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The Admiralty yeoman opened the office door and bowed the tall, dark-haired admiral through it, then closed it behind him. Admiral of the Green Lord Hamish Alexander crossed to the huge windows and looked out over the dazzling spires and pastel towers of the city of Landing, capital of the Star Kingdom of Manticore.

The dark blue water of Jason Bay, for all intents and purposes an inland sea hundreds of kilometers in length, stretched to the southern horizon, sparkling under the light of Manticore-A, and, despite the office's air-conditioning, he could feel that sun's radiant heat on his face through the windows' insulated plastic. The outside temperature was welcome, if almost uncomfortably hot, for he'd just come from his family's home in the Duchy of High Sligo, and it was winter in Manticore's northern hemisphere. But Landing lay less than fifteen hundred kilometers above the equator, and brilliant greenery tossed in the brisk breeze off the sail-dotted bay.

He turned away from the window, folding his hands behind him, and surveyed the office of the First Space Lord. The room was paneled in light-toned native woods, not the extravagance it would have been on one of the inner-worlds, and there was a fireplace in one corner. It was functional, not merely ornamental, and that, Alexander thought, was an extravagance. The Admiralty Building was over a Manticoran century-and-a-half old and little more than a hundred stories tall, a modest little structure for a counter-gravity civilization, but that fireplace's chimney bored up through thirty-odd stories of air shafts and ventilation ducting. He could only marvel at the stubborn insistence of whoever had designed the building, especially in a climate which required air-conditioning far more often than heating.

He chuckled and checked his watch. The First Space Lord was running late—not unusual for a man with his schedule—and Alexander took a leisurely turn about the familiar office, studying the models of starships and old-fashioned oil and acrylic portraits, reacquainting himself with old friends and noting the newer additions.

He was admiring the detail of a meter-long replica of HMS Manticore, the pride of the Fleet, when the door opened behind him. He turned, and his rugged face lit with a smile as Fleet Admiral Sir James Bowie Webster walked through it. The First Space Lord had the Webster chin, and he grinned and clasped Alexander's hand in both of his to shake it firmly.

"Hamish! You're looking good, I see. Sorry to roust you out so close to Emily's birthday, but I needed a word."

"So I gathered," Alexander said dryly as Webster released his hand and sprawled untidily into his chair. Alexander ignored his offer of another chair and parked himself on one corner of the desk that looked big enough for a shuttle pad.

"How is Emily? And your father?" Webster asked, his smile fading a bit, and Alexander shrugged.

"As well as can be expected, both of them. Dr. Gagarian has a new therapy he wants Emily to try, and Father isn't taking the winter very well, but—"

He shrugged again, like a man testing an old wound and finding its familiar pain unchanged, and Webster nodded silently. Alexander's father, the Twelfth Earl of White Haven, was almost sixty-four years old—over a hundred and ten T-years—and his had been the last pre-prolong generation. He could not have many winters left, and Lady Emily Alexander was one of Manticore's greatest tragedies, one Webster—like everyone who knew her personally and thousands who had never met her at all—felt as his own. Once acknowledged as the Kingdom's premiere holo-drama performer, she remained one of its most beloved and respected writers and producers, but she had been forced from the HD stage by the aircar collision that had left her a total invalid. Her damaged nerves had persistently refused both grafts and regeneration, and not even modern medical science could rebuild destroyed motor control centers.

Webster suppressed an expression of useless sympathy he knew would only make Alexander uncomfortable and shook himself, looking more closely at the officer before him. Hamish Alexander was forty-seven—just over eighty standard years old—himself, though he looked less than a third his father's age, but there were fresh worry lines around his eyes and a few new strands of white at his temples.

"And your brother?"

"The Honorable Willie?" Hamish brightened instantly, eyes gleaming with sudden laughter. "Our noble Lord of the Exchequer is in fine form! Had quite a few words to say to me—rude ones, too—about the last Naval Estimates, I might add."

"He thinks they're too high?"

"No, he just thinks he's going to have the devil of a time getting them approved by Parliament. Still, I imagine he's getting used to that by now."

"I hope so, because next year's are probably going to be worse," Webster sighed.

"I imagine. But somehow I don't think you wanted to see me to hear what Willie has to say about the budget, Jim. What's up?"

"Actually, in a way, I did want to sound Willie out—through you—about something that's come up. Or, no, not Willie, so much, as the Government in general."

"Now that," Alexander said, "sounds ominous."

"Maybe not ominous, but certainly difficult." Webster ran a hand through his hair in an atypically harassed gesture. "It's Basilisk Station, Hamish."

"Oho," Alexander murmured. He swung one leg, staring down at the toe of his mirror-polished boot. Basilisk had always been a political hot potato, and given the current First Lord's views on the system, it was hardly surprising that Webster should make a discreet—and unofficial—attempt to sound out the Government without involving his civilian superior.

"Oho," Webster agreed sourly. "You know what's going on there?"

"I've heard there was a little excitement." Alexander shrugged. "Nothing specific, aside from a few wild rumors."

"In this case, they may not have been all that wild." Alexander raised his eyebrows at Webster's tone, and the First Space Lord grimaced. He reached into his desk and extracted a sizable heap of message chips.

"What I have here, Hamish," he said, "is fourteen official protests from the Havenite ambassador, six from the Havenite consul in Basilisk, sixteen from various Manticoran and out-kingdom merchant cartels, and sworn statements from nine Havenite merchant captains alleging harassment and illegal searches of their vessels. There are also," he added almost dispassionately, "five similar statements from non-Havenite skippers and three complaints that 'unjustified threats of deadly force' have been made by Navy personnel."

Alexander's eyebrows had climbed almost into his hairline as the catalog rolled out. Now he blinked. "It seems things have gotten exciting," he murmured.

"Oh, yes, indeed they have."

"Well, what are all these protests and statements about?"

"They concern one Commander Honor Harrington."

"What?" Alexander chuckled. "You mean the one who potted Sebastian with a single broadside?"

"That's the one," Webster agreed with an unwilling grin of his own. Then he sobered. "At the moment, Commander Harrington is Acting Senior Officer on Basilisk Station."

"She's what? What in God's name is an officer who can pull off something like that doing on Basilisk Station?!"

"It wasn't my idea," Webster protested. "It came down from on high, one might say, after Sonja's brainchild proved something of a brat in the later Fleet problems."

"Oh, so she decided to sweep her mistake under the carpet, whatever it cost the officer who actually made it work once for her?" Alexander's disdain was clear, and Webster shrugged.

"I know you don't like Sonja, Hamish. For that matter, I'm not too crazy about her myself, but I really don't think it was her idea this time. I think it was Janacek. You know how that reactionary old—" Webster caught himself. "I mean, you know he watches after the family interests."

"Um." Alexander nodded, and Webster shrugged again.

"Anyway, he made his desires known, and I was too busy horse-trading with him on the new engineering wing for Saganami Island to say no."

"All right, but what's a commander doing as SO? That ought to be at least a captain."

"Agreed." Webster tipped his chair back. "What do you know about Pavel Young?"

"Who?" Alexander blinked at the apparent non sequitur. "You mean North Hollow's son?"

"That's the one."

"Not much—and the little I do know, I don't like. Why?"

"Because Captain Lord Pavel Young is supposed to be the senior officer in Basilisk. Unfortunately, his ship required 'urgent refit,' and he felt the repairs involved were too complicated to leave in the hands of his executive officer. So he brought her home himself—leaving Harrington and a single light cruiser on the station."

Alexander stared at him in disbelief, and Webster flushed under his astonished gaze.

"Jim, I've known you for a lot of years," Alexander said at length. "So suppose you tell me why you haven't relieved him?"

"Because of politics," Webster sighed. "You should know that. That's one reason I want your impressions of how the Government is likely to react to all this. Christ, Hamish! I've got the damned Havenites screaming for blood, half a dozen cartels—headed by Hauptman's—are madder than hell, Countess New Kiev is getting ready to fight the Naval Estimates tooth and nail, the goddamned 'New Men' are sitting right in her hip pocket, and you know what a big gun, politically speaking, North Hollow is! It's been all I can do to keep Young shuffled off onto the sidelines. Do you really think the Duke is going to thank me if I piss off the Conservative Association at a time like this by relieving the spoiled-darling son of High Ridge's second-in-command?"

"No, probably not," Alexander admitted after a moment, but the admission left a sour taste in his mouth. The majority of Manticore's aristocrats honored a tradition of public service fueled by a strong sense of noblesse oblige; those who did not were among the most self-centered and intolerant in the known universe, and Baron of High Ridge's Conservative Association was their home. The Association was openly committed to "restoring the historical balance of power intended by our Founders" between the nobility and the uppity commoners—a "balance," Alexander knew perfectly well, which had never existed except in their own wishful thinking.

He chewed on his thoughts for a moment, then frowned. "What's Young like?"

"He's an arrogant, over-sexed, incompetent, bigoted snot," Webster replied so promptly his visitor's lips twitched involuntarily. "A real chip off the North Hollow block."

"That I can believe, if he shuffled his responsibilities off on a junior and hightailed it back to civilization."

"It's uglier than that, Hamish. Much uglier." Alexander crooked a fresh eyebrow, and Webster waved his hands in frustration. "Unless I miss my guess, he deliberately set Harrington up for a fall by leaving her behind."

"Why do you think that?"

"There was bad blood between them when they were both at the Academy. I don't know all the details—Hartley was commandant then, and you know how hard it is to worm things out of him—but Young caught an official reprimand for conduct unbecoming. He goes through women like a kodiak max through Beowulf buffalo, just like his father and both brothers, and apparently he didn't want to take no for an answer. I gather it got physical."

"You mean he—?!" Alexander half-rose from the desk, his expression thunderous, but Webster interrupted him with a grin.

"I'd guess he tried, but Harrington's from Sphinx." Alexander's eyes began to gleam, and Webster nodded. "And she was number two on the unarmed combat demonstration team in her senior form. From what I can gather, he may have started it, but she most definitely finished it." His grin faded. "Which is why he stuck her with Basilisk Station, and I'm damned worried that he may finally have gotten her."

"How so? What're all the protests about?"

"It seems that no one told Commander Harrington that Basilisk Station is where we send our fuck-ups and deadbeats. She may only have one ship, but she's actually enforcing the commerce regs against Junction traffic. Not only that, but in the last three weeks she's deployed a few hundred million dollars worth of recon probes to cover the entire inner system, established a Navy-run space traffic control around Medusa, and taken over the customs function from the NPA. In fact, she's raised enough general hell that Admiral Warner tells me Young has actually stopped enjoying his self-assigned leave and started trying to expedite his repairs so he can get back there and stop her. I think he's afraid he's created a monster that may drag him down, too, patronage or no. Unfortunately, Warner's boys and girls on Hephaestus have Young's ship opened up like a used ration can at the moment. I'm not sure, but I have the distinct impression Warner is actually dragging his heels on the refit just to enjoy watching Young squirm, and he can't leave his ship behind without effectively admitting what he tried to pull, so there's not much he can do."

"Good God," Alexander said mildly. "Do you mean to tell me we finally have an SO on Basilisk Station who's doing her job? How remarkable!"

"Yes, she's doing her job, and damned well, as far as I can tell, but that's what all of these—" Webster waved the memo chips "—are about. She's got detachments all over the system, and whoever she left to handle the terminus inspections seems to be a real hard case. He's ramming the regs down everybody's throat, chapter and verse, and I don't think he'd be doing that without Harrington's specific backing. Of course it's got the Havenites screaming, but he's enforcing them against our own shipping, as well. That alone would be enough to tick off every merchant house in the Kingdom after the free run they've always had there, but even that's not the worst of it. You remember the rumors about smuggling through Medusa?" Alexander nodded, and Webster grinned sourly. "Well, Harrington's orbital inspection parties have seized well over nine hundred million dollars worth of contraband—so far—and sent it in for judgment and condemnation. And in the process, she caught the Hauptman Cartel trying to smuggle kodiak maximus pelts out through Medusa and called them on it. She's seized a four-and-a-half-million-ton freighter under charter to Hauptman—the Mondragon—and sent her in under a prize crew, for God's sake!"

"Oh, my!" Alexander pressed a hand to his ribs, trying in vain to stifle his laughter as he pictured the carnage the unknown Harrington must be strewing in her wake.

"You may think it's funny," Webster growled, "but I've had Klaus Hauptman himself in here, swearing up one side and down the other that his people are as innocent as the driven snow, that it was all Mondragon's master's doing, and that Harrington is harassing his other, legitimate shipments. He wants her head, and the Havenites are sharpening the axe for him with all these 'protests' of theirs! What's happening to their Junction shipping is bad enough, as far as they're concerned, but you know their official position on our claim to Medusa. Their consul is practically chewing the rug about her 'patently illegal searches of legitimate merchant vessels in the course of their lawful trading activities with an independent planet.' It's got all the makings of a first-class diplomatic incident, and it's not getting any better."

"Screw the Havenites," Alexander snapped, forgetting to laugh. "And screw Hauptman, too! It sounds to me like she's doing exactly what we're supposed to have been doing for years, Jim!"

"Oh? And do you think Sir Edward Janacek will share your view?"

"No, but that's no reason to come down on Harrington for doing her job. Damn it, from what you're saying, Young tried his damnedest to put a knife in her back! Do you want to stick it in for him?"

"You know I don't!" Webster ran his hands through his hair again. "Hell, Hamish, my grand-nephew is on Fearless. If I relieve Harrington, I'll be sending him exactly the wrong message about the discharge of an officer's responsibilities. For that matter, every officer in the Fleet will draw the same conclusion!"


"Goddamn it," Webster sighed. "I'm First Space Lord. I'm not supposed to have to decide what to do with a damned commander."

Alexander frowned and returned to the contemplation of his boot toe, and Webster tipped his chair further back. He knew that expression.

"Look, Jim," Alexander finally said, "I know I'm junior to you, but it seems to me we owe this Harrington a vote of thanks, not a rap in the teeth. For the first time, we've got an officer on Basilisk Station who's willing to kick some ass to get her job done. I like that. I like it a hell of a lot better than what we've been getting there, and so do you. All right, so she's making some waves and ticking some people off. Fine. Let her. Even Janacek can't change the Fleet mission in Basilisk—thank God, or he'd have had us out of there completely by now. But if we're going to tell her what to do, we can't yank the rug out from under her the minute she starts doing it." He paused.

"You've told me a lot about who's complaining about her, but what do the people in Basilisk have to say?"

"Michel Reynaud and the ACS crowd are delighted," Webster admitted. "I've got two or three glowing reports from Reynaud on this Lieutenant Venizelos she assigned to him. Mind you, Venizelos must be some kind of madman if even half of what the Havenites have to say is true, but Reynaud likes him. As for Estelle Matsuko, she seems convinced Harrington could walk across Jason Bay without getting her shoes wet. She's been so disgusted with the previous SOs, she's even stopped complaining about them; now I've got letters of thanks for our 'excellent cooperation'!"

"Well, that should tell you something, shouldn't it?"

"So you think I should just stay out of it," Webster said. It wasn't a question.

"Damn right I do. Basilisk's been a disgrace since the day we went in. It's long past time someone made a point of that. It may cause a rethink on the entire issue."

"Is this the time for it?" Webster sounded anxious, and Alexander shrugged.

"If you want, I'll sound Willie out on it and get back to you, but I think Cromarty would say yes. We've danced around the issue because of the 'political situation' for years, and the problem's only gotten worse. I don't doubt the Conservatives will bitch and moan, and so will the Liberals, but they can't have it both ways. The Conservatives can't have their nice, safe isolation if we don't hang onto that terminus with both hands, and the Liberals can't protect the Medusans from off-world contamination if we don't police the space-to-planet traffic. For the first time, we've got an officer on Basilisk Station with the guts to make that point for them, and if they try to do anything about it, the Commons will stop them cold. I say go for it, and I think Willie will say the same."

"I hope you're right," Webster said. He stood and swept the chips back into his desk drawer, then clapped Alexander on the shoulder. "I really do hope you're right, Hamish, because whether you are politically or not, you and I both know you are from the service's viewpoint."

He looked at the wall chronometer and grinned.

"I see it's about lunch time. Care to join me in the flag officer's dining room? I think two or three good stiff ones should just about take the taste of politics out of my mouth."


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