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Chapter Twenty-Six

"Ready, Jared?"


"Just a second, My Lady. I— Ah!" Jared Sutton finally got the carryall sealed and slung its strap over his shoulder. "Now I'm ready, My Lady. One flag lieutenant, reporting for escort duty."


He grinned, and Honor shook her head. Jared had no official business coming along tonight, but she was grateful he'd volunteered. Adam was loaded to near-capacity with his own mini-comp, data chips, and miniature HD unit, but he'd also brought along complete hardcopy documentation of every stage of the Mueller project and his study teams' conclusions. That ran to over thirty kilos of paper, which Jared had offered to carry for her.


"I appreciate this, Jared," she said gravely as she scooped Nimitz from his perch and set him on her shoulder. The 'cat had snapped back more quickly from their shared, killing depression than she had, and he bleeked a cheerful endorsement of her thanks to the flag lieutenant.


"My Lady, you once told me a flag lieutenant was the most overworked and underappreciated member of an admiral's staff. Well, you've been mighty generous about not overworking me, and you don't kick me too often. The least I can do is play porter for you on a night this important."


Honor smiled and started to say something more, then settled for patting his shoulder and turned to survey the rest of her party.


MacGuiness had Adam looking almost human again. He'd had the Harrington House staff collect several changes of clothing from the engineer's senior wife and fly them up to Terrible, and he'd almost sat on the younger man to make him eat properly. Honor knew from experience what too many stims did to a person, and she was grateful for the way Mac had fussed over Adam. Of course, he'd had plenty of practice fussing over her, hadn't he?


Eddy Howard, the third man of her usual "travel" detachment, was down with a virus, but Arthur Yard was substituting for him, and he, Andrew LaFollet, and Jamie Candless had taken special pains with their always perfect appearance. Her armsmen had shared the communal sense of guilt which had enveloped Harrington Steading after the Mueller disaster, and the knowledge that it hadn't been Sky Domes' fault had done wonders for them. More, they saw the special session of the Keys as the first step in vindicating their Steadholder and punishing the men who'd deliberately planned that atrocity to destroy her, and there was a grim, hard light in their eyes at the prospect.


Reverend Hanks wore his customary clerical black with the round, white collar, and Honor cocked her head.


"Reverend, I've always meant to ask—what is that collar made of?"


"An ancient and well-kept secret, My Lady," Hanks said gravely, then chuckled. "As a matter of fact, it's celluloid. Old-fashioned, stiff, sweaty celluloid. Ever since I became Reverend, I've toyed with the notion of changing it, but I suppose I'm more a creature of tradition than my critics think. Besides, a little mortification is good for the flesh, as long as you don't get carried away."


Honor laughed, then squared her shoulders. She wasn't wearing uniform tonight, for she was in her persona as Steadholder, not Admiral, and she was just as glad. She had no special desire to mortify her flesh—though, now that she considered it, that was a remarkably apt description of the GSN's uniform. Besides, it was important that she not seem to be hiding behind her naval rank . . . and it wouldn't hurt to soothe the traditionalists' sensibilities by refraining from appearing in Steadholders' Hall in trousers.


"All right, gentlemen. Let's be about it," she said, and LaFollet nodded to Candless to open the hatch.


* * *


Edward Martin tried to grind his tension into submission as the air car sped south, but they were over ocean now, approaching the southernmost continent of Goshen, and the retired Burdette armsman felt the shuddery wings of fear beating in his belly.


Yet it was only natural to feel fear, he told himself, for the time had come for him to meet the Test of his life and return that life to Him Who had created it. He accepted that, but the body's physical fear was something not even faith could completely overcome and no cause for shame. God had given Man fear to warn him of danger, and so long as a man didn't let that natural fear deter him from doing God's will, God asked no more of him, and his welcome in the arms of the Lord was certain.


He glanced at the man in the seat beside him. Austin Taylor was nineteen years younger than he, and his own anxiety was obvious, but Austin had already proven his faith, working as one of the men who'd brought about the collapse of the harlot's project in Mueller. Martin had reached the rank of sergeant in the Burdette Steadholder's Guard before a broken leg that never quite healed properly retired him, and that had barred him from the Sky Domes infiltration teams. Brother Marchant had explained why they could risk no connection between any man who might be caught and the Steadholder, and, in truth, Martin was glad of it. He was willing to lay down his own life for the Faith, yet he thanked his God for sparing him the more terrible task He had demanded of Austin and his fellows. One could harden one's soul to slay men in the service of Satan's handmaiden, but children, little children—


Martin bit his lip and blinked on angry tears. God had willed it. It was He Who'd chosen the time for the collapse, knowing—as He knew all things—that those children would be present, and their innocent souls had been gathered to His bosom, the agony and terror of their last moments of life soothed away by the merciful touch of the Almighty. In their innocence, they'd been spared the harsher task God demanded of Edward Martin: the taking of a human life, be it ever so lost to sin, and the knowing sacrifice of his own.


He glanced down at his sleeve and grimaced. He'd always been proud of his Burdette uniform, but tonight he wore another, one whose very sight he loathed. He knew why he had to wear it, yet simply donning the green-on-green of the harlot's own Guard defiled him, for it represented all the evils Satan had brought to pass on Grayson.


His nostrils flared with contempt for the so-called Churchmen who'd let themselves be seduced into abandoning God's way like so many whores, but then he shook his head, instantly contrite for his own lack of charity. Most of the Elders were good and godly men, he knew. He'd once met Reverend Hanks when the Reverend had celebrated services in Burdette Cathedral, and he understood why the Reverend was so beloved. The depth of his personal faith had cried out to Martin, and he'd felt an instant—a fleeting instant, but real—when the Reverend's faith had linked with his, making his own belief an even brighter and more glorious thing. But neither of them had known then the snare that Satan would lay before the Reverend's feet, he thought grimly. Indeed, Edward Martin's greatest anger was reserved for whatever wile of Satan had led a decent, God-fearing man like Julius Hanks into such error. How could a man like that not see that inciting wives and daughters to turn upon husbands and fathers, rejecting the Faith under which Grayson had endured for almost a thousand years as God's Own planet, was the Devil's work? What sorcery had that foreign harlot worked upon him to make him overlook even the mortal sin of her fornication outside marriage's sanctified bounds? A fornication she'd publicly admitted—boasted of!—when another man of God charged her to repent her sins? How had she blinded the Reverend to the effect that example would have on other women? The mortal peril to their very souls into which it must tempt them?


Martin knew some men treated their wives and daughters badly, yet that was because Man was fallible, and it was the duty of other men and the Church to censure and punish such behavior, just as they would punish any who victimized the weak. He was even willing to admit Protector Benjamin might have some good ideas. Perhaps it was time to relax the outdated laws an older, harsher time had required, to permit women to seek genteel employment, even to vote. But to force them to shoulder burdens God had never meant them to bear, even to serve in the military? Edward Martin knew what military life was like, for he'd lived it for eighteen proud, grueling years, and no woman could live like that and remain what God had intended her to be. Look at Harrington herself—the best possible example of how it coarsened and defiled them!


No, he told himself, Reverend Hanks had been deceived, tricked into approving the changes the Protector demanded. The Reverend's admiration for Harrington's courage—and, Martin admitted, there was no gainsaying the woman's bravery—blinded him to her sins and the corrupt message they proclaimed to Grayson. But even the best men made mistakes, and God never held it against them if they acknowledged their errors and turned once more to Him. That was the entire purpose of the sacrifice Martin was about to make this night, and he prayed—prayed with all his heart—that Reverend Hanks and the other Elders would embrace their God once more when the corruption poisoning their souls had been cleansed at last.


* * *


All navies seem convinced of the need to make an astounding amount of fuss whenever an admiral leaves her flagship in order to sufficiently emphasize the importance of such an august personage. When the admiral in question is also a great feudal lady, things can get truly involved.


Honor had allowed for it in the schedule, and she maintained a properly grave expression as she walked through the inspection the honor guard expected of her, then took her farewell of Captain Yu. It was all as gravely formal as if she meant never to return rather than be back aboard in barely six hours, but she knew better than to complain.


The bugle fanfare announced her official departure as she swung into the boarding tube, but at least she'd gotten them to aim it in a different direction, though the bugler had looked a bit hurt by her tactful request. She smiled at the thought, now that no one could see her face, and swam down the tube, trailed at an unusually discreet distance by her armsman, given what zero-gee did to her ridiculous gown.


Her smile became an urchin's grin at that thought, and then she swung into the pinnace's gravity and adjusted her skirts before she moved forward. The pinnace had started life as a standard RMN Mark Thirty, designed to land a half-company of Marines on a hostile surface and/or give them fire support once they were down. It still retained the capability for the latter mission, but a superdreadnought's small craft capacity was great enough that the GSN had decided to gut the troop compartment of one of each SD's pinnaces and refit it as a VIP transport. The results were downright opulent, with double-wide aisles—something Honor appreciated at the moment. Her key of office's chain had gotten tangled with the ribbon of the Star of Grayson while she swam the tube, and it was a relief to have an aisle wide enough to let her look down while she disentangled them without tripping over things. She completed the task, then slipped into her seat and looked up at the flight engineer.


"How's the schedule?"


"We're looking good, My Lady. In fact, we're running a bit ahead. I'm afraid there's going to be a five-minute delay before we undock."


"Why am I not surprised?" she murmured, and glanced across the aisle to watch Adam Gerrick settle into his seat. Nimitz curled comfortably down in her lap, and she looked over her shoulder at Sutton.


The flag lieutenant was struggling to get the carryall into the overhead luggage compartment, and her eyes twinkled as he muttered something she wasn't supposed to hear. She considered teasing him about it, but the side of his face she could see was already red with embarrassment, and she decided to show clemency. Lieutenants would feel neglected if their admirals never gave them problems, but there was a time and a place for everything.


Reverend Hanks settled into the seat beside her as his rank demanded, and she shook her head.


"It would be a lot simpler to just go straight to Austin City," she observed quietly, and he snorted.


"And violate a thousand years of tradition, My Lady? Never! A steadholder flies to the capital in his—or her—official vehicle from his—or her—official residence. Tester only knows what would happen if we suggested that the practice can be a bit, um, inefficient!"


"Even if it means spending two extra hours each way in an air car?"


"I will agree your steading's distance from Austin makes it a bit more difficult, My Lady, but that's all I'm prepared to agree to. Someone might report me if I admitted anything more."


Honor laughed and then leaned back in her seat as the pinnace abruptly shivered. The mechanical docking arms unlatched, and the pilot drifted the small craft free on a gentle puff of belly thrusters, then backed out of the bay stern-first. Undocking was a routine maneuver, but he accomplished it with an effortless grace, and Honor nodded in approval as he turned the pinnace's nose planetward.


* * *


"We're late," Taylor said, and Martin nodded tensely. Brother Marchant's followers had done unbelievably well to assemble all they needed for the mission as quickly as they had, but they'd had to duplicate Harrington uniforms, paint an air car in official Harrington colors, and cobble up IDs that could pass muster. Without the practice they'd had preparing covers for the people they'd inserted into the Sky Domes crews they could never have gotten it done in time.


Only, Martin thought, glaring at the dash chrono, they hadn't done it in time—not quite. The blur of surf that marked the rocky northern headlands of Goshen was still invisible in the darkness ahead of them, and the flight plan one of the Burdette Space Facility controllers had pulled from Orbital Control gave them less than eighty more minutes to get into position. They'd need seventy of those minutes just to reach Harrington Space Facility, and if they hit even the slightest delay getting onto the grounds—


"We'll never get the car through the traffic control points in time. We'll have to go to the backup plan and ditch it at the west gate," he said, thinking aloud for Austin's benefit. Taylor nodded tautly. HSF was Grayson's newest space facility. It was over ten kilometers from Harrington City, and the usual clutter of service establishments only just now growing up around it was concentrated to the east, between it and the steading's capital.


"I don't like leaving the car," the younger man said after a pause. "The launcher's going to be pretty obvious, Ed."


"Then we'll just have to be sure no one sees us," Martin replied, trying to coax a little more speed from his turbines as the coastline finally appeared before them.


* * *


The ride down was taking longer than usual because of who the pinnace's passengers were. Orbital Control had cleared a special security corridor for it, and its flight path had been planned for a gentle atmospheric insertion, but Honor rather wished they'd opted for a shorter flight, even at the expense of a little roughness. She needed to meet with Sky Domes' other engineers before she left for Steadholders' Hall, and time was short, but there was no point fretting over what couldn't be changed, she reminded herself.


* * *


Martin and Taylor parked their air car in a bay just out of sight of the west personnel gate and took the time to lock it. Its interior didn't match a real HSG car's, and they couldn't risk someone noticing that and sounding an alarm.


The ex-sergeant glanced at his chrono and swore softly as he pocketed the keys. He'd gotten a little more speed out of the car than he'd hoped, but they had less than twelve minutes to get into position, and that was cutting things too tight. He felt a moment of panic, but then he forced it down. They were about God's work. He would see to it that they met His schedule.


"Give me your ID," he said. Taylor handed the folio over, and Martin drew his own from his breast pocket. "Stay behind me and try to keep your body between the guard and the launcher."


"I'll try, Ed, but—"


Martin nodded. The weapon was one of the accursed Manticorans' latest designs—there was a certain sweetness in that thought—for a portable, shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missile, and like all such weapons, it used its own impeller wedge rather than a warhead to destroy its target. Of course, the drive which could be crammed into a portable weapon produced a wedge smaller than those of larger vehicle- or aircraft-mounted missiles, which reduced its lethal zone and put a correspondingly greater premium on accuracy. But it also meant the weapon was small enough that its carrying case could—barely—be forced into an outsized civilian carryall. That, unfortunately, was a mixed blessing, since armsmen had no business carrying civilian luggage on duty. Well, if the gate guard pressed the point they could always claim Austin was delivering it for a friend before he checked in.


He drew a deep breath and headed for the personnel gate at the best pace he could manage without looking too obviously hurried. If I find myself too busy to remember You properly, Lord, he prayed silently, do not forget me. I am about Your work. Guide me, that my actions may save Your people from sin and damnation.


* * *


Honor glanced back out the view port. Even in the darkness, she saw water gleaming below and recognized the Goshen Sea. Good! The diamond-shaped sea cut deep into the continent of the same name from the northwest, and Harrington City lay at its eastern end. If the sea was below her, she'd be home in another ten minutes, so perhaps she'd have time for that meeting after all.


* * *


The single guard was even younger than Austin—an armsman first class, but so new he squeaked—and that was good, for Martin wore a captain's insignia. It was a higher rank than he'd ever expected to hold, but coupled with his age, it should make him a reassuringly senior presence and help defuse any doubts the youngster might have.


"Good evening, Armsman," he said briskly as he stepped fully into the illumination cast by the gate lights.


"Good evening, Sir!" The Afc snapped to attention and saluted, and Martin returned it.


"Lonely out here," he remarked as he handed over the two ID folios.


"Yes, Sir, it is," the Harrington replied. He opened the first ID and glanced at it, then looked up to match Martin's face to it. "Lonely, I mean," he went on as he closed Martin's ID and opened Taylor's, "but my re—"


He paused suddenly, and Martin's belly tensed as he looked up. Austin had stepped into the light—he'd had no choice but to come forward so the Harrington could check his face against his ID—and the carryall was damnably evident. The sentry gazed at it for a moment, then shrugged and looked back down at the ID, and Martin relaxed . . . only to tense anew as the Harrington stiffened. The youngster was looking at him now, and then his eyes flipped back to Austin. Not at the carryall this time, but at something else.


At, Martin suddenly realized, Austin's gun belt. His own eyes dropped to the Harrington's sidearm, and his jaw tightened as he saw the sleek, lethal pulser. It was a modern weapon, too expensive for most steadholders to have reequipped their armsmen with . . . and totally unlike the old-fashioned machine pistols he and Austin carried.


This possibility had occurred to none of their planners—it was always the simple damned things that tripped people up—but he didn't take time to think about it. The Harrington had just started to step back, his own mind still grappling with the implications of what his eye had seen but his brain had not yet fully assimilated, when Martin struck.


There was no time to be gentle, and his eyes were hard as his knuckles smashed into the young armsman's throat. The Harrington's head flew back with a horrible, choking gurgle. His hands went to his throat in an involuntary reflex of agony, and Martin carried through with the attack. The young man was probably already dying of a crushed larynx, a corner of his mind told him, but his right leg swept the Harrington's feet from under him and his hands darted out. They caught the sentry's head and twisted explosively against the angle of his fall, and the sharp, crunching snap of a broken neck was shockingly loud in the silent night.


"Shit!" Taylor whispered, and Martin shot him a glare. This was no time for obscenity, he thought, and knew even as he did what a stupid thing it was to think.


He lowered the twitching body gently, smelling the sewer smell of a death-relaxed sphincter, and grimaced as he dragged the corpse out of the light. It was cruel how death robbed even the best men of dignity, and a heartfelt stab of remorse went through him. This young man had served a sinful mistress, but that was hardly his fault, and he'd done his duty well.


"May God forgive me—and you," he whispered to the corpse, then beckoned sharply to Taylor and led the way through the gate.


* * *


"Five minutes, My Lady," the flight engineer announced, and Honor nodded.


"It'll be nice to get down, My Lady." Hanks sighed beside her. "I mean no disrespect, but I've lived on a planet all my life, and while your flagship is a splendid vessel, I prefer solid ground under my feet."


* * *


The position wasn't perfect, but it was the best Martin could expect to find, and it wasn't as if they had to worry about target identification. The harlot was Harrington's Steadholder; all other traffic in and out of HSF had been shut down for fifteen minutes on either side of her arrival as a security measure, and they knew the bearing from which her pinnace would approach.


The ex-sergeant went down on one knee in the dense, black shadow of the parked air lorry, pistol in hand, and scanned the field nervously while Taylor unpacked the missile and attached the sighting unit to the launcher.


* * *


Senior Corporal Anthony Whitehead, HSG, was in a hurry. All the scurrying about to prepare for the Steadholder's arrival had delayed him, and he was over fifteen minutes late for the gate change. He had no doubt Armsman Sully wondered where the hell he was, and he couldn't blame the kid.


He half-jogged around the last bend, the better to show Sully that even NCOs were aware of their obligations, then slowed to a halt, and his sympathy disappeared into instant anger. Damn it to hell, where was he? Just because a man's relief was a little late was no reason to go dashing off and leave his post unguarded! When he got his hands on that young twerp, he'd—


His mental tirade broke off as his cognitive processes caught up with his instant anger. Frederick Sully was no "twerp." Young, yes, but well trained and sharp. He'd made Afc in record time, and Whitehead and his platoon sergeant had their eyes on him for further promotion. There was no way Sully would just wander off with the entire facility on a heightened alert level. Feelings were running high, and the Steadholder's armsmen had no intention of taking chances with her life.


But if he hadn't wandered, then—


The corporal snatched out his com.


"Security alert! This is Corporal Whitehead at Gate Five! I've just arrived on-site, and there's no sign of the sentry!" Something poked at his mind, and he scowled, then swore as something he'd seen without seeing it flashed through his brain. "Central, Whitehead. There's an HSG air car parked out here on the hangar apron, Bay Seven-Niner-Three. Was that cleared?"


His answer was the sudden, strident howl of security alarms throughout the facility.


* * *


"Sweet Tester!" Taylor gasped as sirens began to scream, and Martin bit back a matching expletive as he remembered what the dead guard had said. It was lonely, "but my re—" His relief, of course!


"W-What do we d-do, Ed?" Taylor stuttered, and the ex-sergeant gave him a steady look.


"We do God's work," he said quietly through the alarms' howl, "and if it's His will that we escape alive, we do that, too. Arm your launcher."


* * *


Master Chief Coxswain Gilbert Troubridge was Navy, not a member of the Harrington Guard, but the GSN did not encourage its pilots to take chances with the safety of flag officers. More to the point, Troubridge was as aware as anyone of the high state of tension on the planet, and his com was tied into both the HSF and HSG nets.


"Security alert?" He turned in his seat to glare at the com tech. "What kind of security alert, damn it?"


"I don't know, Gil," the rating replied tautly. "Some HSG corporal just came up on the air. Something about an unguarded gate."


"Shit!" The pinnace was already on final. If he had to abort, his counter-grav could take him up like a homesick meteor, but with no more information than he had, he couldn't know if that was necessary. Or, for that matter, a good idea.


Master Chief Troubridge made a decision. A Fleet pinnace's active tactical sensors would play hell with HSF's navigation and control systems, but he had an admiral who also happened to be a steadholder onboard.


His finger stabbed a button on his flight console.


* * *


"Seeking . . . seeking . . . seeking . . ." Taylor's singsong chant sawed at Martin's nerves, but he forced himself not to shout at the younger man to be silent. Neither of them was likely to live another ten minutes, and he would not go to God having cursed a man seeking to do His will.


"Acquisition!" Taylor cried suddenly, and squeezed the stud.


* * *


"Missile launch—zero-zero-ten!" Troubridge's copilot shouted, and the master chief's belly turned to frozen lead. Impeller drive. Had to be from the accel. Coming up at over forty degrees.


The data snapped into his brain, and he knew there was no way he could climb out of its path. In fact, there was only one thing he could do.


He killed the counter-grav and dove straight for the ground.


* * *


"Sweet Tester!" the senior controller in HSF Flight Ops gasped. There was no exhaust flare from an impeller-drive missile, and his instrumentation was too badly hashed by the pinnace's sensor emissions for him to tell precisely where it had come from, but he knew what it was, and he stabbed a button that dropped his mike into the HSF security net as well as its link to Lady Harrington's pinnace.


"SAM launch, somewhere on the west approach apron!"


"My God—at the Steadholder?" someone else shouted from behind him, but the controller didn't even look up. His horrified eyes were locked to the pinnace's plunging radar return.


* * *


Honor's head flew up as the pinnace suddenly lurched, then fell heavily off to port and dove vertically. For a moment she thought the pilot had lost it, but then she heard the scream of air-breathing turbines rammed to full power and realized the pinnace was still veering sharply left. It was an intentional maneuver, but why—?


Nimitz reared up in her lap, and she locked her arms about him, then bent her body across his in instant, protective reaction. She freed one arm from the 'cat to reach out and jerk Reverend Hanks' head down, and that was absolutely all she could do.


 



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