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"—no help at all. So since the Navy wasn't available, we've just done the best we could on our own, Commander." Major Barney Isvarian, Medusan Native Protection Agency, was a short, sturdy man. He sat almost painfully erect in the comfortable chair, his Marine background showing in his discomfort at sitting in the presence of a warship's captain, but there was no apology in his face or voice.

"I understand, Major." Honor gestured for steward MacGuiness to replenish Isvarian's coffee cup and sipped her own cocoa, using the mug to cover a sideways glance at Alistair McKeon. The executive officer had said very little while Isvarian listed all the things the Navy hadn't done for Medusa, but she sensed the discomfort lurking behind his stiffly formal facade and wondered if he felt as ashamed as she did.

"All right." She set her mug aside and nodded. "As I understand what you and Dame Estelle are saying, Major Isvarian, your greatest immediate need is for help with inspection of orbital transfers and space-to-ground traffic. Is that correct?"

"Yes, Ma'am." Isvarian shrugged. "As I say, we do our best, but most of us don't really know what to look for . . . or where to find it, if it's hidden. A fair number of us have previous military experience, but it's not the right kind."

Honor nodded again. The NPA's officers and troopers were mainly ex-Army, ex-Marine, or regular police. It wasn't the sort of job which would attract retired Navy personnel, and had the Fleet been doing its job, their skills would have been of little value to the NPA, anyway.

"We know damned well—pardon, Ma'am—that they're getting stuff past us, but we don't know enough about cargo shuttles to find it, and it's even worse aboard ship."

"Understood. I think we'll be able to take care of that part of it, but we're shorthanded. If I can scare up inspection parties for you, do you think the NPA could help us out with flight crews for our cutters?"

"We can do better than that, Ma'am," Isvarian said. "Dame Estelle managed to, ah, find three Fleet pinnaces about a year back, and we've got two boarding shuttles on our official equipment list. I'm pretty sure we can put all five of them at your disposal, with enough NPA types to fill in any holes in their complements."

"Now, that, Major, is good news," Honor said warmly, wondering just how Dame Estelle's people had managed to "find" Fleet small craft. Especially armed ones. But she wasn't about to question such unanticipated good fortune. She'd been afraid Fearless herself would be tied down ferrying her slow, shorter-legged cutters back and forth between parking orbits.

She rubbed the tip of her nose with a forefinger for a moment, thinking hard, then nodded to herself.

"I think we can come up with pilots, boarding officers, and inspection parties for all of them, Major. What we'll need from you will be com officers, flight engineers, and ground-side maintenance personnel. Can do?"

"Can do, Ma'am!" Isvarian grinned as he threw the Royal Manticoran Marine Corps' motto back at her.

"Good. Then I think that only leaves the matter of general traffic control. How have you been handling that?"

"Not very well, Ma'am. We've got a flight center down in the commissioner's compound, but it was really intended for atmospheric control only. Even there, the designers never anticipated the sheer number of off-worlders we've got wandering around these days. We're short on controllers and radar, and diverting what we've got to space control's left an awful lot of Outback airspace completely uncovered."

"I see." Honor glanced at McKeon. "Exec? Suppose we reconfigure a dozen or so survey sats and tie their weather radar into the air traffic control net?"

"We could." This time it was McKeon's turn to rub his nose and frown. "We're making a mighty big dent in our equipment list, Ma'am," he warned.

"I know, but I don't see an option . . . and it's there to be used, Exec."

McKeon nodded, eyes slitted in thought, and Honor wondered if he even realized he'd said "we're" instead of "you're."

"Then I think we can do it, but their radar sets aren't going to get as good a paint off of an aircraft as standard ground radar would, and they're not set up for air traffic-quality doppler. They're intended more for radar mapping and weather observation, not real look-down capability, and air masses don't move that fast." He frowned some more. "If you'll give me a day or two with Santos and Cardones, I think between us we can come up with a fix to refine their target differentiation, and we should be able to work in a decent doppler and ranging capability, too, especially if we set them up in pairs. It'll be rough, but it should work."

"Good," Honor said. The survey satellites were standard issue and rarely used, since regular warships seldom pulled survey duty. They were also short-ranged and simple-minded, but they should suffice for this. Of course, McKeon was right about the carnage she was wreaking with her equipment list. Just her sensor network had cost the RMN somewhere in the vicinity of two hundred million dollars, even assuming most of the probe heads were recoverable, and she'd personally signed for every penny of it. But there was no other way to get the job done, and if the Admiralty objected to the cost, they should have assigned either more ships or narrower mission parameters. Besides, the survey sats would "only" up the price tag by another half-million or so apiece.

"In that case," she went on to Isvarian, "I'd like to leave air-breathing traffic in NPA hands and set up a space traffic control center staffed by our people." She toyed with her cocoa cup for a moment while she considered. "Better make it a ground station, I think, in case something comes up out-system and we get called away. In fact, we might install it right next door to your air traffic people so they can coordinate better. What do you think, Exec?"

"I think we're going to be lucky if we're still at half-strength when the dust settles," McKeon replied, using the calculator mode of his memo pad to check figures. "By the time we crew those pinnaces and shuttles, we'll have another forty of our people on detached duty, Ma'am. We can probably use Marines to eke out the ratings in the inspection crews, but when you add enough Fleet people to man a control center on top of that—" He shrugged.

"Agreed, but I think it's necessary," Honor said quietly. She kept her gaze on McKeon's face, but her eyes cut sideways at Isvarian for a moment, reminding the exec of their audience, and McKeon nodded. It wasn't a happy nod, nor a very graceful one, but it was a nod.

"We've still got that recon head we reserved to cover Medusa in our absence," she continued after a moment. "Limited endurance won't be much of a problem if we can get at it for regular service, so we can go ahead and deploy it in high orbit to cover the far side of the planet and use our onboard instrumentation to feed the ground center from this side. If we have to pull out, the air-search radar we save with the survey sats can revert to covering space traffic in our sector."

"Who were you planning to put in command ground-side, Ma'am?" McKeon asked.

"Um." Honor drummed on the tabletop for a moment, pleased to see him engaged with the problem but wishing he'd made the next step in reassuming his responsibilities and suggested someone. He'd known most of her officers months—in some cases, years—longer than she had. But she decided to concentrate on what he was doing after their unpromising beginning and furrowed her forehead in thought.

"I think either Webster or Stromboli," she said finally. She felt McKeon start to protest, then stop himself as he ran through the possible candidates in his own mind. "I'd really rather use Webster," she went on, half to herself and half to him. "He's younger, but I think he's more aggressive and confident. Unfortunately, we need someone with a background in astrogation and traffic control, and that means Stromboli."

"What about Ensign Tremaine?" McKeon countered. Tremaine was Fearless's boat bay control officer and something of a prodigy in the management of his assets, but Honor shook her head.

"Not for the controller's slot. And we need someone senior enough to assume overall command of the detachment, ground-side and upstairs, if Fearless has to pull out. I'd prefer to kill two birds with one stone and make that our control officer. Besides, I think we'll need Tremaine to manage the actual inspection flights."

"That'll bump Panowski to acting astrogator," McKeon mused, tapping a fingertip on his memo pad. Then he surprised both Honor and himself with a grin. "Actually, I think that might be good for him, Ma'am. He's got a tendency to coast unless someone keeps after him, and Max has been too easy on him."

"In that case, let's definitely make it Stromboli," Honor said, "with Tremaine as his exec. We'll need a few good POs to command the small craft, and I'd like them to have some experience in customs work, if possible. Do we have anyone who does?"

McKeon turned to one of the conference table's full-sized terminals and tapped the query into it. Then he shook his head.

"Sorry, Ma'am. Chief Killian did a stint as the regular helmsman for an SD's boarding officer two commissions ago, but that's as close as we've got."

"And I am not going to give up Chief Killian." Honor frowned, then smiled. "I think I may have another idea, though." She depressed an intercom key.

"Officer of the watch," Lieutenant Stromboli's voice replied.

"This is the Captain, Lieutenant. Please ask the Bosun to come to my briefing room."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am."

Honor released the button and leaned back, hiding her enjoyment behind a serene expression as Isvarian and McKeon looked first at her and then at one another. She hummed softly to herself, letting them wonder, until the hatch hissed open.

Senior Chief Boatswain's Mate Sally MacBride stepped through it and braced to attention. MacBride's left sleeve bore five gold hash marks, each representing three Manticoran years—over five T-years—of service, and she was just about due for a sixth. She was a sturdy, level-eyed woman, and the senior non-commissioned officer aboard Fearless.

"The Captain sent for me?"

"Yes, thank you, Bosun." Honor nodded for MacBride to stand easy. "I need some people with rather specialized talents, and I thought you might be able to help me out."

"Whatever the Captain requires, Ma'am." MacBride was a native of Gryphon, as were a surprisingly high percentage of the RMN's noncoms, given the planet's relatively sparse population. Manticore-B's single habitable planet was the least hospitable and last settled of the Manticore System's three Earth-like worlds, and native Manticorans and Sphinxians argued that Gryphons only joined the Navy to escape Gryphon's weather. For their own part, the Queen's Gryphon-born subjects seemed to feel a sort of divine mission to keep the sissies of Manticore-A in shape. The divergence of opinion led to occasional off-duty "discussions" that could make them a bit difficult to live with, but Honor was glad she had MacBride. The bosun was the indispensable link between the bridge officers and enlisted people aboard any warship, and MacBride had all the tough, professional confidence of her years of service.

"I'm not going to ask you to betray any secrets, Bosun," Honor said, "but what I'm looking for are people who—from their own experience, let us say—would be intimately familiar with the best way to hide contraband aboard a shuttle or a starship." MacBride's left eyebrow rose fractionally; otherwise there was no change in her expression at all. "I need them to form the core of the customs inspection party I'll be detailing to Medusa, so in addition to their, um, expertise, I need people with initiative and discretion. Can you find them for me?"

"How many people was the Captain thinking of?"

"Oh, let's say fifteen," Honor said, ignoring the atypical amusement glinting in McKeon's gray eyes. "We'll be running three pinnaces and two shuttles, and I'd like to have one in each watch aboard each of them."

"I see." MacBride thought for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, Ma'am. I can find them. Will the Captain require anything else?"

"No, Bosun. Let the Exec have a list by the end of watch."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am." MacBride braced back to attention, turned smartly, and disappeared through the hatch. It closed behind her.

"Excuse me, Captain," Major Isvarian said in a very careful voice, "but did I just hear you ask the Bosun to find you fifteen smugglers to man our customs flights?"

"Of course not, Major. This is a Queen's ship. What would we be doing with smugglers on board? On the other hand, I'm certain that, over the years, certain of my personnel have observed other personnel who have attempted to conceal proscribed materials aboard ship. Sad to say, some may even have known individuals who engaged in black market activities aboard naval vessels. I simply asked the Bosun to find me some of those observers."

"I see," Isvarian murmured. He took a large sip of coffee and put his cup back down. "I see, indeed."



Honor looked up as Surgeon Commander Suchon stuck her head through the open briefing room hatch. Fearless's doctor looked even more sour than usual, and she carried a data chip in her right hand. She held the chip as if it were a small, dead animal, and Honor felt a stronger surge of distaste for her as she recognized it.

"Yes, Doctor?"

"May I speak with you a minute?" Suchon asked. Whined, really, Honor thought.

"Come in, Doctor." Honor tried not to sigh and pressed the button by her terminal, closing the hatch behind Suchon as the commander crossed to the table and sat—without an invitation. That last action irritated Honor out of all proportion to the provocation, and she sat on her temper rather firmly.

Suchon sat silently, face screwed up in obvious indecision over how to proceed. Honor waited for a moment, then arched her eyebrows.

"What is it, Doctor?" she inquired.

"It's—Well, it's about these orders, Captain." Suchon raised her hand to display the data chip, and Honor nodded.

"What about them?"

"Captain, I don't think it's a good idea to—I mean, you've detached Lieutenant Montoya and all four of my best sick berth attendants to the customs parties, and I need them here in Fearless. I can't guarantee my ability to meet my medical responsibilities to the ship without them."

Suchon leaned back in her chair as she completed her sentence. There was a certain smugness in her expression, the look of someone who has just delivered an ultimatum to a superior officer, and Honor regarded her levelly for several seconds.

"I'm afraid you're just going to have to get along without them, Doctor," she said at last, and Suchon sat back upright with a jerk.

"But I can't! If I have to detach them, the sickbay workload will be impossible, and Montoya is my sole physician assistant!"

"I'm aware of that." Honor made herself maintain a level tone, but there was very little liking in her brown eyes. "I'm also aware that it's the Navy's responsibility to provide medical personnel to check the health and immunization records of any individuals visiting Medusa's surface. Every other department aboard this ship is contributing to those customs parties, Doctor. I'm afraid Medical will just have to carry its share of the burden, as well."

"But I can't do it, I tell you!" Suchon more than half-snapped. "Perhaps you don't quite understand the responsibilities Medical faces, Ma'am. We're not like oth—"

"That will be enough, Doctor." Honor's voice had not risen, but it carried such cold, quiet venom that Suchon jerked back in her chair in shock. Icy brown eyes surveyed her with deadly dispassion, and her dark face paled.

"What you mean, Doctor," Honor went on after a moment in that same cold voice, "is that if I detach your attendants—and especially Montoya, who's been carrying two-thirds of your load ever since I came aboard—you will be required to get up out of your comfortable chair and attend to your duties yourself."

Suchon's face darkened as flushed anger replaced the paleness of shock. She opened her mouth, but Honor stopped her with a raised hand and a thin smile.

"Before you explain to me that I don't understand the arcana of your profession, Commander," she said softly, "I should, perhaps, mention to you that both of my parents are physicians." Suchon paled once more. "In fact, my father was a surgeon commander himself before his retirement. Doctor Alfred Harrington—perhaps you've heard of him?"

Her smile grew even thinner as Suchon recognized the name. Alfred Harrington had been Assistant Chief of Neurosurgery at Basingford Medical Center, the Fleet's main hospital on Manticore, before his retirement.

"As a result, Doctor, I think you'll find I have quite an adequate grasp of precisely what your duties to this ship entail. And, I might add, since the topic has come up, that I'm not at all satisfied with the way you've discharged those duties since I assumed command." Her smile vanished, and Suchon swallowed.

"If, however, the five individuals you've mentioned are, indeed, indispensable to Fearless's Medical Department," Honor went on after a short, pregnant pause, "I'm certain I can make other arrangements to keep them aboard. Of course, in that eventuality it will be necessary to find some single individual with sufficient medical experience to replace all five of them to assign to the customs detachment. Someone like you, Doctor Suchon."

She held the surgeon commander's eyes with a cold, level stare, and it was Suchon who looked away.

"Was there anything else, Doctor?" Honor asked softly. The physician gave a choppy headshake, and Honor nodded.

"Dismissed, then, Doctor." She returned her attention to her terminal, and Commander Suchon rose and walked silently from the compartment.


Lieutenant Andreas Venizelos stood with his memo board under his arm and smiled politely at the red-faced Havenite merchant skipper.

"—so you can take yourself, and your mangy 'customs party,' and go straight to hell!" The Havenite finished his diatribe and stood glaring at the slim officer before him.

"I'm afraid that won't be possible, Captain Merker," the lieutenant replied with punctilious courtesy. "According to Basilisk Control, you transshipped cargo at—" he consulted his memo board "—Orbital Warehouse Baker-Tango-One-Four. As I'm certain you're aware, Sir, that constitutes a materials transfer in Manticoran space. As such, under Paragraph Ten, Subsection Three, of the Commercial Regulations as amended by Parliament in 278 A.L., the senior customs officer is required to inspect your cargo before passing you for transit to the Junction's central nexus. Accordingly, I'm afraid I must insist on carrying out my duties before I can clear you for transit. I am, of course, extremely sorry for any inconvenience this may cause."

Captain Merker had turned an alarming shade of puce and sputtered incoherently. Venizelos simply cocked his head and waited with undiminished courtesy while he got his vocal apparatus unjammed.

"Goddamn it! I've been making this run for five T-years," the captain finally roared, "and this is the first time some tight-assed little faggot in a pretty uniform's boarded my ship and ordered me to heave to for inspection! I'll see you damned first, by God!"

"Perhaps, Sir," Venizelos said, allowing his smile to fade, "but if you choose to refuse inspection, you will be denied transit rights."

"And how the fuck do you think you're going to stop me, pretty boy?" Merker sneered.

"By firing into your ship if you attempt to transit," Venizelos said, and there was no give at all in his ice-cold voice.

The merchant skipper stopped in mid-sneer and gave the slightly-built lieutenant an incredulous stare.

"That would be an act of war!"

"On the contrary, Sir, it would be a simple exercise of the municipal police power in Manticoran space in strict accordance with recognized interstellar law."

"You wouldn't dare," Merker said in a more conversational tone. "You're bluffing."

"I am an officer of the Royal Manticoran Navy, Sir—" Venizelos felt an undeniable rush of adrenaline and pleasure as he faced the burly captain squarely "—and the Royal Manticoran Navy does not 'bluff.'"

He held the Havenite officer's eye steadily, and the captain's choler cooled visibly. He dropped his eyes to scowl at the deck for just a moment, then shrugged angrily. "Oh, suit yourself!"

"Uh, Captain Merker?" The freighter's purser, who had stood silent throughout the exchange, looked undeniably anxious.

"Well, what is it?" Merker growled.

"Well, Sir, it's just that I think—That is, I'm afraid there may be a few, um, errors in our manifest." Sweat dotted the purser's forehead as his harassed captain turned his scowl on him. "I'm, ah, certain they were, er, simple oversights," he continued. "I can—I mean, my staff and I can clear them up and be ready for inspection in, um, two or three hours? Sir?"

He stared at his captain appealingly, and Merker's face began to congest with fury once more. Venizelos observed its color with interest and cleared his throat.

"Ah, excuse me, Captain Merker?" The captain whirled on him with clenched fists, and the lieutenant shrugged apologetically. "I can certainly understand how these little accidents happen, Sir, and I'm entirely willing to allow your purser time to straighten out his records. Unfortunately, that will mean that your ship will lose its place in the outbound queue, and I'm afraid we probably won't be able to get back around to you until sometime tomorrow morning."

"Tomorrow morning!" Merker exploded. "You mean I have to cool my heels in this misbegotten rat hole of a—!" He chopped himself off and gave the hapless purser a deadly glare, then turned back to Venizelos with a snarl. "All right! If I have to, I have to, but my embassy on Manticore is going to hear about this, Lieutenant!"

"Of course, Sir." Venizelos clicked to attention, nodded pleasantly, and marched smartly back down the tube to his pinnace. The hatch slid shut, the tube disengaged, and his pilot hit the thrusters to carry them beyond their impeller wedge's safety perimeter before lighting off the main drive.

Venizelos deposited his memo board on his pull-out desk, flopped back into his chair, and whistled a popular ditty as the pinnace turned towards the next ship on his list, a big, battered Silesian freighter. His second pinnace hovered respectfully off the Havenite ship's flank like a pointed reminder until Merker lit off his own drive and headed back beyond the departure threshold.

"Jesus, Andreas!" Hayne Duvalier, Captain Reynaud's liaison to Venizelos's customs party, stared at him in patent disbelief. "You wouldn't really have fired into him. . . would you?"

"Yep," Venizelos said.


"I'm only doing my job, Hayne."

"I know, but for Chrissake, Andreas! We haven't enforced the com regs out here in—Hell, I don't think they've ever been enforced! ACS never had the manpower for it."

"I know." Venizelos turned his chair to face him. "In fact, since I got here, I've started to realize that a lot of things that should have been done never have. I'm not faulting Captain Reynaud and your people, either. It's not your job—it's ours, and we haven't been doing it. Well, we're doing it now."

"Somehow I sort of doubt your captain's going to thank you for all the ruckus it's going to raise," Duvalier said dubiously.

"Maybe not, but she gave me my orders, and one thing I can tell you about Commander Harrington, Hayne—when she gives an order, she expects it to be obeyed. Period."

"Sounds like a real hardass to me," Duvalier grumbled.

"Oh, she is," Venizelos said with a smile. "In fact, I'm just starting to realize how hard a hardass she is. And you know something, Hayne? I like it."


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