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Chapter Twelve

"I'm going to be feeling mighty sorry for myself for the next couple of months," Paul Tankersley murmured as the shuttle approached the waiting heavy cruiser. "Especially at night," he added wickedly.


Honor blushed and looked around quickly, but no one was close enough to overhear. The dozen diplomats with whom they shared the Foreign Office shuttle had chosen seats near the front of the passenger compartment, more than willing to leave the two naval officers alone. Now they sat chatting quietly among themselves while the cruiser grew in the visual display, and she sighed in relief, then grimaced at him.


"You're as bad as my mother," she scolded. "Neither of you have a scrap of self-restraint. Or even common decency, for that matter."


"I know. That's why I liked her so much. In fact, if she were just a little taller—"


Tankersley broke off with a chuckle as Honor's elbow dug into his ribs, but her right cheek dimpled uncontrollably. She and Paul had found time for only a single, one-day visit to Sphinx, but her parents—and especially her mother—had greeted him with open arms. Allison Harrington was an emigrant from the Sigma Draconis System's Beowulf, and Beowulf's sexual mores were very different from straight-laced Sphinx's. Her daughter's total lack of a sex life had baffled Doctor Harrington almost as much as it worried her, and she would have been ready to welcome any male with approximately the right number of appendages. When she saw the quality of the male Honor had actually found and realized how deeply they loved one another, she'd none too figuratively clasped him to her bosom. Indeed, at one point Honor had almost feared Allison's half-T-century of acculturation might slip and result in an offer that would have shocked even Paul. It hadn't happened, but she couldn't help wishing a bit wistfully that she could have seen his reaction if it had.


"You just stay away from Sphinx till I get back, Paul Tankersley," she said severely. Nimitz looked up from her lap with a soft, bleeking laugh, and Tankersley laid a hand on his breast and tried to look innocent.


"Why, Honor! Surely you don't think—"


"You don't want to know what I think," she interrupted. "I saw how the two of you snuck off into the corner. Just what were you whispering about, anyway?"


"Oh, lots of things," Paul said brightly. "She did surprise me a couple of times, though—and not just with that bare-bottomed baby holo of you. Did you know Beowulfans don't believe in tubing babies?"


Honor felt herself blush again, much more brightly, but this time she couldn't quite smother a gurgle of embarrassed delight. One of the diplomats glanced over his shoulder, then turned away again, and Paul's eyes brimmed with laughter as he looked up at her.


"Yes," she said after a moment, "I believe I did know that."


"Really?" He grinned at her refusal to rise to the holo bait and shook his head. "Hard to believe an itty-bitty little thing like that carried you to term. Seems like an awful lot of work to me."


"Are you casting aspersions on my size? Or just suggesting it was wasted effort?"


"Oh, heavens, no! Neither of those would be tactful—or safe, now that I think about it." Paul's grin broadened, then faded into a more serious expression. "But, seriously, that must have been quite a chore on Sphinx."


"It was," Honor agreed. "Beowulf's gravity's higher than Manticore's, but it's still about ten percent lower than Sphinx's. Daddy was more than ready to have me tubed, only Mother wouldn't hear of it. He was still in the Service at the time, and they didn't even have the cash to fit the house with grav plates, either, but she's a stubborn little thing."


"I knew you got it from somewhere," Paul murmured. "But what I can't understand is why she was so insistent. It certainly isn't what I would have expected out of someone from Beowulf."


"I know."


Honor frowned and rubbed the tip of her nose, considering how best to explain the apparent incongruity. Beowulf led the explored galaxy in the life sciences and boasted its most advanced genetic engineering facilities, especially in applied eugenics. The rest of humanity had virtually abandoned the entire field for over seven hundred T-years late in the tenth century of the Diaspora, after the specialized combat constructs, bio weapons, and "super soldiers" of Old Earth's Final War had wreaked unbelievable carnage on the mother world. Some historians insisted that only the Warshawski sail and the relief expeditions mounted by other members of the recently formed Solarian League had saved the planet at all, and the Sol System had needed almost five T-centuries of recovery before it regained its preeminent place in the galaxy.


Yet when the rest of humanity recoiled in horror from what it had unleashed, Beowulf did nothing of the sort. Probably, Honor thought, because Beowulfans had never gone as overboard with the concept of "improving the breed" from the beginning. The oldest of Old Earth's daughter colonies, Beowulf had evolved its own bio-sciences code well before the Final War, and that code had prohibited most of the excesses other worlds had embraced. Nor had there been as much pressure on the Beowulfan medical establishment to join the general retreat as one might have expected, for it had been researchers from Beowulf who'd tackled and defeated, one by one, the hideous diseases and genetic damage the Final War had inflicted on Old Earth's survivors.


Yet even today, almost a thousand T-years later, Beowulf maintained its code. Perhaps it was even more rigorous than it had been then, in fact. The Star Kingdom of Manticore, like most planets with decent medical science, made no legal or ethical distinction between "natural born" children and embryos brought to term in vitro. There were compelling arguments in favor of tubing, as the process was still known, not least because of the way the fetus could be monitored and the relative ease with which defects could be corrected. And, of course, it had immense appeal for career women, especially for servicewomen like Honor herself. But Beowulf rejected the practice.


"It's sort of hard to explain," she said finally. "Personally, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that they maintained their eugenics programs when everyone else rejected them. It was . . . oh, a sort of gesture to reassure the rest of the galaxy that they weren't going to do any wild tinkering with human genotypes. And they don't, you know. They've always favored a gradualist approach. They'll work right up to the natural limits of the available genetic material, but they won't go a millimeter beyond that in humans. I suppose you might argue that they crossed the line when they came up with the prolong process, but they didn't really change anything in the process. They only convinced a couple of gene groups to work a bit differently for two or three centuries. On the other hand, their insistence on natural childbearing is more than just a gesture to the rest of us, too. Mother says the official reason is a desire to avoid 'reproductive techno dependency,' but she smiles a lot when she says it, and once or twice she's admitted there's more to it."


"What?" Paul asked as her voice trailed off.


"She won't say—except to assure me that I'll understand when it's my turn. She gets almost mystic about it." Honor shrugged, then grinned and squeezed his hand. "Of course, she may decide to make an exception in our case, given the schedules we're likely to be looking at for the next few years."


"She has," Paul said quietly. Honor's eyebrows rose, and he smiled. "She says the next time you and I visit, she's bringing out her bottles. Something—" he lifted his nose with a superior sniff "—about not letting high-class sperm get away from you."


Honor's eyes rounded in amazement, then softened. She hadn't realized just how much her mother approved of Paul, and her hand tightened on his.


"I think that's a marvelous idea," she said softly, and leaned over to kiss him despite the diplomats' presence, then straightened in her chair and smiled wickedly. "Not that I ever had any intention of letting any 'high-class sperm' escape, of course."


* * *


A docking tractor reached out to draw the shuttle into the heavy cruiser Jason Alvarez's boat bay. The small craft rolled on gyros and thrusters, aligning itself with the docking arms, then settled into the buffers without so much as a jar, and Honor sat very still, watching the brightly garbed clutch of civilians rise and begin fussing with carry-on baggage while Alvarez's traffic control crews ran the personnel tube out to the hatch. The moment was here, and she suddenly realized how little she wanted it to be.


Nimitz gave a soft little croon in her lap, and Paul's arm slipped about her shoulders to squeeze briefly. She looked at him, blinking suddenly misty eyes while her hands stroked the treecat's fluffy coat.


"Hey, it's only a couple of months!" Paul whispered.


"I know." She leaned against him for a moment, then inhaled deeply. "You know, I always felt just a little smug when I watched people snuffling on each other in departure lounges. It always seemed so silly. Now it doesn't."


"Serves you right for being so heartless all those years, then, doesn't it?" Paul brushed the tip of her nose with a finger, and she clicked her teeth at it. "That's better. Besides, I object to being snuffled on. It leaves tear stains on my tunic. That's why I never let any of my women do it."


"I bet you don't, cad." She gave a quiet chuckle and stood, lifting Nimitz to her padded shoulder. The Star of Grayson glittered in golden beauty on its crimson ribbon against the space-black of her tunic's breast. It was normal wear with dress uniform—in Grayson service, anyway—and she adjusted its unaccustomed weight before her hands fluttered over her person, checking her flawless appearance. It was completely automatic after so many years, and Paul smiled at the sheer reflex action.


"I knew I couldn't keep any secrets from you. Except, of course, for the important ones."


"If you think stashing away a harem is unimportant, you're in for a sad surprise, friend!" Honor warned him, and he laughed.


"Oh, that!" He waved a dismissive hand, then stood beside her and opened the overhead luggage compartment to withdraw a large, expensive-looking shoulder bag. It was black, made of natural leather and polished to a mirror-bright gloss. It was also, she noticed in surprise, badged in gold with the coat of arms she'd selected as Steadholder Harrington: side-by-side representations of the western hemispheres of Sphinx and Grayson, joined by the stylized key that was the patriarch's sigil of a steadholder, under a vac helmet crest. The helmet looked very little like modern equipment, but it was the symbol which had denoted naval service for almost two thousand T-years.


"What's that?"


"This, my love," he grinned teasingly, "is one of the aforesaid important secrets. I'd like to pretend it was a going-away present, but I've been working on it for quite a while now. As a matter of fact, I didn't think it would be ready before you left, but they put a rush on it for me."


"On what?" she demanded, and he chuckled. He set the bag on the seat she'd vacated and unsealed it, and her eyes widened.


It was a vac suit. More to the point, it looked exactly like a Fleet skinsuit . . . except for its tiny size and provision for six limbs.


"Paul!" she gasped. "That can't be what it looks like!"


"Ah, but it is!" He fished around under the suit and came up with the equally undersized helmet. He burnished it with his forearm, then extended it to her with a bow and a flourish. "For His Nibs," he explained unnecessarily.


Honor took the helmet and turned it in disbelieving hands while Nimitz peered down at it from her shoulder. The 'cat realized what he was looking at, and she felt his own surprise and the glow of his pleasure through their link.


"Paul, I never even considered— I mean, why didn't I think of this? It's perfect!"


"And so it should be," he said smugly. "As to why you never thought of it, well, far be it from me to suggest that you can be a bit slow at times, but—" He shrugged with Gallic perfection.


"And tactfulness, too," Honor marveled. "Gosh, what did I ever do to deserve you?"


"Just getting into your good graces so you won't clobber me when I start dropping underwear on the carpet, dear." He chuckled at the look she gave him, then turned more serious. "Actually, I thought of it the first time I saw that life-support module you keep for him in your cabin. I started out with BuShips, you know, before I got sidetracked into shipboard assignments. One of my first chores out of the Academy was a stint as junior project officer on the redesign of the old skinsuits when the new higher pressure storage vacuoles came in, so I started doodling on my terminal in my off time. I had the design run up by the time we got back from Hancock."


"But it must have cost a fortune," Honor said slowly. "That module alone cost me an arm and a leg."


"It wasn't cheap," Paul agreed, "but my family's always been involved in shipbuilding and chandlering. I took it to Uncle Henri—he's not really related, but he runs our R&D section—and he took over from there. Gave me a pretty hard time about my design, too," he added meditatively. "I'd guess he'd improved it by a couple of hundred percent by the time he finished playing with it. After that—" he shrugged "—the actual fabrication was a snap."


Honor nodded, but her expression was uneasy, and she frowned as she turned the helmet more slowly. She'd been surprised to discover how wealthy Paul's family was. She shouldn't have been, perhaps, given his relationship to Mike Henke, but that was on the commoner side of Mike's family. Yet despite his breezy dismissal of the suit's price tag, she knew how much a regular life-support module ran, and this had to be far more costly.


"It's gorgeous, Paul, but you shouldn't have done something so expensive without warning me."


"Oh, don't worry about that! Uncle Henri thought it was going to turn into some sort of expensive toy, too. Until Marketing got wind of it, that is." Honor looked surprised, and Paul grinned. "You're not the only person with a treecat, Dame Honor. We supply about a third of the modules people buy for them, and the people who sell the other two-thirds are going to be very unhappy when we start marketing skinsuits for them! You have no idea how flattering it is to be considered a prodigy after all these disappointing years."


"I bet." Honor's frown melted into a smile, and she raised the helmet for Nimitz to examine more closely. He sniffed at it delicately, whiskers quivering, then shoved his head into its armorplast transparency, and she laughed as he flicked his ears at her through it.


"Thank you," she said warmly. She touched Paul's cheek with her free hand. "Thank you very much. From both of us."


"A mere nothing." He made an airy gesture and held out his hands. She gave the helmet back, and he placed it atop the suit, sealed the bag, and arranged the strap on her shoulder.


"There. All ready to go." He waved her toward the hatch, and she looked up, surprised to see that everyone else had already left. He hooked elbows to accompany her to the hatch, and his eyes twinkled. "It's even got its own thrusters. They're not as flexible as a standard skinsuit's, but they're fitted with bio-feedback actuators. Judging from some of the aerobatics I've seen Nimitz pull off, he shouldn't have too much trouble once he gets the hang of them. They're disabled and uncharged, right now, of course, and the software's set up for flexible modification once the two of you figure out which muscle group works best to initiate what maneuver. There's a tether line for training him under zero gee, too, and the manuals are in the bag. Be sure you read them clear through before you start fooling around with it."


"Aye, aye, Sir."


"Good." They reached the hatch and he drew her head down to convenient kissing height and brushed his lips across hers. "Have a good trip."


She smiled wordlessly, determined not to sniffle, and he propelled her gently into the personnel tube. She reached for the outboard grab bar and swung across the gravity interface, then paused and turned, floating in free fall, as a throat cleared itself behind her.


"Um, one thing I didn't mention." She cocked her head, and her eyebrows lowered as she recognized his unholy amusement.


"Oh?"


"Well, it's just that I'm so pleased it was available before your trip rather than after." Her eyebrows swept even lower, and he smiled sweetly. "You see, this way you get to explain it to Nimitz. Uncle Henri went to considerable pains to failsafe its operation, but there's one thing he couldn't get around."


"Like what?" she demanded suspiciously.


"Let's just put it this way, love. I certainly hope Nimitz is in a tolerant mood when you start to explain the plumbing connections."


* * *


Senior Captain Mark Brentworth finished greeting the last of the Manticoran dignitaries in Alvarez's boat bay gallery, then snapped back around to the personnel tube as someone cleared his throat in warning. A tall, slender captain in black and gold sailed down the tube, graceful as a bird after the diplomats' clumsier efforts. A long, sinuous shape clung to her shoulder, and Brentworth's eyes lit with pleasure.


His right hand made a tiny gesture, and the side party's senior petty officer produced an old-fashioned, lung-powered bugle in place of his electronic bosun's pipe. More than one of the Manticoran diplomats wheeled in surprise as the crisp, golden notes rang through the gallery and the honor guard of Grayson Marines snapped from parade rest to rigid attention.


"Preeeeeee-sent arms!" their commander barked. Pulse rifles came up in perfect unison, the side party saluted, and Brentworth removed his cap and bowed with a flourish as Honor Harrington stepped out of the tube to a second bugle fanfare.


She stood motionless, as startled as the diplomats, and only decades of discipline kept her surprise off her face.


"Steadholder Harrington." Brentworth's voice was deep as he straightened and tucked his cap under his arm. "I am honored, and privileged, to welcome you aboard my ship in the name of the people of Grayson, My Lady."


Honor gazed at him, wondering what the proper response was, and decided to settle for a gracious half-bow of her own.


"Thank you, Captain Brentworth. I'm delighted to be here, and—" she smiled and extended her right hand "—she looks like a wonderful ship, Mark."


"Thank you, My Lady. I'm rather proud of her myself, and I look forward to showing you around her at your convenience."


"I'll hold you to that." She squeezed his hand firmly, privately surprised by how right he looked in a captain's uniform. And in command of this ship, as well. The last time she'd seen him, he'd been a commander, but she suspected his promotion owed little either to his family or the desperate nature of Grayson's need for senior officers.


Brentworth held her hand longer than mere protocol demanded, and she deliberately turned her head to the right to show him her left profile as she recognized his scrutiny. The last time he'd seen her, her ruined left eye had been covered by a black eye patch and the entire side of her face had been a frozen, nerve-dead mask. She saw his eyes warm in relief as she returned his smile and the left corner of her mouth moved naturally. Or what would look natural to him, she reminded herself. He'd only seen her smile a time or two before her injury.


He released her hand and stepped back with a gesture that made it courteously but firmly clear that she took precedence over the various middle and high-ranking diplomats who'd preceded her aboard.


"I'm looking forward to your tour, My Lady. In the meantime, please allow me to escort you to your quarters. Your steward should have your gear settled in by now."


 



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