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Chapter Six

Honor Harrington prowled her quarters moodily, movements quick and abrupt, hands shoved deep into her tunic pockets, and her slouched shoulders were tight with a frustration that had no way to strike back. Nimitz watched her from his bulkhead perch above her desk, flicking the very tip of his prehensile tail, but MacGuiness had staged a strategic withdrawal after a single abortive attempt at conversation. Honor knew he had, and why, and it only increased her anger and frustration. Not that she blamed him.


She sighed and flopped down on the padded seat beneath her enormous cabin view port. Her quarters were on Nike's outboard side as the wounded battlecruiser nuzzled up against HMSS Hephaestus' ungainly, mothering bulk, and there was always plenty to see from Manticore orbit. The port offered her an unobstructed panorama of pinprick stars, orbital warehouses and transfer platforms, and the glittering motes of passing traffic. The capital planet's huge solar power receptors were distant, brilliant jewels of reflected sunlight, and Thorson, Manticore's moon, gleamed white as Hephaestus' geosynchronous orbit swept it across Honor's field of view. Under normal circumstances, she could have sat and watched for hours, wrapped in the semi-hypnotic delight of the universe's unending ballet, but not even that gorgeous starscape could lighten her mood today.


She grimaced and ran harried fingers through her hair. The Admiralty had released the official after-action report on the Battle of Hancock two days after her dinner at Cosmo's, and she'd been forced within hours to order George Monet, her com officer, to refuse all nonofficial com access as the only way to stem the tidal wave of interview requests. It was even worse than after Basilisk or Yeltsin's Star, but not even Basilisk had included such nasty political overtones as this one, she thought despairingly. News of Pavel Young's court-martial had been released at the same Admiralty press conference, and the scent of blood was in the water.


Honor didn't like newsies. She disliked the way they over-simplified and trivialized the news almost as much as she detested their sensationalism and the way they trampled on the most rudimentary concepts of courtesy to pursue a story. She was willing to concede they had a function, and the teeth Parliament had given the Privacy Act of 14 A.L. normally prevented the brutal intrusiveness societies like the Solarian League tolerated, but any vestige of restraint had vanished on this one. Young's court-martial had provoked a feeding frenzy that suggested most editors were willing to risk the near certain (and expensive) loss of an invasion of privacy suit as long as their reporters got the story.


The media were after all of Nike's people, rabid for any shred of a firsthand account to flesh out the Admiralty's bare-bones report of the battle and the incidents leading to what promised to be a spectacular trial, but they'd gone after Nike's captain with special fervor . . . and not just about events in Hancock. Every detail of Honor's past—and Young's, she conceded—had been exhumed and plastered across every newsfax in the Kingdom, along with equally detailed, usually inaccurate, and almost invariably tasteless analyses and speculation. Every documented incident, every rumor, of the hostility between her and Young had become front-page news. Some of the services had even gone clear back to her childhood on Sphinx, and one particularly obnoxious team of reporters had cornered her parents in their surgical offices. They'd gotten in by claiming to be patients, then badgered both Doctors Harrington—and any other staff member who came in range—with personal questions until her mother lost her temper, screened the police, and had them charged with privacy violation. Honor had been livid when she heard about it, nor had she cooled off much since, and her own situation was even worse. Half the capital planet's news corps had infested Hephaestus, lurking like Sphinx spider lizards in passages and spacedock galleries on the off chance that she might set toe aboard the space station.


The whole thing appalled her. Not just because of the overpowering omni-intrusiveness, but because of the incredibly partisan way the story was being reported. The media were treating it like a gladiatorial circus, as if Young's court-martial somehow crystallized the Kingdom's anxieties. All the last half-T-century's growing fear of the People's Republic, the sense of defiance and victory stemming from the opening battles, and the uncertainty of the ongoing political crisis seemed to have focused on Young's trial . . . and on her. Reporters, analysts, academics, the person in the street—all of them were choosing up sides, and Honor Harrington was right in the middle.


She wasn't surprised by the way Opposition newsfaxes and the services controlled by the Hauptman Cartel were inveighing against her, but the pro-Government 'faxes and commentators who'd made themselves her champions were almost worse. Hearing herself referred to as "this Kingdom's most courageous naval hero" was agonizingly embarrassing, but at least half of them seemed to have seized upon her as some sort of shining paladin with whom to bludgeon the "obstructionist Opposition." Political analysts of all stripes opined that the Young court-martial would make or break the Cromarty Government's chance to secure a declaration of war, and there'd actually been mass demonstrations—with people waving placards with her picture on them!—outside Parliament.


It was a nightmare, and she'd become a virtual prisoner on Nike since the moment the story broke. She'd promised her Queen she wouldn't discuss the charges against Young; even if she hadn't, Pavel Young was the last thing she would willingly have discussed under any circumstances. Talking about her own accomplishments like some vainglorious twit was almost equally repugnant, and even if it hadn't been, she'd always hated—and feared—cameras.


Honor was still grappling with the novel concept that she might be attractive. Paul Tankersley had made enough progress in convincing her she'd outgrown the sharp-faced homeliness of her adolescence that she could accept, intellectually, that he was right, that hers was a face which improved with maturity. But the early age at which the current generation of the prolong treatment was first applied meant the improvement process had taken decades, and he'd only been working on her for a few months. That wasn't much set against a lifetime's ugly-duckling mentality, and she was still far from accepting his judgment that she was "beautiful," even if Nimitz's ability to tap Paul's emotions proved he believed it. Honor couldn't remember a single photo of herself, flatpix or dimensional, that she liked, and she still felt herself go stiff and wooden whenever anyone pointed a camera her way.


It wasn't fair, she thought bitterly, and kicked a hassock clear across the cabin without even rising from her seat. She shouldn't have to put herself in solitary to avoid a flock of self-important, officious busybodies who wanted to turn her into a central player in a political confrontation that threatened the Kingdom's very survival just to increase their viewership! And the ones who were portraying her as some sort of Machiavellian manipulator out to "get" Pavel Young, as if this were all somehow her fault, her idea—!


Nimitz's hiss was a soft, angry sibilance, echoing her own fury. He reared up on his true-feet, ears flat, ivory claws unsheathed, and she looked up in quick repentance. She rose and lifted him down, crooning to him as she hugged him to her breasts, and his dangerous, quivering tension eased. He made another sound—more grumpy than angry this time—and she nipped one pricked ear gently, then chuckled as he put up a long-fingered true-hand to pat her cheek. He stroked her face, his hostility toward those who were making her life a misery pouring into her through their telempathic link, and she cuddled him tighter, burying her nose in his soft, clean-smelling fur while she tried not to feel fresh resentment for his sake, as well as her own.


The reporters hounding her were hounding him, too. They might not realize it (assuming they would have cared if they had), but his empathic sense made him particularly sensitive to the predatory pack mentality that went with the media's pursuit. That was one reason for her self-imposed immurement. Another of the shouted "press conferences" that had ambushed her at Nike's main docking tube yesterday would have driven the 'cat into a fury with decidedly unpleasant consequences . . . especially for the newsies.


Treecats were direct and uncomplicated souls who didn't quite grasp the concept of measured response, and, despite their small size, they were formidably armed. Nimitz had more experience dealing with humans than most of his kind, but she'd still found herself busy restraining a double armful of hissing, snarling, bare-clawed 'cat as she fought her way out of the shouting throng and fled back down the tube. Nor had that been all, for Eve Chandler and Tomas Ramirez had doubled the sentries on the station ends of all Nike's docking tubes the minute the story broke. Honor's Marines knew Nimitz, and they'd recognized his distress and covered her retreat with more energy than tact. In fact, one reporter who'd attempted to force his way aboard in pursuit had suffered abrasions, contusions, and a certain amount of dental damage when he "accidentally" collided with a pulse rifle's butt. Honor supposed she should reprimand whoever that rifle had belonged to. Fortunately for her sense of duty, the confusion had been too intense for the gallery surveillance systems to tell her which Marine it had been . . . and if there'd been any witnesses, she had no intention of finding them.


She eased Nimitz back onto his perch and took another turn around the cabin. This was ridiculous. She was the captain of a Queen's ship, not a felon hiding from the police! She should be able to come and go without—


A soft, clear chime sounded, and she wheeled toward the hatch with something all too much like one of Nimitz's snarls. The chime sounded again, and she drew a deep breath and forced her instant, uncharacteristic anger back under control. After all, she told herself with a tired smile, it wasn't like the newsies could get aboard Nike . . . as at least one of them could testify.


Her smile deepened, and she ran her hands through her hair once more, settling its disordered, barely shoulder-length curls back into some sort of order, and keyed the intercom.


"Yes?" Her soprano was cool and courteous, almost normal sounding.


"Captain Tankersley, Ma'am," her Marine sentry announced, and Honor's eyes lit with sudden, relieved gladness.


"Thank you, Private O'Shaughnessy," she said, unable to keep her pleasure out of her voice, and opened the hatch.


Tankersley stepped through the opening, then paused and braced himself as he saw her coming. Her long, graceful stride was far quicker than usual, and the hatch barely had time to cycle shut behind him before his arms closed about her and she sighed in profound relief.


She felt the vibration of his chuckle as she pressed her cheek into the soft warmth of his beret, and her own lips quirked. She was a full head taller than he, and she supposed they looked a bit ridiculous, but that couldn't have mattered less to her at the moment.


"You should see the mob camped in the gallery," he told her, hands caressing her spine and shoulders as he held her tightly. "I think there are even more of them now than there were yesterday."


"Thanks a lot," she said dryly, and gave him a quick, answering squeeze before she stood back and drew him down on the couch beside her. He studied her expression for a moment, then laughed softly and cupped the right side of her face in his palm.


"Poor Honor. They're really giving you hell, aren't they, love?"


"An understatement if I ever heard one." Her reply was tart, but his presence had lightened her mood enormously. She caught his hand in both of hers and leaned back against the couch cushions while Nimitz leapt from his perch to the couch arm. The six-limbed 'cat flowed down from there to drape himself across Paul's lap, resting his chin on Honor's thigh, and his buzzing purr rose as Tankersley's free hand stroked his spine.


"Have you been following the circus?" Paul asked after a moment.


"Not likely!" she snorted. He smiled in understanding and squeezed her hand, but his eyes were serious.


"It's getting uglier," he warned. "North Hollow's publicity shills and a certain, loathsome subspecies of parliamentary staffers are getting into it—always as 'anonymous' sources, of course. They're trying to present the whole thing as some sort of personal vendetta on your part, coupled with the strong implication that Cromarty is pushing it to punish the Conservative Association for breaking with the Government over the declaration. Which, of course, the Conservatives did only as a matter of high moral principle."


"Wonderful." Honor closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. "I don't suppose they're mentioning anything Young ever did to me?"


"Some of the services are," Tankersley conceded, "but Young's partisans certainly aren't. You know Crichton, the Palmer Foundation's pet military analyst?" Honor nodded with a grimace, and Tankersley shrugged. "He's claiming Young's the real victim because the Admiralty has been trying to get him ever since Basilisk. According to his version—for which, I trust, he charged High Ridge and North Hollow an arm and a leg each—poor old Young, having been saddled with a defective ship in Basilisk, was turned into a scapegoat by the Admiralty and the Cromarty Government when he was forced to withdraw for repairs. It seems Young didn't do it to get you, nor did his earlier inefficiency on the station contribute in any way to the problems you faced. What really created the dangerous situation in Basilisk was the Admiralty's culpable negligence in assigning only two ships, one on the verge of imminent breakdown, to the picket in the first place."


"Oh, for God's sake!" Honor snapped. "Warlock didn't have any real problems—and downsizing the picket was Janacek's policy!"


"Sure, but you don't expect them to admit the Conservatives created the mess, do you? Especially not when everyone on the Opposition side of the aisle still blames you for how the Government amended the Act of Annexation after the station blew up in your face! You certainly do have a penchant for ticking off politicos, don't you, love?"


There was too much tender amusement in his voice for her to protest or resent the statement. Especially when she knew it was true.


"Look, Paul," she said instead, "if it's all the same to you, I'd really rather not discuss it. As a matter of fact, I'd prefer not even thinking about it—or Young."


"Fair enough." His instant response sounded so penitent she smiled and caught his face between her hands to kiss him. He leaned into it, savoring the taste of her lips, then drew back with a smile of his own.


"Actually, I didn't mean to discuss it at all when I arrived. What I meant to do was issue an invitation."


"An invitation?"


"Absolutely. You need to get out of this cabin, Honor. In fact, you need to get off Nike and leave it all behind for a while, and I, in my ever efficient fashion, have found just the place for you to go. And one with no press, too."


"Where?" Honor demanded. "The weather station on Sidham Island?"


Tankersley laughed and shook his head. Sidham Island, well above Sphinx's arctic circle, was probably the most barren, desolate, and generally godforsaken piece of technically inhabited real estate on any of the Manticore binary system's three habitable planets.


"No, I don't think we're quite that desperate yet. But it is an island. How do you feel about a jaunt to Kreskin Field?"


"Kreskin Field?" Honor twitched upright, eyes suddenly intent. Kreskin Field was the main air facility for Saganami Island, site of the RMN's Naval Academy.


"Exactly," Tankersley said. "I can file the flight plan down in my name, and you know the Academy will cover for you as long as you keep a low profile. The press won't even know you're there, and, frankly, you need to smell some sunshine. Besides," he jerked a thumb at the sailplane etched into a heat-twisted golden plaque on the cabin bulkhead, "haven't you been telling me for months how handy you are in primitive aircraft?"


"I have not," she said indignantly.


"Really?" He scratched his chin in manifest thought. "Must have been Mike, then. But I distinctly remember someone telling me rather boastfully that you hold the all-time Academy sailplane record. Are you saying you don't?"


"Of course I do, you snot." She jabbed for his ribs, but he was expecting it, and his elbow blocked hers neatly.


"I find that hard to believe," he sniffed. "It's always been my observation that small, compact people are better in the air when they can't rely on counter-grav to hold them up."


It was Honor's turn to laugh. Paul was one of the very few people in the universe who could tease her about her height without irritating her.


"Is this a challenge, Captain Tankersley?"


"Oh, no, not a challenge. Just a friendly little match to see who's really best. Of course, I do have a certain advantage. Not only am I one of those small, compact people, but I bet I've been up more recently than you."


"Practicing beforehand, huh? Don't you know that spoils the fun?"


"Spoken like a true barbarian. Interested?"


"Sailplanes or powered?" she demanded.


"Oh, sailplanes are so . . . so passive. Besides, if we used them, you'd have the advantage, not me. No, I talked to Kreskin and they've got a pair of Javelins standing by for us."


"Javelins?" Honor's eyes lit with pure delight, and Tankersley grinned at her. The Javelin advanced trainer was a deliberate technical anachronism: an old-fashioned, variable geometry airfoil jet aircraft with no counter-grav but incredible power. It was small, sleek, and fast, and the Academy instructors had always insisted flying it was even better than sex. Honor couldn't quite agree with that now that she'd met Paul . . . but she was willing to admit it was the next best thing.


"Javelins," Tankersley confirmed. "And," he added enticingly, "they've agreed to midair refueling if we decide we want to stay up a while."


"How in the world did you swing that much flight time? There's always a waiting line for the Javelins!"


"Ah, but I was able to conjure with the name of a famous naval officer. When I told Kreskin Flight Control who I'd be flying wing on—after, of course, swearing them to strictest secrecy—they could hardly wait to roll out the red carpet." Honor blushed, and he flipped the tip of her nose with an affectionate finger. "So how about it, Dame Honor? Game?"


"Bet your life I am!" She scooped Nimitz up with a laugh and set him on her shoulder. "Come on, Stinker—we've got an appointment to pin back someone's ears!"


 


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