nuclear missile had become primarily a sidewall-killer. Its function was less to inflict actual hull damage than to burn out sidewall generators.

Unfortunately from the missile-firer's perspective, active missile defenses had improved to such a degree that "not exactly good" odds of scoring a direct hit had turned into "not a chance in hell," which was the real reason capital ships had gone to such massive energy batteries. Missiles might still be effective against lighter combatants, but they'd been for all intents and purposes completely ineffective against the active and passive defenses of a capital ship, so the only way to fight a battle out had been to close to the sort of eyeball-to-eyeball range at which shipboard energy mounts could get the job done.

But then, little more than a century ago, things had begun to change when some clever individual had figured out how to create what was in effect a shaped nuclear charge. The possibility had been discussed in several of the galaxy's naval journals considerably longer than that, but the technology to make it work hadn't been available. Not until improvements in the gravitic pinch effect used in modern fusion plants had been shoehorned down into something that could be fitted into the nose of a capital missile.

A ring of gravity generators, arranged in a collar behind the warhead, had been designed. When the weapon fired, the generators spun up a few milliseconds before the warhead actually detonated, which was just long enough for the layered focal points of a gravitic lens to stabilize and reshape the blast from spherical to Gaussian, directing the radiological and thermal effects forward along the warhead's axis. The result was to capture far more of the blast's total effect and focus it into the area occupied by the lasing rods. By modern standards, the original laser heads had been fairly anemic, despite their vast improvement over anything which had been possible previously, and capital ship designers had responded by further thickening the already massive armor dreadnoughts and superdreadnoughts carried. But the ancient race between armor and the gun had resumed, and by fifty or sixty T-years ago, the laser head had become a genuine danger to even the most stoutly armored vessel.

There were other factors involved in the design of a successful laser head, of course. The length and diameter of a lasing rod determined its beam divergence, with obvious implications for the percentage of energy the laser delivered at any given range. Ship-mounted energy weapons, with their powerful grav lenses, could squeeze beam divergence in a way no laser head possibly could. There was simply no way to design those lenses into something as small as a laser head which, despite many refinements in design, remained essentially a simple, expendable rod which would have been easily recognizable by any pre-Diaspora physicist.

In the current Mark 23 warhead, the laser heads (the assemblies containing the actual lasing rods) were roughly five meters in length and forty centimeters in diameter, which carried the thread-thin lasing rods suspended in a gel-like medium. The laser heads also incorporated the wolter mirrors to amplify the beampath, reaction thrusters, lots of fuel, on-board power, telemetry, and sensors. They were carried in bays on either side of the weapons bus, which ejected them once the missile had steadied down on its final attack bearing. Each of the laser heads mounted its own thrust-vectoring reaction control system, which acquired the target on its own sensors, thrust to align itself with the target's bearing, and quickly maneuvered to a position a hundred and fifty meters ahead of the missile. At which point the gravity lens came up, the warhead detonated, and the target found itself out of luck.

The critical factors were laser head rod dimensions, the yield of the detonation, and—in many ways the most critical of all—the grav lens amplification available. Which was the main reason capital missiles were so much more destructive than the smaller missiles carried aboard cruisers and destroyers. There was still a minimum mass/volume constraint on the grav lens assembly itself, and a bigger missile could simply carry both a more powerful lens and the longer—and therefore more powerful—lasing rods which gave it a longer effective standoff range from its target. That was also the reason it had been such a challenge to squeeze a laser head capable of dealing even with LACs into the new Viper anti-LAC missile. The bay for the single lasing rod was almost two thirds the length of the entire missile body, and finding a place where it could be crammed in had presented all sorts of problems.

The general Manticoran technical advantage over the Republic of Haven had made itself felt in laser head design, as well. Manticoran missile gravity generators had always been more powerful on a volume-for-volume basis, and Manticoran sensors and targeting systems had been better, as well. The Star Kingdom had been able to rely upon smaller warheads and greater lens amplification to create laser heads powerful enough for its purposes, especially since it could count on scoring more hits because of its superior fire control and seeking systems. The Republic had been forced to adopt a more brute force approach, using substantially larger warheads and heavier lasing rods, which was one of the factors that explained why Havenite missiles had always been outsized compared to their Manticoran counterparts.

But now, thanks primarily to fallout from the Star Kingdom's ongoing emphasis on improving its grav-pulse FTL communications capability, BuWeaps had completed field testing and begun production of a new generation of substantially more powerful gravity generators for the cruiser-weight Mark 16. In fact, they'd almost doubled the grav lens amplification factor, and while they were at it, they'd increased the yield of the missile warhead, as well, which had actually required at least as much ingenuity as the new amplification generators, given the way warheads scaled. They'd had to shift quite a few of the original Mark 16's components around to find a way to shoehorn all of that in, which had included shifting several weapons bus components aft, but Helen didn't expect anyone to complain about the final result. With its fifteen megaton warhead, the Mark 16 had been capable of dealing with heavy cruiser or battlecruiser armor, although punching through to the interior of a battlecruiser had pushed it almost to the limit. Now, with the new Mod G's forty megaton warhead and improved grav lensing, the Mark 16 had very nearly as much punch as an all-up capital missile from as recently as five or six T-years ago.

Producing the Mod G had required what amounted to a complete redesign of the older Mark 16 weapons buses, however, and BuWeaps had decided that it neither wanted to discard all of the existing weapons nor forgo the improvements, so Admiral Hemphill's minions had come up with a kit to convert the previous Mod E to the Mod E-1. (Exactly what had become of the Mod F designation was more than Helen was prepared to guess. It was well known to every tactical officer that BuWeaps nomenclature worked in mysterious ways.) The Mod E-1 was basically the existing Mod E with its original gravity generators replaced by the new, improved model. That was the only change, which had required no adjustments to buses or shifting of internal components, and the new warheads could be fused seamlessly into the existing Mark 16 weapons queues and attack profiles. Of course, with its weaker, original warhead it would remain less effective than the Mod G, since its destructiveness was "only" doubled . . . while the Mod G laser heads' throughput had increased by a factor of over five.

And, she thought, if they apply the same approach to the Mark 23—assuming the new grav lens scales—and then couple it with whatever it was Duchess Harrington's fire control used at Lovat . . .

"And what else did the Commodore discuss with you about them, Ensign Zilwicki?" Lynch's question recalled her from her thoughts, and she gave herself a mental shake.

"Sir, it's all on the chips there," she said respectfully, indicating the folio she'd just delivered.

"I'm sure it is," Lynch agreed. "On the other hand, I've come to know the Commodore at least a little better since he came aboard, and I'm inclined to doubt that he 'just happened' to discuss this with you before he sent you off to deliver his memo to me. He doesn't strike me as the sort who 'just happens' to do much of anything without a specific purpose in mind. So why don't we just consider this an opportunity for a little hands-on tactical brainstorming session for just you and me?"

Helen felt a distinct sinking sensation and suppressed a powerful urge to swallow hard. Then, as Lynch tipped his chair further back, she saw the amusement in his eyes. Not the amusement at having put her on the spot she might have seen in some superior officers' eyes, but the amusement of watching her work through his reasoning and discover he was almost certainly right about what the Commodore had had in mind.

"All right, Sir," she replied with a smile, settling herself more comfortably in her own chair. "Where were you thinking we should begin?"

Her tone was respectful, but almost challenging, and he smiled back at her as he heard it.

"That's the spirit, Ensign Zilwicki! Let's see . . ."

He swung his chair gently back and forth for a few moments, then nodded to himself.

"You've already mentioned what happened at Monica," he said. "I've read the tac reports from the battle, and I know you were on the bridge during the engagement. In fact, you were acting as missile defense officer, correct?"

"Yes, Sir." Helen's eyes darkened slightly at the memories his question brought back. Memories of her, sitting at Abigail Hearns' side, managing the entire squadron's missile defenses while the Monican-crewed battlecruisers stormed steadily closer.

"In that case, why don't we start with your evaluation of how the availability of the Mod G—or, for that matter, the E-1—would have affected Commodore Terekhov's choice of tactics?"

Helen frowned thoughtfully, the darkness of memory fading as she concentrated on his question. She considered it carefully for several seconds, then gave her head a little toss.

"I think the main change in his tactics might have been that he'd have gone for early kills."

"Meaning what, exactly?" Lynch's tone was an invitation to explain her thinking, and she leaned slightly forward.

"The thing was, Sir, that I think we all knew the only way we could realistically hope to stop those battlecruisers was with massed missile fire at relatively short range. Oh, we got one of them at extreme range, but that had to have been a Golden BB. No way did we manage to get deep enough to hit anything that should have blown her up that way!"

She shook her head again, her expression grim as she recalled the spectacular destruction of MNS Typhoon and her entire crew. Then she shook herself mentally and refocused on the present.

"Anyway, we knew we sure couldn't afford to let them into energy range of us, and because our laser heads were so much lighter, we knew we were going to have to concentrate a lot of hits, both in terms of location and time, if we were going to get through their armor. TheKitty—I mean,Hexapuma—was the only ship we had that was Mark 16-capable, and that meant we couldn't achieve that kind of concentration outside standard missile range. So what the captain was actually using our long-range fire for was to get the best possible feel for the Monicans' active defenses and EW capabilities. He was using the Mark 16s to force them to defend themselves so we could get a read on their defenses and pass it to the rest of the squadron to maximize our fire's effectiveness once they came into the range of the rest of our ships.

"But if we'd had Mod Gs, instead of the old Mod Es, we would have been able to get through battlecruiser armor even at extreme range and without the kind of concentration we had at the end of the battle. So, in that case, I think he still would have been probing for information, but at the same time—"

Helen Zilwicki leaned further forward in her chair, hands beginning to gesture enthusiastically as she forgot all about her qualms over her junior rank and lack of experience, and never even noticed the amused approval in Horace Lynch's eyes as she gave herself up to the discussion.

Chapter Thirty-One

"You wanted to see me, Milady?"

"Yes." Baroness Medusa looked up and waved for Gregor O'Shaughnessy to step fully into her office. "I was afraid you'd already left the Residence," she added as he obeyed the gesture and settled into his favorite chair.

"Ambrose screened to say he was hung up in some force analysis discussion. We've moved our meeting schedule back a couple of hours."

"It's just possible you won't be having that particular meeting at all." O'Shaughnessy's mental ears pricked up at the governor's tone, and she produced an expression which was more grimace than smile as his eyebrows rose.

"Should I assume there's been some new development, Milady?" he asked after a moment.

"More like a new wrinkle on a development we were already worrying about," she replied. "I've just received a formal communication from Alesta Cardot."

"Ah?" O'Shaughnessy frowned. "Does this have anything to do with what's been going on in Pequod, Milady?"

"That's what I've always liked about you, Gregor," Medusa said with a snort of genuine amusement. "You're quick."

"A natural talent, Milady." O'Shaughnessy smiled briefly, then sobered. "And just what did New Tuscany's Foreign Minister have to say about her obstreperous merchant spacers?"

"Interestingly enough, she didn't have a thing to say about her spacers. Had quite a bit to say about the conduct of our naval personnel, on the other hand."

"Why am I not surprised?" O'Shaughnessy murmured. Then he leaned back in his chair and stretched his forearms out along the armrests, fingertips drumming while he considered.

Medusa left him alone for several seconds. Gregor O'Shaughnessy could be infuriating when he truly put his mind to it. Despite his best efforts, his innate streak of intellectual arrogance got loose from time to time, and he'd been known to treat colleagues with a sort of dismissive patience which could all too easily come across as condescension. For that matter, sometimes it was condescension, although he didn't seem to realize it. And there were times when condescension turned into something considerably uglier and more dismissive if he decided the object of his ire was being particularly stupid by not grasping what he was saying. But he had impressive strengths to set against such minor character flaws. For one thing, he was ruthlessly intellectually honest. For another, he was always prepared to admit he'd made a mistake, if someone could demonstrate that he had, and however scathing he might have been during the debate which led up to that demonstration, he didn't hold the fact that someone else had been right against the other person afterwards. And he was also very, very smart.

"I take it Cardot's position is that Commander Denton and his people aren't just loose warheads?" he said after a moment.

"Oh, on the contrary," Medusa said dryly. "She's taken exactly the position that they are loose warheads. In fact, she's taken it so elaborately that no one could possibly miss the fact that she considers it a polite diplomatic fiction she's offering so that we can use it as a political fig leaf. From the tone of her note, it's obvious she intends to give us an out by repudiating and reprimanding Denton, thus proving we would never have authorized, far less instigated, such 'a pervasive pattern of Manticoran harassment of New Tuscan merchant shipping in the peaceful pursuit of legitimate commercial interests.' "

"She actually said that?" O'Shaughnessy said, then blinked as Medusa nodded. "My, whatever they're up to, they don't mind being a bit blatant about it, do they?"

"No, and that worries me," the governor admitted. She tipped back her own chair and pinched the bridge of her nose between her right thumb and forefinger. "This is about as subtle as heaving a brick through an office window during business hours. Oh," she released her nose to wave her hand, "all of the proper diplomatese is in place. In fact, in a lot of ways, it's quite a smoothly composed note. But I doubt any genuinely impartial observer could possibly miss the fact that she's systematically building a case designed to justify some unfriendly action on New Tuscany's part by disguising it as self-defense."

"How exactly did she present it, Milady?"

"Essentially, it's a formal protest alleging that Commander Denton—and apparently the entire ship's company of HMSReprise—has systematically insulted, obstructed, and harassed New Tuscan merchant ships pursuing their lawful business in the Pequod System. She's enumerated all of the incidents Denton had reported to us, and added quite a few more. At least a couple of them occurred—according to her, at least—after Denton's dispatch to Admiral Khumalo, which presumably explains why we hadn't already heard about them. Others, though . . ." She shook her head. "Others, Gregor, have that 'manufactured out of whole cloth' feel to them. I've got the distinct feeling that they didn't really happen at all."

"Fictitious encounters tucked away in the underbrush of genuine ones, you mean?"

"That's exactly what I mean." Medusa's expression was grim. "It looks like they were recording all of our people's official shipboard visits, as well. According to them, they 'just happen' to have imagery available on a handful of inspections. No one was recording them on purpose, you understand. It was just a fortuitous coincidence that the internal systems of the ships in question were switched on at the critical moment. It's obvious they went through those recordings thoroughly before they very carefully picked the material Cardot included with her note, and I don't doubt for a moment that she's taken the remarks of our people even more carefully out of context, but they do have at least some imagery. Which is one reason I find the thought of fictitious incidents so disturbing. I mean, they have to know we'll realize they're lying about those . . . episodes, so who are they creating them to impress in the first place? It has to be a third party, and I think that also explains the imagery they're presenting, as well. You know how any imagery tends to substantiate even the most outrageous accusations for some people."

"Some people in this case being Frontier Security, do you think?"

"That's what I'm afraid of," she admitted. "And I'm even more afraid that they didn't hit on this notion, whatever it is, all on their own."

"You think Manpower could be behind it?" O'Shaughnessy asked as he recalled a certain seaside conversation with Ambrose Chandler, and Medusa shrugged unhappily.

"I don't know. If they are, though, they've been awfully damned quick off the mark. Even assuming New Tuscany was just sitting there like a ripe plum-apple, waiting to fall right into their hands, how the hell could they have gotten all of this up and running so quickly? And where in the name of God would even Manpower have gotten the chutzpah to try something like this after the hammering they took over Monica?" She shook her head. "What they ought to be doing is keeping their heads down and waiting for Monica to blow over, not playing with matches in something that could blow right up in their faces all over again. And even if they were too stupid to see that, I just don't see how they could have put it all together this rapidly. It's roughly three hundred and sixty-five light-years from Mesa to New Tuscany. Even for a dispatch boat, that's a forty-five-day trip, one way, and it's been barely three months since admiral Webster's assassination. For that matter, it's been barely five months since the Battle of Monica. With a three-month round-trip communications loop, how could they possibly have put something like this together this quickly?"

"Unless they were working the New Tuscany angle from the very beginning, Milady," O'Shaughnessy said slowly, his eyes thoughtful. "Do you think Andrieaux Yvernau might really have been trying to sabotage the Convention all along?"

"No." Medusa shook her head again, even more firmly. "I'm convinced Yvernau was just as big an idiot as he seemed at the time. Besides, I can't believe for a moment that someone like the New Tuscan oligarchs would be willing to work hand-in-glove with someone like Nordbrandt. Or even Westman, for that matter! They'd be far too terrified of the danger of Nordbrandt's example for their own domestic situation."

"They might have been being played," O'Shaughnessy pointed out. "You're right; there's no way they would have knowingly worked with someone like Nordbrandt. But if they didn't know they were working with Nordbrandt, the same way Westman didn't know, then all our analysis parameters shift."

"I suppose that's possible, in a remote sort of way." Medusa swung her chair gently from side to side, nibbling on her lower lip while she thought. "I still think it's unlikely, though. For one thing, I don't believe Yvernau is subtle enough—or smart enough, for that matter—to have deliberately presented a platform the most reactionary oligarchs of the Cluster were going to sign on for. And he did, you know. I think that if his real orders had been to sabotage the Convention, he would've been more confrontational from the beginning instead of trying to oil his way into controlling the way the final Constitution would have been drafted. And let's face it, his demands were considerably less extreme than Tonkovic's. If he'd really wanted to kill the Convention, why not go ahead and sign up under her banner? Why present what was actually a more moderate—and therefore more likely to be adopted—draft of his own?"

"I'm afraid you're right," O'Shaughnessy sighed. "He'd have to have been a lot smarter than we both know he really is to have tried to double-think his way into blowing up the Constitution that way. Unless someone else was pulling his puppet strings, at least."

"And there you come up against the time constraints again," Medusa pointed out. "You just can't move information across interstellar distances quickly enough to make something like that practical. Besides, if New Tuscany was in on the original plan, then why were they working so hard for a place at the feed trough? There's no question that the majority of the New Tuscan oligarchs wanted to get their own rice bowls out in front when the Star Kingdom started investing in the Cluster. That's why they supported the annexation in the first place, at least until they figured out how likely they were to lose control politically at home if it went through on Her Majesty's terms, instead of theirs."

"Then maybe they really are just pissed off enough over not getting their bowls filled that they're doing this on their own after all," O'Shaughnessy said with a shrug.

"No, Henri's right about that. Yvernau may be an idiot—he is an idiot—but there have to be at least some people on his planet and in his government who have IQs higher than a stewed prune's. By now, if nothing else, they'd have to realize Manpower had been playing them, as you put it. They'd be backing away from any kind of support for the people who turned Nordbrandt loose, I'd think. And especially with Nordbrandt's example to stir up their own underclass, they really, really wouldn't want to be ticking us off. Not unless they figured they had some powerful backing—backing powerful enough to keep us off their necks in retaliation and to help them keep their boots on the backs of their own underclass's necks—from somewhere."

"Somewhere closer than Mesa. That's what you're really suggesting, isn't it, Milady?"

"Yes," Medusa admitted with a grimace. "Meyers is closer to New Tuscany than Mesa is, and Frontier Security has a lot more in the way of resources than Manpower. It's got a depressing amount of experience in helping less-than-desirable régimes stay in power by repressing hell out of their domestic opposition, too, I'm afraid. That might just make it more attractive to New Tuscany than our own corrupting example. Not to mention the fact that Frontier Security was far better tapped into the star systems here in and around the Quadrant than anyone from Manpower was likely to be. Everything Ambassador Corvisart's turned up in Monica suggests that OFS brokered the deal between Manpower and the Jessyk Combine and people like Nordbrandt and President Tyler. I don't think there's any reason to assume Commissioner Verrochio wouldn't be thoroughly capable of brokering deals for himself if he decided to. And if there's anyone around who's probably more ticked off than Manpower by how Terekhov blew their Monica operation right out of space, it's got to be Lorcan Verrochio."

"That's a nasty thought," O'Shaughnessy acknowledged, pursing his lips thoughtfully. But then he shook his head. "It's a nasty thought, and it's possible you're onto something, Milady. But it occurs to me that a lot of the time constraints you've pointed out where Mesa is concerned would also apply to Verrochio. The transit time for a dispatch boat between Meyers and New Tuscany would only be about a T-week less than the time between Mesa and New Tuscany. That only saves them half a T-month on the round trip."

"Agreed. But I'm thinking that Manpower probably wouldn't have started sniffing around New Tuscany until after they'd assassinated Admiral Webster. Or no sooner than that, at any rate. In that case, they wouldn't have had enough time even to get the suggestion of an alliance to New Tuscany before the New Tuscans started manufacturing these 'incidents' of theirs. But if Verrochio started in on this the instant he found out how Monica had blown up in everyone's faces, they'd have had time for two complete two-way exchanges of communication before the first genuine incident in Pequod. Even assuming Manpower had started at exactly the same time, they could only have managed one and a half two-way exchanges in the same timeframe. In addition to which, Verrochio wouldn't have needed to invest still more time in coordinating with OFS, the way Manpower would. He is OFS in this neck of space."

"I agree with your logic," O'Shaughnessy said. "But with all due respect, Milady, both of us are just speculating at this point. We don't begin to have enough information for any kind of informed analysis, and it's one of the first principles of analysis that—"

"That if you start speculating too soon, with too little information, you predispose yourself to fit all later information into your initial hypotheses," Medusa interrupted, and gave him a remarkably urchinlike grin. "You see? I have been listening, Gregor."

"Yes, Milady, you have," he replied just the least bit repressively.

"I guess what I really wanted more than anything else was to get you brought up to speed with the information I've got and with the way my own thinking has been headed before we sit down with Khumalo and Chandler. I don't have any interest at all in double-teaming them into going along with my own brainstorms, but I figure it can't hurt to have that brain of yours already mulling over the info."

He nodded in understanding, and she glanced at the date-time readout in the corner of her desk display.

"And speaking about sitting down with Khumalo and Chandler, we're due to do that in about ninety minutes."

"All in all, Governor," Augustus Khumalo said the better part of three hours later, "I find myself substantially in agreement with you."

"Really?" Medusa smiled at him. "By this time, Augustus, I'm not sure what you're agreeing with!" She shook her head. "I've spun this around in my own mind so often that I'm half afraid I've forgotten my own theories!"

"Yes, I've noticed you can be easily distracted, Milady," Khumalo retorted with a level of comfort neither he nor Medusa would ever have predicted a few T-months earlier. "But allow me to summarize. Essentially, I think we're all in agreement that Minister of War Krietzmann's suspicions of New Tuscany would appear to have been soundly based in reality. I think we all also agree that they wouldn't have done this without some assurance of support to offset any retaliation we might be inclined to inflict on them. And that they wouldn't have gone to such pains to manufacture these so-called incidents of theirs if they weren't planning to use them as their 'evidence,' at least in the court of public opinion."

"And I think we should also add that our dispute with the Republic of Haven over the prewar correspondence is probably playing a part in the thinking of whatever mastermind's come up with all this," Amandine Corvisart put in.

Sir Anthony Langtry, the Foreign Secretary for the Star Kingdom of Manticore, had found himself occupying the same office for the Star Empire of Manticore, since foreign policy was one of the areas reserved for the imperial government, rather than being subject to local autonomy. Corvisart had been one of the Foreign Office's senior troubleshooters for years, which was how she'd come to be assigned to deal with the hot potato of Aivars Terekhov's completely unauthorized invasion of the Monica System. When the orders for Quentin O'Malley's battlecruisers to return to the Lynx Terminus had reached Monica, she'd received fresh instructions of her own from Langtry which had assigned her permanently to Baroness Medusa's staff. One of O'Malley's dispatch boats had diverted from the shortest possible flight home to Spindle just long enough to drop her off, and the imperial governor had been delighted to have her.

"That's a good point, Amandine," Medusa said now. "One that hadn't occurred to me, to be honest, though it should have. The accusations and counteraccusations flying back and forth between Landing and Nouveau Paris are going to resonate with any dispute between us and New Tuscany, aren't they?"

"They will for the Sollies, Milady," Corvisart agreed. "By this time, the diplomatic waters are awfully murky as far as any Solly observer is likely to be concerned. Why should they believe us instead of New Tuscany if we find ourselves involved in yet another diplomatic wrangle? Especially if the New Tuscans have what purports to be recorded imagery that proves their claims? I doubt anyone else is going to be particularly impressed by their 'evidence,' but that doesn't really matter. And look at it from Verrochio's perspective. If he can spin this thing properly, we suddenly become the heavies of the piece . . . which just happens to tie back into the Solly suspicions about our 'imperialist' leanings that Nordbrandt's atrocities were busy fanning. Not only that, but if he can spin things to make it look as if he's riding to the rescue on a white horse in this instance—which, as he'll make very sure the entire galaxy knows, is a totally separate incident with an obviously innocent third-party—then everything that came out of Monica becomes suspect by association."

"Which would let him rehabilitate himself in the Solly newsfaxes," O'Shaughnessy said, nodding slowly.

"While undoubtedly taking considerable pleasure out of planting one right square in our eye," Khumalo said sourly.

"Let's not get too carried away with conspiracy theories just yet," Medusa said bracingly. "As Gregor pointed out to me earlier today, we really don't have enough information at this point to justify drawing any firm conclusions."

"Well, if we can get the information, then I think we certainly should, Milady," Ambrose Chandler said with a lopsided smile.

"I agree with Commander Chandler," Corvisart said. "At the same time, I think we should bear in mind that if someone is trying to manipulate the situation—and us—so that we end up in a false position, the worst thing we could do in a lot of ways would probably be to try to get too proactive until we have that information. This looks to me like it's probably one of those cases where the best thing to do is nothing until we've got more pieces of the puzzle."

"You mean to do nothing in terms of officially responding to Cardot's note?" Khumalo asked with a moderately unhappy expression.

"Yes, Admiral. I don't mean to imply that we shouldn't do anything on other fronts—like trying to get Commander Chandler's additional information. I just think it would be a mistake to present New Tuscany with any sort of official response they could take out of context or twist."

"I think that makes excellent sense," Medusa agreed. "Which brings us to the point of deciding how to go about getting that additional information. Suggestions, anyone?"

"My first thought is that we should get someone senior to Commander Denton into Pequod, Milady," Khumalo said after a moment. "Mind you, I'm not criticizing anything Denton's done. In fact, I think he's handled the situation remarkably well. But the fact is that he's only a commander, and Reprise is only a destroyer—and one who's getting pretty long in the tooth, at that. This isn't like the situation in Split when we sent inHexapuma—" he gave Medusa a wry smile "—because we didn't have to worry about the Pequod system government's reaction, which meant we could afford to send in just enough ship to get the job done. In some ways, I'm starting to wish we'd given Pequod a higher priority when we started distributing the LACs, but Pequod's a lot less exposed than someplace like Nuncio or Howard, and, to be frank, the system is really capable of providing all of its own customs inspections, even with the legitimate increase in traffic in the area.Reprise is actually there more as a gesture of imperial support for the locals than anything else, when you come right down to it."

Medusa nodded. Despite the priority in getting LACs deployed into the Quadrant, it could only be done so quickly. The limiting factor was coming up with not just the CLACs to transport them to their new stations, but also the depot ships necessary to support them after they got there. The Admiralty was providing more depot conversions as quickly as possible, and the Hauptman Cartel had begun delivering the first modular depot bases, designed for independent deployment after being transported to their assigned stations in standard freighter holds and bolted together in place. But all of that was still taking time, and Khumalo and Krietzmann had chosen to cover their more exposed points first. Pequod was close enough to the Rembrandt Trade Union that the RTU's home systems could dispatch units of their own navies—which were considerably more powerful than those of any other Talbott star systems—to help cover it in an emergency, and that had given it a much lower priority under their original deployment plans.

"It would still be a good thing, though, I think," Khumalo continued, "to get at least a captain of the list into the system to take the heat off of Denton and with instructions to make it clear to New Tuscany that we know they're lying and don't intend to let them get away with it."

"I think I agree with you," Medusa said slowly. "But assuming we do that, who would you send, Admiral?"

"My current thought would be to send one of Commodore Onasis'Nikes," Khumalo replied. "I don't think I'd be in favor of sending Onasis herself. Not only would that mean depriving myself of her presence here in Spindle if something else comes up, but she'd be too senior, I think. We want to demonstrate resolution, not suggest that we're running scared."

Medusa nodded with a thoughtful frown. The events of the last seven months had clearly contributed to Khumalo's self-confidence. And she'd already decided that if she was going to be honest with herself, he'd always shown better instincts on the political and diplomatic side of his duties than she'd initially been prepared to recognize.

"Excuse me, Admiral, Governor," Captain Shoupe said in a careful tone of voice, and Medusa and Khumalo both looked at the admiral's chief of staff.

"Yes, Captain?" Medusa said.

"With all due respect, I'm not sure sending any of theCommodore's Nikes would be an . . . optimal response at this moment."

"Why not, Loretta?" Khumalo's question was genuine, not a dismissal phrased as a question, despite the fact that she'd just publicly indicated at least partial disagreement with one of her admiral's suggestions, Medusa realized.

"Two points occur to me, Sir," Shoupe replied. "First, I think sending a ship the size of aNike to a small, poverty-stricken star system like Pequod, to act as a glorified customs cutter, is going to look like an overreaction. Your point about showing resolution without looking like we're afraid comes to mind. And, second, at the moment Commodore Onasis' division is the only real concentrated firepower at your immediate disposal. I don't think sending off twenty-five percent of it, before we at least hear back from Admiral Gold Peak about how things went when she visited Monica, would be an ideal solution."

"Um." Medusa scratched the tip of her nose for a moment, then nodded. "Both excellent points, Captain. But if we're not going to send a battlecruiser, what do we send?"

"Well," Shoupe said after glancing at Khumalo and getting his nod of approval for her to continue, "I'm inclined to suggest that we pretty much sit tight until we get that first squadron ofRolands out here, Milady. We still haven't actually seen any of them, of course, and I realize the deployment schedules we've gotten so far are still provisional and subject to revision. But aRoland is bigger than a lot of light cruisers, and I doubt the Admiralty is choosing their skippers by just pulling names out of a hat."

"That's not a bad idea at all, Loretta," Khumalo said approvingly. "She'd be big enough to make the point that we're serious, but she'd still officially be 'only' a destroyer. And as you say, Admiral Cortez is going to be handpicking their COs. I doubt we'll be lucky enough to get another Terekhov out of the deal, but whoever we do get is definitely going to be first-string."

"And delaying until we get additional units from home would make it clear we're moving deliberately, not rushing around in some sort of panic," Medusa agreed.

"Not to mention the fact that Admiral Gold Peak would probably appreciate it if we didn't start chopping up her squadron into penny-packets before she even gets back here so we can at least discuss it with her," Khumalo added with a chuckle. "Not without a real emergency to justify it, at any rate!"

Vice Admiral Jessup Blaine tried not to feel too bored as he worked his way through the routine reports and paperwork. It was nice to have his own task group to command, and to have two full squadrons of pod-laying ships of the wall at his beck and call, as it were. And it was nice that Quentin O'Malley's battlecruisers had returned to him from Monica.

It was also boring. There simply wasn't very much for a fleet commander to do, assuming he had a competent staff (and Blaine did), when he was tied down to picket duty, however large or important the picket in question might be. He certainly couldn't go looking for trouble, and there were only so many wargames, simulations, and exercises which he could contrive. Exercises against the fortresses protecting the Lynx Terminus, two-thirds of which were now fully on-line, were actually more interesting, and he'd been impressed by the fortresses' capabilities. Aside from that, though, all he really had to do was to hover in the background, like a watching, distant presence, while his staff and his squadron and starship commanders got on with the interesting bits of training and administering their commands.

Oh, stop whining,Jessup! he told himself severely. When you were a captain, you thought the XO had all the real fun. And when you were an XO, you thought it was the department heads. And when you were a department head, you thought it was the division officers. Which was probably pretty much true, now that I think about it.

His lips twitched in a smile at the thought, and he scrawled his electronic signature and thumbprint across the signature block of yet another fascinating report on the status of his attached repair ships' inventories of spare emitter heads for laser clusters. Precisely why he had to sign off on that was one of life's little mysteries.

I'll bet Admiral D'Orville doesn't sign off on parts inventories. Blaine took a certain perverse satisfaction from the thought. He's probably got some staff weenie hidden away down in the bowels of his flagship to take care of things like that. And well he should, too. In fact, I ought to take a look around and find someone Icould dump it

His thoughts broke off as a lurid priority icon flashed suddenly and shockingly in the corner of his display. He stared at it for perhaps a heartbeat or two. In his entire naval career, he had never seen that particular icon outside a training exercise or a drill, a tiny corner of his brain reflected, and his hand flashed out to stand the acceptance key.

"Blaine!" he snapped the instant his flagship's communications officer of the watch appeared on the display. The officer looking out of it at him looked absurdly young to hold senior lieutenant's rank, and her youthful face was paper-white.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Admiral," she said, speaking so rapidly the words blurred together at the edges. "We just received a priority message from the Admiralty. It's Code Zulu, Sir!"

For just a moment, Blaine felt the breath freeze in his chest. She had to be mistaken, a part of his mind tried to insist. Either that, or he must have misunderstood her. In naval use, Code Zulu had only one meaning: invasion imminent. But no one, not even the Peeps, could be crazy enough to take on the defenses of the Manticoran home system!

"Is there an enemy strength estimate attached, Lieutenant?"

Blaine was astounded by how calm his own voice sounded. It certainly wasn't because he felt particularly calm! In fact, he realized distantly, it was purely a reaction to the lieutenant's expression and the tension sputtering like a shorting power cable just under the surface of her voice.

"Yes, Sir, there is." The communications officer drew a deep breath, and despite everything, Blaine felt a flicker of amusement at her automatic response to the steadying influence of his own tone. But that amusement didn't last long.

"The Admiralty's initial assessment is a minimum of three hundred of the wall, Sir," she said. "Initial course projections indicate they're headed directly for Sphinx on a least-time approach."

Blaine felt as if someone had just slugged him in the belly. Three hundred of the wall? That was . . . that wasinsane. The one thing Thomas Theisman had persistently refused to do as the Republic of Haven's Secretary of War was to commit the men and women under his command to the sort of death-ride offensives the Committee of Public Safety had once demanded of them.

But maybe it isn't a death ride, Blaine thought around the icy wind blowing through the marrow of his bones.Three hundred wallers . . . probably towing max pod loads . . . and with D'Orville forced to position himself to cover the Junction, as well . . .

Jesus Christ, he realized suddenly, coldly. This could actually work for them! And if it does . . .

"Immediate signal to all squadron and divisional commanders," he heard his voice telling the lieutenant on his display.

"Yes, Sir." The young woman's relief as she found herself doing something comfortingly familiar was obvious. "Live mike, Sir," she said a moment later.

"People," Blaine told his pickup, "they need us back home. Activate Ops Plan Homecoming immediately. I want your impellers up and your ships moving in thirty minutes. Blaine, clear."

The lieutenant tapped a control, then looked back up at him.

"Clean copy, Sir," she confirmed.

"Attach the complete text of the Admiralty's dispatch," he instructed her.

"Yes, Sir!"

"Then get it sent, Lieutenant. Get it sent."

Blaine killed the connection, and as he started to punch in his chief of staff's com combination with the emergency priority code, his earlier thoughts about training exercises flickered through the back of his mind like summer sheet lightning on a distant horizon. At least they had exercised Plan Homecoming, the movement order for an emergency return to the home system. Not that anyone had ever truly expected to need it.

Like my father always used to say, you never do really need something important . . . until you need it bad. Funny. I always thought he was being overly pessimistic.

"Yes, Sir?" His chief of staff appeared on his display, dressed in a sweatsuit and mopping perspiration off his forehead and cheeks with a hand towel. Behind him, Blaine could just see a frozen basketball game.

"I'm afraid your game's just been canceled, Jack," Blaine told him. "It seems we have a little problem."

Chapter Thirty-Two

"That was good work picking up the contact, Pettigrew," Lieutenant Abigail Hearns said. "We need to be a little quicker on updating the ID on bogeys, though."

"Yes, My Lady," Sensor Tech First-Class Isaiah Pettigrew replied almost humbly, and Abigail managed not to grit her teeth.

The tall, lanky sensor tech's accent was just as soft, with just as much of a slight lilt, as her own. In many ways, hearing it was a deeply soothing reminder of who she was, since she'd been away from home for so long. In other ways, though, what she most wanted to do was to strangle Pettigrew—and a handful of other Graysons in HMS Tristram's company—with her bare hands.

It's not really his fault, she told herself . . . again. He's from Grayson. He can't forget that Daddy is Steadholder Owens, which makes me Miss Owens, not just Lieutenant Hearns. I suppose that's why he can't seem to remember the word "Ma'am" when he talks to me. And, irritating as that is, I could probably live with it, if he'd only stop looking like he wants to go down on one knee and kiss my hand whenever Italk to him!

Somehow, of all the problems she'd envisioned facing on the day she returned to her birth world's navy, this one hadn't occurred to her, and it should have. She'd been too focused on Grayson's long-standing prohibition against seeing its wives and daughters serving in the military, worried too much about whether or not Grayson males would be prepared to accept a female Grayson voice of command as well as they had become accustomed to accepting female Manticoran voices from Steadholder Harrington and the other "loaners" from the RMN. She'd braced herself for dealing with subordinates who found it hard to believe any proper Grayson girl could be a "real officer," but she'd never considered how more traditional Grayson males might respond to the almost genetic-level social and religious programming of their birth society.

Pettigrew was the product of a very traditional Grayson rearing. He couldn't seem to get past the deference due to the daughter of any steadholder, which could be a real problem for Abigail, considering that she was the most junior of Tristram's department heads. She already labored under the distinction of being the only member of the ship's company who was permanently assigned her own bodyguard, as Grayson law required. Mateo Gutierrez, her towering personal armsman, had fitted himself as neatly into Tristram's small ship's company as he had into Hexapuma's, but everyone knew he was there, and she suspected that some of her Manticoran-born fellows thought his presence was just the sort of pretension to be expected out of Neobarbs. And the sort of special consideration which was bound to give her a vastly inflated sense of her own importance. She didn't need any of the other lieutenants aboard who were senior to her deciding that the Grayson members of the crew accorded her greater respect and obedience than they did anyone else, either. Nor, for that matter, did Abigail like it very much, herself. One of the things she'd loved about her experience in the Royal Manticoran Navy was that as far as most Manties were concerned, she was only Lieutenant Hearns. No one wasted a lot of time kowtowing to her, or looking as desperately eager to please as puppies.

Even that, though, bothered her less in a lot of respects than the obvious conflict between Pettigrew's naval discipline and training, on the one hand, and the ingrained Grayson belief that women were to be protected at all costs. And not just from the physical dangers of the universe. Oh, no. They were to be protected from anything which might offend their delicate sensibilities, as well! Pettigrew had imbibed that notion with his mother's milk, and it showed.

You've only been aboard ship for six days, Abigail, she reminded herself. It might be just a little bit early yet to be letting your frustration quotient rise so high, don't you think? Besides, at least thirty percent of the ship's company is Grayson.

"I'm not saying you didn't do an excellent job over all, Pettigrew," she said out loud. "I'm just saying we need to move a bit more quickly working the contacts through to a positive identification, at least by class."

"Yes, My Lady. I understand."

Abigail bit her tongue before she reminded him—again—that she'd specifically told him, and all the other Graysons in her department, that she was a naval officer, to be addressed as such, and not as what was for all intents and purposes a Grayson princess.

I do need to make that point to him again, but not right now, she thought.

The tactical simulator was fully manned, and only three of the people in it, aside from Abigail herself, were Graysons. So far, most of her Manticoran personnel seemed to be taking their Grayson crewmates' peculiarities pretty much in stride. The fact that Manticore had its own aristocracy probably helped in that respect, although even now not all Manticorans seemed prepared to take Grayson titles quite seriously. But Abigail had decided at the outset that she couldn't accept one set of responses from Manticorans and another from Graysons. She'd seen enough evidence of what allowing cliques to form aboard a warship could do to its internal cohesiveness.Her department was going to be composed of people who were all members of the same ship's company, not internally divided into "us" and "them," Manticorans and Graysons. At the same time, she didn't want to hammer Pettigrew. For one thing, much as it irritated her, he hadn't really done anything to be hammered for. And, for another thing, reprimanding him for the way he addressed her would only draw attention to the very fault lines she was determined to eradicate in the first place.

"All right," she said instead, her tranquil tone revealing none of her internal thoughts as she turned to Missile Tech 1/c Naomi Kaneshiro and the next point of her post-simulation critique of the exercise Lieutenant (JG) Gladys Molyneux, Tristram's most junior tactical officer had just conducted while Abigal monitored. "Kaneshiro, when Bogey Two started to swing wide of the wing escort and Lieutenant Molyneux designated her asTristram's primary target, your section was a bit slow to paint her properly."

Despite her rate and an almost unbroken string of "Excellent" and "Superior" evaluations from her instructors, Kaneshiro was very young, even younger than Helen Zilwicki. She was also fresh out of school, where she'd completed the testing for her first-class rate less than three weeks before reporting aboardTristram. She'd borne up well under the burden of having the same first name as her commanding officer (for which, Abigail knew, she had been ribbed unmercifully for the first week or so) but it was evident to Abigail that Kaneshiro was also one of those people who took failure as an affront, rather than a challenge, and she watched the missile tech hovering on the brink of protesting her criticism. Abigail waited a moment or two to see if the other woman's obvious sense of ill use would actually spill over into disputing a superior officer's comments, but Kaneshiro rather visibly sat on her resentment.

"I realize you suffered a computer glitch," Abigail continued calmly when Kaneshiro kept her mouth shut. "In fact, that may be one of the reasons why I noticed it so specifically. I knew that glitch had been programmed into the sim, and I was watching to see how well we handled it. You responded quickly and well when you realized you were going to have to paint the target manually, but it took you longer to realize that than it ought to have. Longer than we might have in an actual combat situation. You need to be better prepared for the possibility of equipment failure. We all do. That's one of the points this simulation was intended to make. And the reason it was intended to make that point is that we all learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. Just between you and me, I'd prefer to do as much as possible of that kind of learning in a simulation instead of when missiles are flying for real."

"Yes, Ma'am." Kaneshiro' acknowledgment came out a bit stiffly but without that edge of personal resentment Abigail had initially detected.

"All right." Abigail checked that point off on her memo pad and turned to the next one. "This one is more in the nature of a general observation. I realize we haven't been together long, and we're still at an earlier point in shaking down the department and the ship than we really ought to be. Unfortunately, the time between here and Spindle is all the time we have before we're likely to find ourselves tasked for deployment somewhere in the Quadrant. That doesn't give us very long to knock off our rough edges. I've discussed this with Captain Kaplan, and she's discussed it with Commodore Chatterjee, and the result is that we're going to be having a little competition."

She smiled slightly as a ripple of what might have been consternation or even apprehension flowed through the simulator.

"Starting the day after tomorrow," she continued, "we're going to begin a squadron-wide 'Top Gun' contest. Commodore Chatterjee and Commander DesMoines are going to design the problems and assign tasks. The first phase will be a direct competition between just the tactical departments of the squadron's ships, and we'll duke it out in a straight simulator-on simulator link.But—" she smiled again, much more thinly "—once we've made the first cut and winnowed it down to the best ship from each division, we'll go up against each other in real-time and real space. It'll be every department in the ship, then, people, not just us, but all the others are going to be relying on us to get our job done right. I wouldn't want anyone to feel particularly pressured, but I suppose I ought to point out that if we don't get our job done right and at least make the first cut, I'm going to be . . . unhappy. And, trust me, you really won't like me very much when I'm unhappy."

"Jesus," Lieutenant Wanda O'Reilly's voice was quiet but harsh as she leaned slightly across the table towards Lieutenant Vincenzo Fonzarelli inTristram's wardroom. "Who had this frigging brainstorm?"

Fonzarelli,Tristram's chief engineer, took his time sipping from his beer mug while he considered O'Reilly thoughtfully. Like the rest of the destroyer's company, her officers were split between Manticorans and Graysons. Unlike the rest of Tristram's company, they were split just about evenly, and O'Reilly was one of the Manticorans who seemed to have a bit of a problem with that.

And with one of those Graysons in particular, I'd say, Fonzarelli reflected. The idiot.

"As a matter of fact," the engineer said mildly, lowering his mug, "I believe the Skipper came up with the notion of making it a squadron-wide, winner-take-all competition. The original idea of having the ships exercise against each other, though, came from Lieutenant Hearns, I think."

"Well, that figures!" O'Reilly snorted.

"And just what exactly does that mean?" Fonzarelli asked, still in that mild tone of voice.

"You know," O'Reilly replied, waving one hand in the air between them and—Fonzarelli noticed—careful to keep her volume down.

"No, I don't," the engineer disagreed.

O'Reilly looked at him, eyes narrow, then smiled and shrugged.

"Oh, I guess it makes sense, sort of. It'd make more sense if we'd had more than two or three T-weeks to shake down our people first, though." She shook her head. "I mean, it's a great idea, in theory. But what's it really going to prove, this early? It's not like anyone really thinks this squadron's had time to train up properly, now is it?"

"I suppose not. Then again, I don't suppose a batch of pirates—or, even worse, a batch of Sollies, let's say—is going to check to see that we've had time to get ourselves properly together before they start shooting, either."

"Of course not." O'Reilly flushed slightly. "I just said I thought it was a good idea. But we're not going to have anyone shooting at anyone before we ever even get to Spindle, Vincenzo, and that won't be for another nine days yet. I'm just saying that I think it would make sense to wait another couple of days, maybe even another week, before something like this."

"Then maybe you should mention that to the Skipper," Fonzarelli suggested.

"Hah! Fat chance that would do any good!"

"Meaning?" Fonzarelli's voice was considerably sharper than it had been, although he hadn't raised it above a quiet conversational level . . . yet. O'Reilly's flush darkened, and her lips pressed firmly together, but the engineer held her gaze steadily.

"I mean I'm a com officer, not a tac officer," O'Reilly said finally, shaking her head. "And I haven't known the Skipper as long as Hearns has, either. Naturally her ideas are going to carry more weight than mine would at this point."

"I see."

Fonzarelli sat back, considering the communications officer even more thoughtfully. Then he cocked his head.

"Don't much care for Lieutenant Hearns, do you, Wanda?" he asked after a moment.

"What's not to care about?" O'Reilly responded with another of those shrugs. "I hardly even know her!"

"The very thought that had just crossed my own mind," Fonzarelli agreed. "But that wasn't really answering my question. So let me try phrasing it a bit more clearly. What's your problem with Hearns, Wanda?"

The engineer's voice hardened on the final sentence, and O'Reilly glowered at him. Unfortunately for the communications officer, while they were both senior-grade lieutenants, Fonzarelli was almost a full T-year senior to her. That didn't leave much wiggle room in the face of a specific question.

"I don't like her," she finally said, his expression almost defiant. "I don't like her, and I don't think she's really qualified for TO, either."

"I see." Fonzarelli smiled ever so slightly. It was not an extraordinarily pleasant expression. "Let me see if I've got it straight, though. You've known her for less than one week, and you've already decided you don't like her. And on the basis of that same lengthy acquaintance, you've decided she's not qualified as the ship's tactical officer, either. I am awed by the clarity and deliberate speed with which your extraordinary intellect comes to these carefully considered evaluations."

O'Reilly's face flushed more darkly than ever. Given her fair complexion, it was painfully obvious, too, and she knew it. Which only made her even angrier, Fonzarelli supposed.

"Look," the communications officer said rather more sharply, "I never claimed I know her well. You asked me what my problem with her was, and I told you."

"That's true enough," Fonzarelli agreed. "But you also said you don't think she's qualified for her position. That's a pretty serious accusation to be leveling at the ship's senior tactical officer."

"Maybe it is. But this wouldn't be the first time someone's family or connections got him moved up faster than his ability justified, and you know it. Christ, Vincenzo! Don't tell me you've never served with—or under—some idiot whose sole qualification for her position was whose cousin she was!"

"So you're thinking Hearns got where she is because she's a steadholder's daughter?"

"Well, what am I supposed to think? She's three frigging T-years out of the Academy, for God's sake! And she was a jay-gee barely a year ago—until her last skipper appointed her as anacting senior-grade. And when they get home from Talbott, the Admiralty confirms her as a senior-grade lieutenant retroactive to Terekhov's appointment less than three days before they hand her a Roland-class's entire tactical department!"

She shook her head, looking as if she wanted to spit on the decksole in disgust.

"You tell me, Vincenzo. You really think all of that would have happened if she hadn't been a steadholder's daughter and one of 'the Salamander's' favorites at Saganami?"

Fonzarelli took another sip of beer to buy a little time before replying. He'd known O'Reilly resented Hearns, but he hadn't really recognized the true depth of that resentment until this moment.

In some ways, the engineer could understand where O'Reilly was coming from better than he really wanted to. As O'Reilly had just pointed out, Abigail Hearns had been a shiny new snotty barely three years ago. At that time, Vincenzo Fonzarelli had already been a jay-gee on the brink of promotion to senior-grade . . . and he'd been just over four years out of the Academy himself. Of course, the Janacek build-down which had set the stage so disastrously for the Peeps' Operation Thunderbolt had slowed everyone's promotions during that time period. The braking effect had been even more apparent given the speed with which promotions had come during the First Havenite War. The fleet's expansion and the opportunity to step into dead men's shoes had seen to that while the fighting had been going on, and the sudden deceleration when the peacetime Navy started downsizing so drastically under the High Ridge Government had come as an unpleasant surprise for everyone.

O'Reilly had left Saganami Island six T-months after Fonzarelli, just in time to run into that effect, and she'd spent considerably longer as an ensign than Fonzarelli had. On the other hand, she'd spent considerably less time as a jay-gee, since the need for officers was even more insatiable under the stress of this war than it had been during the last one. Still, there was no denying that Abigail Hearns' career bade fair to set some sort of all-time record for promotions.

"Let me stand your question on its head, Wanda," Fonzarelli said, finally lowering his beer again. "You really think that someone who took two squads of Marines down on to someone else's planet, without any outside support, on her snotty cruise, played tag with better than five hundred pirates for the better part of a full day, and killed damned near two hundred of them for the loss of only ten Marines, then turned around and as the acting tactical officer of a scratch built squadron that had already been hammered into scrap took out three Solly battlecruisers, wouldn't have been promoted, even if her father had been a sewer worker?"

O'Reilly's nostrils flared, but she didn't respond, and Fonzarelli shook his head.

"You just came mighty damned close to suggesting Commodore Terekhov and Captain Kaplan are playing favorites," he said. "You might want to think about that a little more carefully the next time. And you might want to think about who you express that opinion too, as well. I don't know the Skipper—not yet. Haven't had time to get to know her . . . any more than you have. But what I have seen of her, and what I've seen of—and heard about—Commodore Terekhov suggests to me that it's . . . unlikely they'd let favoritism run away with their better judgment. And that anyone who suggests they might is gonna find herself really, really wishing she hadn't if they should happen to find out about it. I'll grant you it can't possibly hurt Hearns' chances for promotion and eventual flag rank to be the daughter of a head of state. And having Duchess Harrington in her corner isn't going to hurt any, either. But the Salamander isn't the kind of woman who goes around allowing favoritism to overrule her judgment. I know that much, even if I can't be positive about that—yet—where the Skipper and the Commodore are concerned."

"Maybe not," O'Reilly said stubbornly. "And I'll grant you Harrington's got a reputation for not playing the favorites game. But I still say Hearns wouldn't be where she is today if her last name had been Smith."

"Or O'Reilly, maybe?" Fonzarelli asked softly.

"Maybe." O'Reilly's glower was unyielding. "And I'm not going to be the only one who thinks that, either."

"Well, allow me to suggest that you'd better let those others be the ones to badmouth her." Fonzarelli looked her up and down and shook his head. "The last thing any ship needs is some officer undercutting some other officer's authority. I believe you'll find the Regs frown on that sort of behavior. And I also believe you'll probably find the XO's boot so far up your backside you'll be tasting leather for a week or so."

O'Reilly's eyes narrowed, and Fonzarelli shook his head again.

"I don't have any intention of going to Commander Tallman about this, Wanda. And from what I've seen of her, neither will Hearns when it finally comes to her ears. And that will happen if you keep this up, as you and I both know perfectly well. I mean, that's one reason you're sharing it with me instead of discussing it directly with her, isn't it? To be sure the campaign gets nicely underway?"

His lip curled slightly, and O'Reilly's jaw muscles tightened angrily. Not that Fonzarelli seemed to notice her reaction particularly—or care about it if he did—as he continued levelly.

"I'd say Hearns is the kind of person who fights her own battles, and I think she's not going to want to go running to Commander Tallman to make the big, bad Manty lieutenant be nice to her and stop saying all those nasty things. Not that I think you're going to like what happens to you when she decides to handle you all on her own. And however she feels about involving the XO won't make one damned bit of difference, as far as you're concerned, if he hears about it on his own. Trust me on that one. Or don't." The engineer shrugged as O'Reilly almost visibly hunkered down and dug in her heels. "It's no skin off my nose which way you go with this. But I think it's gonna be quite a bit of skin off of another part of your anatomy if you piss off the Skipper and the XO."

"So what do you think about Abigail now?" Naomi Kaplan asked cheerfully, sipping after-dinner coffee as Chief Steward Brinkman removed the dishes.

"I beg your pardon?" Lieutenant Commander Alvin Tallman said guilelessly, eyebrows raised in question, and Kaplan chuckled. There was still a slight stiffness to her movements, but Bassingford had done its usual bangup job of putting someone back together again. And there was something remarkably feline about the skipper, Tallman thought. And not just about the way she moved, despite any lingering discomfort, either. There was that same sort of almost affable deadliness waiting for anyone foolish enough to trespass into her territory and a purring edge of sensuality, as well, he thought, and decided—again—that it was a pity the Articles of War forbade any sort of romantic relationship between officers in the same chain of command.

Or maybe it isn't such a pity, he reflected. She'd probably chew me up and spit me out . . . in the nicest, most enjoyable sort of way, of course. Somehow, I don't think I'd be able to keep up with her long enough for it to work out any other way. And God knows there's a damned good reason the Regs frown on anyone sleeping with his—or her—exec! Still . . .

"Oh don't give me that innocent look," Kaplan said, shaking an index finger in his general direction. "You know exactly what I'm asking."

"Yes, Ma'am. I guess I do," he acknowledged, his expression sobering, and reached for his own coffee cup. He sipped for a moment, then lowered the cup and shrugged.

"I never had any doubts about her capability, Ma'am," he said. "Obviously, I don't know her as well as you do, but just looking through her personnel jacket, it was pretty clear she's not the kind of person who panics and runs around in circles when the shit hits the fan. And I have to agree with you, however junior she may be, she's got as much or more experience with the Mark 16 than any other officer around. But if I'm going to be honest, I did cherish a few doubts about her age. She's so damned young I expect to hear her uniform squeaking when she walks by. And, let's face it, 'good when the shit hits the fan' doesn't automatically equate to someone who's a good officer all around. I guess a part of me just questioned whether or not anyone her age could possibly have enough experience on the administrative and training side to run an entire tactical department."

"And does that question still bother you?" Kaplan asked.

"No, Ma'am. Not really." Tallman shook his head. "I'll admit, I've been keeping a closer eye on her administrative and personnel management skills than those of anyone else on board. So far, she hasn't dropped a single stitch anywhere on the paperwork side. And my spies tell me she already knows every member of her department by name, along with the world he comes from, his hometown, whether or not he's married—or romantically involved with anyone—and apparently even who his favorite sports teams are."

"So you'd give her passing marks on that side?"

"Without turning a hair," Tallman agreed.

"And when it does come to training and exercising her department?"

"To be honest, I'm more impressed with her there than I am with her ability to manage paperwork. Oh, don't give me wrong. We've got so many damned rough edges—not just in Tactical, but in every department!—that I don't even know where to start counting them. Putting together a ship's company this quickly isn't what the recruiter promised me when I let him talk me into going to Saganami Island lo those many eons ago, Ma'am! But overall, I think we've got a good bunch, and Abigail is really tearing into her own problem areas. And this idea of hers to stage a competition between the ships is going to do nothing but help out every other tac officer in the squadron, as well."

"So you don't have any serious qualms about her?"

"Ma'am, if I'd had serious qualms about her, you'd already have heard about them," he said levelly.

"Good."

Kaplan's relief was evident, and Tallman quirked one eyebrow.

"Having you in her corner takes a certain load off my mind," she explained. "Because the fact is that even though every single thing I told her about her qualifications for the job is absolutely true, it's also true that if I were inclined to play favorites, I'd be playing the game hard on her behalf. In a way, actually, I am playing that game, and I know it."

"Yes, you are," Tallman agreed. "On the other hand, you're not alone about doing that in her case. Let me see . . . there's Commodore Terekhov, Duchess Harrington, Admiral Cortez . . ."

"And don't forget High Admiral Matthews," Kaplan reminded him with a quirky smile. "While we're thinking about her patrons, I mean."

"Oh, believe me, I won't, Ma'am."

"Good. But," she leaned back in her chair, "correct me if I'm wrong, but do I detect the merest hint of resentment on the part of some of her fellow officers?"

"Not on any sort of general scale," Tallman told her. "There are some people who feel their noses have been put out of joint, but to be honest, none of them would have been in the running for the tactical officer's slot even if Abigail had never come along at all. I wouldn't worry about it too much, Ma'am. We've got some cooler heads out there helping to sit on the ones with the problem, and she's turning out to be pretty damned good at doing that sort of thing herself. I think it probably has to do with growing up as a steadholder's daughter. She had to learn the basic people-managing skills early on. And if all else fails, you can always reach for your patented five-dollar special executive officer hammer. Not that I think you're going to need it any time especially soon."

"We can hope, anyway," Kaplan said. Then she gave herself a little shake.

"Well, since you've put my mind to rest on that little problem, let's look at the next one on the list," she suggested. "I've been thinking over what Fonzarelli was saying about the forward impeller rooms, and I think he's got a point. Given how cramped the access way is thanks to the chase armament and the launchers, getting everyone to battle stations is going to be a lot bigger pain in the ass than BuShips allowed for. We need to be looking at some revised flow patterns there, I think, if we want to avoid a major bottleneck when we can least afford it. I've been pushing some numbers around on the ship's schematic, and I think if we move the route for Point Defense Two's and Four's crews up one deck, and the crews for PD One and Three down a deck, we ought—"

Chapter Thirty-Three

Albrecht Detweiler looked out across the ranked seating of the palatial auditorium as he strode towards the lectern, and his expression was sober. The auditorium wasn't really all that large, despite its luxurious furnishings and absolutely state-of-the-art communications and briefing equipment. It was also buried under the next best thing to two hundred meters of solid earth and ceramacrete, making it impervious to any known snooping system, which was not a minor consideration on a day like this. And although its maximum seating capacity was under a thousand, there were no more than eight hundred people in its comfortable seats this afternoon. It was more than big enough for that, and he felt a sense of anticipation humming through his blood as he looked out at those eight hundred.

They represented the core leadership of the entire Mesan Alignment. A handful of people were missing, among them his sons Franklin and Gervais. He missed Franklin and Gervais more than most of the others, but their absence wasn't truly critical. Franklin was in charge of the Alignment's political penetration strategies, which meant most of his attention was focused on the Solarian League, and the Sollies were really at most a secondary concern today. Gervais, on the other hand, was effectively the Alignment's foreign secretary, the Alignment's primary contact with its out-system allies, which made his absence of greater significance than Franklin's this afternoon. Still, all of those allies already understood their parts in the overall plan, even if they didn't understand precisely how all of those parts fitted together or to what true end, and everyone had known for decades that when the time finally came to pull the trigger, there might well not be time to brief all of them first.

Although I doubt any of them expected it to come at them with quite this little forewarning, he thought wryly.

He watched the rustle of surprise running through the audience as he crossed the stage, for in a very real sense, today was the first time he'd ever really stepped out of the shadows. His own and his genotype's existence had been too important a secret for him to go gallavanting around openly, which, he had to admit, had always irked him more than a little. Oh, he'd been able to spend time in public, but always anonymously, without any activity or clue which might have led the Alignment's enemies to realize he existed, and even then only after the most stringent (if unobtrusive) security arrangements had been put into place ahead of time. That was why the majority of the people sitting out there had never actually met him . . . although he'd met several of them under the cover of carefully constructed false personae, especially when a firsthand evaluation had seemed necessary. Indeed, for many of these people, his very existence—and that of his sons—had been little more than a half-believed rumor until they received the emergency summons to this meeting, and even those among them who had received messages or com calls from him had never seen his natural face or heard his undisguised voice. But they recognized him now, and an electric shock seemed to fill the air as voices murmured in astonishment.

He stopped behind the lectern, looked out across their faces, and cleared his throat. The background hum of astonished speculation died almost instantly.

"I'm not going to bother with a lot of introductions this morning," he said, his amplified voice filling the auditorium while all of his sons who were physically present on Mesa filed onto the stage behind him. "The mere fact that I'm talking to all of you simultaneously—and directly—has no doubt already told you something important is going on, and it is. In fact, something very important is about to happen."

The silence intensified, and he gestured for Collin to join him at the lectern. Standing side-by-side, the physical resemblance between them was almost uncanny, despite the difference in their ages, and Albrecht took a half-step backwards, surrendering precedence to the younger man.

"Six days ago," Collin began without preamble, "the Republic of Haven attacked the Manticore home system."

A rustle of astonishment almost as great as that evoked by Albrecht's presence rushed around the auditorium, punctuated by more than a few exclamations of shock, and Albrecht smiled grimly. Their reaction didn't surprise him in the least, because no one had attacked the home star system of a major interstellar naval power literally in centuries, if ever.

"Havenite security was very tight, and we had absolutely no warning that this was in the works," Collin continued after a moment. "Thanks to the streak drive and the Beowulf conduit, we've been able to acquire at least preliminary estimates on the outcome of the attack, however. I'm not the best person to discuss the military implications of that outcome, so I'm going to ask Benjamin to address them. I'll be prepared to take any questions on the intelligence side after the main briefing when we break down into our initial task groups."

He stepped back from the lectern, and Benjamin Detweiler took his place.

"As Collin's just said, our estimates of exactly what happened are preliminary at this time. We don't have significant penetration of the Manticoran military, but the battle was fought inside the system hyper limit, for the most part, right under the Manticoran newsies' noses. Collin's estimate, with which I concur, is that the reports our agents in Manticore have been able to pick up from the media are essentially accurate, despite some possibility of exaggeration.

"Allowing for that exaggeration and rounding reported losses downward by twenty percent as a corrective, it would appear that the entire Manticoran Home Fleet has been destroyed."

A harsh sound, like a collective gasp, went through his audience. He seemed unaware of it as he continued speaking in the same, calm voice.

"Their Third Fleet would also appear to have beeneffectively destroyed. Preliminary estimates indicate that while a handful of its units may have survived, none of them are combat-capable at this time, and many of the survivors would appear to be damaged beyond a practical point of repair.

"On the Havenite side, our best estimate is that they committed between four hundred and five hundred ships of the wall to the attack. For all intents and purposes, that means they used at least ninety percent of their fully worked-up and trained wall of battle. According to the best information available to us, no more than twenty or thirty of their ships survived the engagement. The remainder were either destroyed outright or captured by the Manticorans."

There were no gasps this time. Genetically engineered for superiority or not, his audience was too stunned for that sort of expression.

"According to what our agents have been able to piece together, and what our analysts here at home have been able to do with their reports, it would appear the Havenites came within centimeters of succeeding in their objective. We're still trying to pull specific information on their tactics out of the reports we've received, but it looks like they used a two-pronged attack, bringing in a second force behind Third Fleet to ambush it when Admiral Kuzak came through from Trevor's Star in response to the initial attack. Unfortunately for the Havenites, it would appear thatEighth Fleet came through after Third Fleet, rather than in company with it, which allowed Harrington to ambush the ambushers, as it were. The result was to break the back of the Havenite attack, but every report available to us indicates that, for all intents and purposes, the Manticoran Navy's wall of battle has been pruned back to only Eighth Fleet and the odds and sods of wallers scattered around as pickets in places like the Lynx Terminus."

He paused and surveyed his audience levelly.

"What this means," he said flatly, "is that the combined walls of battle of Manticore and Haven have been effectively gutted. At this moment, the Manties' Eighth Fleet is probably the only organization on either side which actually deserves to be called a 'fleet' at all. I would be astonished to discover that they could have suffered fewer than a million and a half human casualties between them, which is bound to have its own impact in the not-too-distant future, but the critical point is that Haven no longer has an effective battle fleet at all, and that Eighth Fleet is going to be anchored to Manticore for the foreseeable future."

He stopped speaking and stepped back from the lectern, and Albrecht took his place there once more.

"Obviously," he said quietly, "there are still a great many things we don't know. But what we do know clearly indicates that, as Benjamin's just said, the combat power of both the Manticoran alliance and the Republic of Haven has been effectively—if temporarily—wiped out."

His smile would have done any Old Earth shark proud.

"In some ways, the timing on this is highly inconvenient for us. In others, it couldn't be better. And however we want to look at it, it represents an opportunity, an opening, and a warning we dare not ignore.

"What Harrington apparently managed to do to the Havenites is a warning that this new targeting system of theirs, whatever it is, is even more effective than we'd assumed from the original reports on it. I think we need to take it as a given that they'll be fitting the same technology into all of their new construction as it comes off the ways. That means Manticore is in a position to recover quickly from its losses, despite their severity, and that the Manticoran Navy will find itself in a totally dominating position once it does. According to all of our sources, Haven still has more ships under construction than Manticore does, but after the results of the Battle of Lovat and this new battle in Manticore, it's obvious that those ships are simply going to be targets for the Manties unless Haven somehow miraculously acquires the same technology for itself in the next few months. Which means Manticore is now in a position to score an outright military victory over the Republic of Haven—one so overwhelming they'll be able to dictate the terms of any peace they want to cram down Nouveau Paris' throat—within the next six to ten T-months. And if that happens, especially given their new targeting system and the fact that they'll be free to concentrate on something besides Haven, they will pose an extremely serious threat to our own strategy."

The auditorium was deathly silent when he paused. He let the silence linger for a moment, then continued.

"By the same token, however, neither Manticore nor Haven has been this vulnerable since their first war began. For all intents and purposes, Haven has no fleet, and Manticore's only existing fleet cannot uncover the Manticore System. That will change when—orif—the new wave of Manticoran construction starts coming out of their shipyards. All of our estimates are that that will begin happening quite soon, although it's highly probable that the need to incorporate this new technology into their new construction is going to push back their delivery dates somewhat. That gap between now and the delivery, manning, and training of their new wall of battle represents our window of opportunity.

"And, purely coincidentally, since none of us could possibly have seen this coming, our other operations have combined with this to present us with an opening, as well. Some of you are already aware of the operation we're currently pursuing in the Talbott Cluster. For those of you not yet aware of it, I'll simply say that we've set events in motion to bring about a direct, shooting confrontation between the Manties and more than seventy Solarian ships of the wall. I suspect that when the Manties realize what's coming at them in Talbott, it's going to rivet their attention fairly firmly in that direction.

"There are some downsides to that from our perspective. Prior to the Havenite attack on Manticore, we had every reason to project that the Manties would hammer the Sollies into drifting wreckage. That, of course, was what we wanted, given our own plans for the League. In light of the body blow the Manty Navy's just taken, they may not be able to hit the Sollies hard enough to fully accomplish our objectives for us in that respect. Our projections still indicate a significant chance that they would be able to, however, and even if that portion of our original plans achieves only partial success, it should still be adequate to set the stage for the next phase.

"Of course, the Manties are not alone at this time. In addition to the Royal Manticoran Navy itself, the Manticoran Alliance can count on the Grayson Navy and the Andermani. Indications are that the Andermani took significant damage themselves at Manticore, and previous reports have indicated that their general warfighting technology is still lagging behind the rest of the Alliance's. Moreover, the Andermani have always been . . . pragmatic. They signed on to the Alliance to fight Haven; none of our analysts believes they'd be willing to take on the SLN, especially if they'd be doing so effectively single-handedly. Which means that who we really have to worry about are the Manties and the Graysons. Given time, Haven would undoubtedly become a threat once more, as well, but once Manticore and Grayson go down, Haven won't have that time."

He smiled again, and this smile was even colder than the one before.

"A very few of you are aware that Benjamin has been working for quite some time now on an operation codenamed Oyster Bay. Those of you who know about it, also know we're still far short of all of our projected readiness dates for mounting it. However, Oyster Bay was originally intended to strike Manticore, Grayson, and all of the major Havenite building centers simultaneously. It would be impossible for us to launch an operation on that scale before the Manties' new construction comes out of the yards. But the fact that that new construction is still in the yards, concentrated in a limited volume of space where we can find it and get at it, and without the ability to defend itself, represents an enormous force multiplier for the Oyster Bay resources already available to us. In addition, we don't need to strike the Havenites at this moment. Their wall of battle has been effectively destroyed; their construction rates are still much slower than those of the Manties or the Graysons; and they don't have this new targeting system the Manties have deployed. In other words, we can deal with them later, using more conventional tactics if we have to.

"So, what it comes down to is this. The Manties' new technology is more dangerous than ever, but their combat strength has been cut back to no more than forty to sixty ships of the wall, and they have to be reeling strategically from the losses they've already taken. Despite their new tech, they're vulnerable in a way they've never been before. We have the means already in place in or approaching Talbott to cut off that entire lobe of this new 'Star Empire' of theirs, and get them into the shooting war with the League we've always wanted. And, after discussing our own readiness states with Benjamin and Daniel, I believe we're in a position to launch a modified, downscaled Oyster Bay, targeted on Manticore and Grayson only, within six T-months."

He paused once more, looking out across the motionless bodies filling the deathly still auditorium.

"I know that after so many centuries, recasting and reorganizing our plans on such short notice is enough to make anyone nervous. But let's face it, we've always known that when the time actually came, we were going to have to change planning and operational tempos. In many ways, I would prefer to continue with our original timetable. Unfortunately, the opposition hasn't chosen to cooperate with us in that respect. In my judgment, and especially in light of the outcome of the Battle of Manticore, the threat Manticore represents to our entire strategy has just increased exponentially. We cannot allow them to consolidate a clear-cut military victory over Haven, especially if they simultaneously manage to deploy four or five hundred podnoughts equipped with whatever it was they used to smash the attack on their home system. The odds of their having the strength to move directly against us under those circumstances if they realize what's really happening would be unacceptable, despite anything the Sollies might do.

"It's distinctly possible that our estimates of the completion times on their new construction are overly optimistic. In fact, we've been picking up some indications to that effect. Collin will be more than willing to discuss those indications with you shortly. At the moment, however, they are only indications, and, as I say, the need for the Manties to refit with their new targeting systems will probably slow them down.

"All of that is true, but even if we catch only half—or even less than that—of their new wallers still in the yards, it would be enormously advantageous for us. And, of course, that completely ignores the damage to their basic military building and support infrastructure. Not only that, but even if a sizable portion of their fleet escapes destruction in Oyster Bay, they'll still find themselves in an all-out war with the Solarian League. I know what we all hope will happen within the League as a consequence of that, but even if it does, it will take time for the realization to filter through such a huge dinosaur's nervous system.

"In other words," he said slowly and clearly, "for whatever combination of reasons, the moment is now. There are risks involved, but there have been risks involved at every step for the last six hundred T-years, and the nature of the opportunity and the scale of the threat if we do not act now, are overwhelming. Which is the reason I called all of you here today. Calling this many of us together in one place is always a security risk, but I think the time has come for us to realize that we have to step out of the shadows.

"I fully realize that many of you have ongoing projects of your own which are going to be thrown into significant disarray by stepping up the ti