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Chapter Twenty-Two

"Tractor lock."


"Cut main thrusters," Michelle Henke responded. "Stand by attitude thrusters. Chief Robinet, you have approach control."


"Cut main thrusters, aye," Agni's helmswoman repeated, and her fingers tapped keys, killing the last thrust from the light cruiser's auxiliary reaction engines. "Main thruster shutdown confirmed. Standing by for attitude thrusters. I have approach control, Ma'am."


"Very good." Henke leaned back in her chair and watched the ugly, comforting bulk of HMSS Hephaestus filling the forward visual display. Agni was well inside the safety perimeter of her own impeller wedge; she'd been on conventional thrusters for the last twenty minutes, but Hephaestus' tractors had her now, drawing her hammerhead bow steadily into the waiting docking bay. All Henke's ship had to do was insure the correctness of her final docking attitude, which required a finicky degree of precision the space station's tractors simply couldn't provide.


She watched silently over CPO Robinet's shoulder. Robinet probably could have picked up her moorings in her sleep, but the ultimate responsibility was Henke's, whatever happened. That thought jabbed uneasily at the back of her mind, as it always did at moments like this, for she'd never really liked docking maneuvers. She was a competent shiphandler, but she would never have Honor's total, almost innocently arrogant self-confidence. She knew perfectly well that it was that very lack of confidence which kept her from performing with Honor's bravura flair—which, in turn, kept her from feeling confident!


She snorted in familiar self-criticism, but the fact was that she vastly preferred a simple parking orbit that let small craft and tenders make rendezvous with her. All the same, she was glad Hephaestus had an open berth, for Nike's repair slip was barely five minutes by personnel tube from Agni's intended mooring. Henke had already commed Eve Chandler to warn her of Honor's arrival, and Chandler had responded with a warning of her own: the newsies were waiting in force.


Henke felt her mouth twist, then forced it to relax with deliberate, conscious effort and squared her shoulders. There was no way—no way!—those vultures were getting at Honor. Which was why Hephaestus Central had copied a flight plan for a cutter to deliver Countess Harrington and party to the main concourse. Falsifying flight plans was a moderately serious offense, and there might be repercussions when no cutter materialized to match the concourse arrivals board, but Henke thought she'd detected a certain knowing note in the senior controller's voice when he receipted her bogus flight plan. His casual mention that the newsies would no doubt be waiting for Lady Harrington only reinforced her suspicion—and her feeling that she'd done the right thing, even if she caught a reprimand for it.


A soft, musical tone sounded, and Chief Robinet nodded to herself.


"On docking station, Captain."


"Engage mooring tractors."


"Engaging mooring tractors, aye, Ma'am."


"Jack," Henke turned to her com officer, "request umbilical lock and see how fast they can get the boarding tubes run out to us."


"Aye, aye, Ma'am."


"Thanks." Henke pushed herself up out of her command chair and glanced at her exec. "Mr. Thurmond, you have the watch."


"Aye, aye, Ma'am. I have the watch."


"Good." She rubbed her temple for just a moment, then sighed. "If anyone needs me, I'll be with Lady Harrington."


* * *


Honor's cabin had no view port, but she'd patched her com terminal into Agni's forward visual sensors. Now she sat silently, hands loose in her lap, and gazed at the flat screen as the ship nosed into her berth.


She felt . . . empty. Emptier than the wind or space itself, sucked clean by the silent undertow of entropy. She heard MacGuiness moving about behind her, felt Nimitz as he stretched along the back of her chair and radiated his love and concern, and there was only stillness and silence within her. The pain waited, but she had sheathed it in an armor of ice. She could see it in her mind's eye, razor-edges glittering within its crystalline prison, yet it couldn't touch her. Nor would it be able to, for it would destroy her too soon if she let it free. And so she'd frozen it, not in fear but with purpose, imprisoning it until she chose to shatter the ice and loose it upon herself, and that would have to wait until she had found Denver Summervale.


Her mind ticked smoothly away, considering ways and means. She knew Mike was frightened for her, but that was silly. Nothing could hurt her now. She was a glacier, a thing of ice and stone grinding implacably toward its appointed end. Like the glacier, nothing would be allowed to stop her . . . and, like the glacier, there would be nothing left of her at all at journey's end.


She hid that thought deep, so deep even she could barely sense it, lest Nimitz read it in her, but there was a clean, clear logic to it. It was inevitable, and it was justice, too.


She shouldn't have let herself love Paul, she thought distantly. She should have known better. Part of her wished she'd been allowed more time before the trap sprang, but the end had been ordained. It was his love for her which had doomed him; she'd known that the moment she browbeat Mike into telling her the final insult Summervale had used against him. Mike hadn't wanted to tell her. She'd fought against it, yet she must have known Honor would find out eventually. And so she'd told her, looking away, unable to meet her eyes, and Honor had known. She still had no idea why a total stranger had picked a quarrel with Paul, but she had been the chink in his armor. She was what Summervale had used to reach him, goad him . . . kill him.


Just as she would kill Summervale. Her wealth would serve a purpose after all, for she would spend it all if she must to find him.


A colder, more savage ache went through her, and she embraced it. She built it into her armor, raising the icy walls higher and thicker to hold the pain at bay just a little longer. Just long enough to do the last thing that would ever matter to her again.


* * *


Honor looked better, Henke told herself as she stepped into her friend's cabin, and it was true . . . as far as it went. Her face had lost that shattered, broken look, yet it remained a mask. Henke's heart ached every time she thought of what hid behind it, and she only had to look at Nimitz to guess what that hidden thing was. The 'cat was no longer gaunt and hunched, but the quick, eager mischief had gone out of him. His ears never rose from their half-flattened position, and he seemed to radiate a strange, dangerous aura, like an echo of the hunger Henke knew filled Honor. It was cold, as she was cold, and alien to everything Henke had ever sensed from him in the past. Still worse, perhaps, was the way he watched Honor. He sat quiet and still on her shoulder whenever she left the cabin; within her quarters, he refused to let her out of his sight, and his grass-green eyes were quenched and dark.


"Hello, Mike. I see we've arrived."


"Yes." Henke's reply came out awkwardly, in the tone of someone who didn't know exactly how to respond. There was no obvious stress in Honor's voice; indeed, the reverse was true, but its very lifelessness, its flattened timbre and deadness, made it a stranger's. Henke cleared her throat and managed a smile. "I've run a little interference with the newsies, Honor. If we can get you aboard fast enough, you may make it clear to Nike before they realize you aren't coming in through the main concourse after all."


"Thank you." Honor's lips formed a smile that never touched her eyes. Those dark, ice-cored eyes that never warmed, never seemed to blink even on Agni's range. Henke had no idea how many rounds Honor had fired, but she knew she'd spent at least four hours a day there, every day, and her absolute lack of expression as she punched bullet after bullet through the hearts and heads of human holo targets had terrified Henke. She'd moved like a machine, with a dreadful, economic precision that denied any human feeling, as if her very soul had frozen within her.


Honor Harrington was a killer. She'd always been one; Mike Henke knew that better than most, yet she'd also known that killer streak was controlled by the compassion and gentleness which were far more important parts of Honor. It was channeled by duty and responsibility and, in a sense, it was the complement and consequence alike of her compassion. Honor cared about things; that had made her capacity for violence even greater, in many ways, but it had also made it something she could use at need, not something that used her. It had threatened to break free a time or two, yet it never had. If the whispers from the Blackbird Raid were accurate, it almost had that time, but she'd managed, somehow, to stop it.


This time she didn't even want to, and Henke sensed her terrifying aptitude for destruction as never before. Henke had feared for her sanity; now she knew the truth was almost worse than that. Honor wasn't insane—she simply didn't care. She'd lost not only her sense of balance but any desire to regain it. She wasn't berserk. She was something far more dangerous, for her killer self was in command, inhumanly logical and cruel as a Sphinx winter, utterly devoid of her usual compassion and not at all concerned with consequences.


Honor stood silently, watching her best friend from within her icy walls. She felt Mike's fear for her through her link with Nimitz, and a tiny piece of her heart longed to comfort that fear. Yet it was no more than reflex, too small and lost to be more, and she'd forgotten how to offer comfort, anyway. Perhaps she would remember, someday, but it hardly mattered. All that mattered now was Denver Summervale.


"I suppose I'd better be going," she said after a moment. She held out her hand, and Mike took it. Nimitz let Honor feel the tears burning behind her friend's eyes, and that lost fragment of the woman Paul Tankersley had loved longed to feel her own eyes burn. But she couldn't, and so she squeezed Mike's hand, patted her gently on the shoulder, and left without ever looking back.


* * *


The side party came to attention and saluted when Honor caught the grab bar and swung from the boarding tube's zero gee into Nike's internal gravity. Bosun's pipes wailed, Honor's own hand rose in automatic response, and Eve Chandler stepped forward and held out her hand in welcome. Honor took it, and the diminutive redhead's eyes were dark with compassion and more than a little shock, even fear, as she absorbed her commanding officer's expression.


"Captain," she said quietly. It was a simple greeting, without the condolence she sensed Honor didn't want to hear.


"Eve." Honor nodded to her, then to the side party, and beckoned one of her armsmen forward. "Commander Chandler, this is Major Andrew LaFollet, commanding my Grayson security team." That cold ghost of a smile touched her lips again. "Protector Benjamin sent him along to keep me from doing anything foolish." LaFollet's mouth tightened, but he shook Chandler's hand without comment. "Please introduce him to Colonel Ramirez as soon as convenient. I think they'll find they have quite a bit in common."


"Of course, Ma'am," Chandler murmured.


"Thank you." Honor turned to MacGuiness. "See to getting my gear transferred, please, Mac. I'm going directly to my quarters."


"Yes, Ma'am." Chandler had never heard the steward sound so weary—or worried—and her heart went out to the exhausted, sad-eyed man.


Honor moved forward out of the entry port, headed for the lift, and LaFollet cleared his throat behind her.


"Armsman Candless," he said quietly, and James Candless came briefly to attention and padded off on Honor's heels. Chandler looked at the major, and he shrugged. "I'm sorry, Commander, but I have my orders."


"I see." Chandler gazed at him a moment longer, and then her expression softened. "I do see," she said more quietly, with a different emphasis, "and we're all concerned for her. We'll work something out, Major."


"I hope so, Commander," LaFollet murmured, watching the lift carry his Steadholder away. "I hope to God the Tester we do."


* * *


The cabin hatch closed, sealing Honor away from Candless and her normal sentry. She felt a vague sense of guilt for failing to introduce the two men to one another or explain Candless's presence to the Marine, but there was too little of her left to spare for things like that.


She stood looking around the cabin, and dry-eyed agony twisted despite her armor as her gaze touched the holo cube on her desk. Paul smiled at her from it, laughing, wind whipping his ponytail while he held his flight helmet in the crook of his arm and the needle nose of a Javelin gleamed behind him.


She crossed to the desk. Her hand trembled as she lifted the holo cube, staring down at it, longing for the tears that would not come. Her mouth quivered, and her fingers tightened, but still her frozen soul refused to weep. All she could do was close her eyes and press the cube to her breasts, rocking it like the stony heart of all her loss and pain.


She never knew how long she stood there while Nimitz huddled against the side of her neck, keening softly and stroking her cheek with a delicate true-hand. She only knew she couldn't do anything else—and that she lacked the courage to open her sleeping cabin's hatch. There was too much agony beyond it, too many treacherous reminders of joy. She couldn't face that. Not now. It would break her, and she dared not break before she did what she had to do, and so she stood, a black-and-gold-uniformed statue frozen at the corner of her desk, until the admittance chime sounded behind her.


She inhaled sharply, nostrils flaring. Then she set the holo cube gently back on her desk. She ran a fingertip down Paul's smiling face like a kiss and pressed the com key.


"Yes?" The quaver in her voice surprised her, and she crushed it in a grip of ice.


"Colonel Ramirez, Ma'am," her Marine sentry said.


"I don't—" She stopped herself. She didn't want to face Ramirez. He'd been Paul's second, and she knew him too well. Knew he blamed himself and expected her to share his self-condemning verdict. She didn't, but dealing with his guilt would open her own wounds wider, threaten her armor. Yet if she refused him admittance it might seem she did blame him. He deserved better of her, and when she had so little left she could give her own conscience refused to let her withhold it.


She drew another deep breath and straightened with a sigh.


"Thank you, Private," she said. She touched the button to open the hatch and turned to face it.


Tomas Ramirez looked even worse than she'd feared, and she braced herself as he stopped just inside the hatch and it closed behind him.


"Dame Honor, I—" he began, but she raised a hand.


"Don't, Tomas," she said as gently as the ice about her heart allowed. She knew she sounded mechanical, uncaring, and crossed to him. She rested one hand on his arm, trying to break through to herself in order to reach out to him and knowing she'd failed. "You were Paul's friend. I know that, and I know it wasn't your fault. Paul wouldn't blame you for what happened . . . and neither do I."


Ramirez bit his lip. A tear glittered at the corner of his eye, another of those tears she couldn't shed, and he bent his head for just a moment. Then he drew a deep, shuddering breath and looked up once more. Their eyes met, and she saw the understanding in his, the knowledge that this was the very best she could do and his acceptance of it.


"Thank you, Ma'am," he said softly.


She patted his arm and walked around her desk. She sank into her chair and gestured for him to take one facing her while she eased Nimitz down into her lap. The 'cat curled tightly, burying his muzzle against her while he radiated his love for her. It hurt, like a hammer chipping at the anesthetic shield of her detachment, but she stroked his spine slowly and gently.


"I realize you've just returned, Ma'am," Ramirez said after a moment, "and I apologize for intruding, but there's something you need to know before you . . . do anything else."


Honor smiled without humor at his choice of words. Tomas Ramirez had been with her on Blackbird. If anyone in the galaxy knew what "anything else" she intended to do, it was he.


"Last week," the colonel went on, "Major Hibson and I carried out a training exercise on Gryphon." Honor felt a slight stir of interest and raised an eyebrow, wondering how they'd gotten to Gryphon with Nike still in dock.


"Captain McKeon and Commander Venizelos were kind enough to assist us by transporting the battalion to Manticore-B," Ramirez went on, and she felt a stronger stir of interest, a sharpening as something about his tone probed at her icy cocoon. "The exercise was a general success, Ma'am, but we suffered a nav systems failure aboard my command pinnace. I'm afraid we landed several hundred klicks from our intended LZ—there was a severe blizzard in the exercise area, which probably contributed to our navigation error—and it took me some hours to rejoin the rest of the battalion."


"I see." Honor tipped her chair back with a slight frown as Ramirez paused. "May I ask why you're telling me this?" she said finally.


"Well, Ma'am, it just happened that our actual landing site was very close to a hunting chalet. Naturally, my party and I proceeded to the chalet in hopes of discovering exactly where we were so that we could rejoin the exercise. It was pure coincidence, of course, but, well, Ma'am, it seems Denver Summervale was vacationing at that same chalet."


Honor's chair snapped upright, and Ramirez swallowed at the sudden, savage glitter of her eyes.


"Is he still there, Colonel?" she half-whispered, her half-mad gaze ravenous on his face, and he swallowed again.


"I don't know, Ma'am," he said very carefully, "but in the course of our conversation, he . . . volunteered certain information." He reached into his tunic pocket and laid a recording chip on Honor's desk, refusing to look away from her frightening eyes.


"He said—" Ramirez paused and cleared his throat. "Ma'am, he said he was hired. He was paid to kill Captain Tankersley . . . and you."


"Paid?" Honor stared at him, and a silent tremor ran through her. Her chill armor shivered, cracking ever so slightly as heat flared suddenly within her. She'd never heard of Denver Summervale before he killed Paul. She'd assumed he must have acted for some personal reason of his own, but this—


"Yes, Ma'am. Paid to kill both of you," Ramirez reemphasized. "But he was hired to kill Captain Tankersley first."


First. Someone had wanted Paul killed first, and the way Ramirez said it echoed and reechoed through her, battering at the ice. It hadn't been the uncaringly cruel act of an impersonal universe to punish her for loving. It had been deliberate. Someone wanted her dead, and before she died, he wanted to hurt her as hideously as he possibly could. Someone had paid for Paul's legal murder as a weapon against her.


Nimitz snarled upright in her lap, fur bristling, tail belled and claws bared, and she felt her armor crumbling in ruin, felt the terrible heat of her own fury blasting away her detachment. And even as her rage roared higher within her, she knew. She knew who it had to be, the only person who was sick and sadistic enough, who hated her enough to have Paul killed. She knew, but she only stared at Ramirez, willing him to confirm it.


"He was hired, Ma'am," the colonel said softly, "by the Earl of North Hollow."


 



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