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Scotty Tremaine hit the powered adjustment button and stretched hugely as the purring motor moved the copilot's seat back from the pinnace's console. He rotated his shoulder joints, grimacing as he worked the stiffness from them, then rose.

"I'll be back in a few minutes, Ruth," he told his pilot.

"No sweat, Mr. Tremaine." Coxswain Third Class Ruth Kleinmeuller grinned. "I don't guess the planet's going anywhere till you get back, Sir."

"Probably not," he agreed, and opened the cockpit hatch. He made his way down the cramped passage (pinnaces were little larger than pre-space jumbo jets) to the flight engineer's cubicle and poked his head in.

"How's it going?"

"Nothing, Sir." The rating manning the sensor equipment wrinkled her nose at him. "As far as this outfit's concerned, we're flying over lots and lots of nothing."

"I see." Tremaine smothered a smile at her tone. Her reply was respectful and reasonably cheerful, but he heard the disgust under its surface. His people had been less than pleased to be detached to customs work at the outset, but that had changed over the past few hectic weeks. They'd learned to take a positive glee in making a major bust, and what it was doing to their bank accounts back home didn't hurt. Now they actively resented any diversion from the steadily thinner pickings of the orbital traffic.

"Y'know, Sir," a voice said from behind him, "without more pinnaces, this is going to take a long time."

Tremaine turned to face PO Harkness.

"Yes, PO, I do know," he said mildly. "But unless you happen to have a half-dozen more of them tucked away in your locker, I don't see anyone else we can assign to it. Do you?"

"No, Sir," Harkness said. The ensign, he reflected, had come a long way since that first contraband discovery. Harkness liked Tremaine—he was neither an arrogant snot, like too many ensigns who were afraid of betraying their inexperience, nor the sort to avoid responsibility—but he'd been testing the youngster. There were many ways to find out just what an officer had inside, and there were depths to young Mr. Tremaine the casual observer might not suspect.

"I was just thinking, Sir," the petty officer went on after a moment.

"About what, PO?"

"Well, Sir, it occurred to me that we're diverting one pinnace full-time from customs work, right?" Tremaine nodded. "With the close passes we have to make, this is going to take days then," Harkness went on, "but what about all the other boats?" Tremaine cocked his head and made a little "go on" gesture with his fingers. "The thing I was thinking, Sir, is that each of those other boats is making at least six space-to-ground passes every day—down and back every time they change off crews—and that got me started wondering. Couldn't we maybe reroute their landings and liftoffs? I mean, they've got the same sensors we've got, don't they?"

"Hmmmm." Tremaine rubbed his chin. "That's true enough. We could lay off flight paths to cover this entire hemisphere, couldn't we? And that would free us up to cover the other side of the planet." He nodded slowly, eyes narrowing in thought, and Harkness nodded back.

"This, PO," the ensign said judiciously, "bears thinking on. Thanks."

"You're welcome, Sir," Harkness said, and Tremaine headed back to the cockpit and the pinnace's com.


Lieutenant Commander Santos stepped into the briefing room and paused behind the captain's chair. Honor was busy perusing the latest data on planetary power usage and didn't hear her come in, but she looked up at the sound of a sudden, juicy crunch.

Nimitz's buzzing purr confirmed her suspicions, and she shot a humorous glare at Santos as she saw the celery stalk clutched in the treecat's right true-hand. Nimitz's carnivore fangs weren't designed for vegetable matter, despite his tree-dweller origins. Treecats were the top of Sphinx's arboreal food chain, preying on the smaller vegetarians and omnivores who inhabited their domain, and his needle-sharp teeth shredded the celery into stringy green strands—wet, stringy green strands—as he chewed.

Santos gave her a half-apologetic glance as she watched the 'cat make a blissful mess, and Honor shook her head.

"You know that stuff's bad for him, Dominica," she chided.

"But he likes it so much, Skipper," Santos excused herself.

"I know he does, but he can't metabolize it—not fully, anyway. He's got the wrong enzymes. It just fills him up, and then he picks at his supper."

Nimitz paused in his chewing. His vocal apparatus might be utterly unsuited to anything resembling human speech, but he understood a surprisingly large vocabulary, and he'd heard this particular speech from his person too often over the years. Now he gave her a disdainful glance, flirted his tail, and rose on his rear feet to rub his head against Santos's arm, making his views on the subject abundantly clear. The engineer was his favorite among Fearless's officers—probably, Honor reflected darkly, because she always had a stash of celery somewhere about her person these days—and Santos grinned down at him.

"Well," Honor sighed finally, "I guess I should be used to it. The little devil always finds someone to pander to his vices."

"He is kind of cute, isn't he?" Santos agreed. She gave the 'cat an affectionate chin rub, then sank into an empty chair at the table, and Honor smiled. She was, she reflected, a terrible sucker where people with a kindness for treecats were concerned.

"You wanted to see me about something?" Santos asked after a moment.

"Yes." Honor tapped her data display with a stylus. "I've been looking at Barney's figures on probable power usage. They seem awfully vague to me."

"Well, it's not an easy thing to quantify, Skipper." Santos ran her fingers through her hair and frowned thoughtfully. "He doesn't have very solid data on what they've got to use their power on, so his people have had to make a lot of WAGs." Honor raised an eyebrow, and Santos grinned. "That's a technical term we engineers use. It means 'Wild-Assed Guess,'" she explained. "They can feed in some hard figures from outside observation—things like exterior lighting, com traffic, and heat exchangers—but without complete specs on an enclave's interior hardware, they're shooting in the dark. Just knowing whether or not a given set of people remember to turn the lights off when they leave the room could throw any estimate off by a pretty wide margin."

"Um." Honor rubbed the tip of her nose and leaned back in her chair, listening to Nimitz crunch and slurp away at his celery. "How are we coming on the collector taps?" she asked suddenly.

"We've got three—no, four—to go," Santos replied. "Sorry it's taking so long, but with just the cutters—"

Honor waved a hand, cutting her off, and smiled.

"Don't apologize. You're doing well, especially since we're trying to keep anyone from noticing what we're up to." She rocked her chair slightly, still gazing at the data on her terminal, then shrugged.

"All right, let's see if we can come at this a different way, Dominica," she murmured, and pressed her intercom key.

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

"Com, this is the Captain. Is the Exec on the bridge?"

"No, Ma'am. I think he's down in Missile Two. Tactical's been having some problems with the magazine feed."

"I see. Well, buzz him, would you? If he's free, I'd like to see him in my briefing room. And ask Lieutenant Cardones to come in, too, please."

"Yes, Ma'am." The intercom was silent for a few moments, then spoke again. "They're on their way, Ma'am."

"Thank you, Samuel." Honor keyed off and looked at Santos. "If Barney can't give us hard numbers, maybe we can make his WAGs work for us, instead."


"Well, it occurs to me that—"

Honor broke off as the briefing room hatch opened to admit Cardones. The lieutenant nodded just a bit shyly to Santos, then looked at Honor.

"You wanted me, Ma'am?"

"Yes. Have a seat, Guns. I've got a problem I need you and the Exec to help me solve."

"Problem, Ma'am?" Cardones sounded a trifle wary, and Honor smiled.

"Nothing to do with your department. It's just—"

She paused again as the hatch opened once more. McKeon wore coveralls over his uniform, and there was grease on them. That was one thing Honor unreservedly approved of in her prickly executive officer; he was never above getting his own hands dirty.

"You sent for me, Captain?" he asked, far more formally than Cardones. Honor nodded, feeling her own face stiffen with a chill of answering formality, and pointed at the chair opposite Santos.

"I did," she said. McKeon sat. "How's the missile feed problem?" she asked, trying—again—to draw him out.

"Nothing major, Captain. I think it's pretty much solved," he replied crisply, and she hid a sigh. Behind her, Nimitz stopped crunching his celery for a moment, then resumed with more restrained gusto.

"Well," she said, "as I was telling Rafe, we have a problem. We're trying to spot unusual power flows, and we don't have a reliable base usage to pick them out of." McKeon nodded, gray eyes thoughtful but cool in his expressionless face.

"What I want you and Rafe to do," Honor went on, "is take all the input from the solar collector taps and compare it to Major Isvarian's rough estimates. What I'm looking for is a total usage figure over several days' time for each enclave, one we can relate to his estimate on a proportional basis."

She paused, and Cardones glanced at the first officer, as if waiting for him to ask a question. When McKeon only nodded, he cleared his own throat.

"Excuse me, Ma'am, but what good will that do us?"

"Maybe not a lot, Rafe, but I want to see how close Barney came in his original estimate. If he's close, or if he's off by the same proportion in each case, then we'll have both an indication of his numbers' reliability and some idea of what a given enclave's power needs should look like. If he's close in most cases but off by a large factor in one or two instances, we'll have an indication that the ones outside his estimate bear closer examination."

Cardones nodded. McKeon simply sat silently, waiting.

"In addition," Honor went on, "I want the changes in power demand tracked on an hourly basis. Get a feel for the pattern. In particular, I want to know if any of them use large amounts of power during local down periods—especially late at night, for instance. Compare the fluctuations in power usage between all the enclaves on a time basis. If demand drops by a lower percentage in one or two of them, I want to know about it. From what Major Isvarian and his NPA types tell me, a mekoha lab wouldn't be able to shut down in mid-process, so if someone's power levels remain high when all their neighbors' drop, we may have an indication that we're closing in on the lab."

Cardones nodded again, eyes bright with interest. Unlike, Honor noted, McKeon's.

"I'll get right on it, Ma'am," the exec said after a moment. "Will there be anything else, Captain?"

"No," Honor said quietly, and McKeon rose with a quick nod. He beckoned to Cardones, and the two of them filed out. Honor watched the hatch close behind them and sighed.

"Skipper?" It was Santos, her voice soft, and Honor flushed. She'd forgotten the engineer's presence, and she castigated herself silently for betraying her concern over McKeon in front of one of her other officers. She made herself turn to Santos, hiding her chagrin.

"Yes, Dominica?"

"I—" The engineer paused, looking down at her hands on the edge of the table, then squared her shoulders. "About the commander, Ma'am," she said. "I don't—"

"Lieutenant Commander McKeon isn't your concern," Honor said quietly.

"I know that, Ma'am, but—" Santos drew a deep breath, disregarding her captain's clear hint to drop the subject. "Skipper, I know you're concerned about him. For that matter," it was her face's turn to darken, "I know you were concerned about all of us. We . . . weren't exactly on the top of our form when we got here, were we?"

"Have I complained?" Honor asked, and met Santos's eyes levelly when the engineer looked up.

"No, Ma'am. But, then, you wouldn't, would you?" Santos's voice was as level as Honor's eyes, and Honor made a tiny, uncomfortable gesture with her hand. Nimitz swarmed down into her lap, still clutching the stub of his celery stalk, and lifted the front third of his body onto the table to look back and forth between the two women.

"The thing is, Skipper, I've known Alistair McKeon for a long time," Santos went on quietly. "He's a friend—and I'm your next senior officer."

Honor sighed and leaned back. She ought to shut Santos up, she thought. If there was one thing she hated, it was discussing an officer behind his back, especially with one of his juniors. But she was very nearly at the end of her rope where McKeon was concerned. She'd tried everything she could think of to reach him—to make him the true second-in-command she needed, not simply an efficient, perpetually unengaged automaton—and failed. And there was no malice or spite in Santos's voice, only concern. Besides, Dominica was right; she was Honor's next most senior officer, third in Fearless's chain of command, with not just the right but the duty to speak up if she saw a problem.

The engineer's expression relaxed a bit at her captain's reaction, and she reached out to stroke Nimitz's ears, keeping her eyes on her fingers.

"Alistair is a good officer, usually, Skipper," she said. "More than that, he's a good man. But if you'll pardon my saying so, it's pretty obvious the two of you just aren't on the same wavelength, and I don't think it's because you haven't tried. I've never seen him like this, and I'm worried about him."

Honor watched Santos thoughtfully. There was no self-serving edge in the engineer's voice, only concern. This was no attempt to curry favor with her commander or cut her immediate superior's throat when he was absent and unable to defend himself.

"And?" she said, unable—and unwilling—to criticize McKeon by agreeing with Santos's statement and voicing her own concern.

"I just—" Santos paused, staring down at the fingers caressing the treecat. "I just want you to know that whatever's wrong is hurting him, too, Skipper," she said finally. "He tries not to show it, but I think he thinks he's letting you down—letting the ship down. And he is, in a way. I don't know why, but he's just not involved the way he was under Captain Rath, and he loves every scrape and dent of this old ship." She raised her head and looked around the briefing room, eyes slightly misty, and smiled. "So do I," she admitted. "She's old, and they raped her when they gutted her armament, but she's a grand old bitch. She won't let us down in the crunch, and—" she met Honor's eyes again "—neither will Alistair. Whatever his problem is, he won't let you down when it really counts, Skipper. That's—" She paused again, then waved her hand. "That's all I wanted to say."

"I understand, Dominica," Honor said softly.

"Yes, Ma'am." Santos stood and inhaled sharply, then gave Nimitz one last caress and squared her shoulders. "Well, I guess I'd better get back on those taps, Skipper," she said more briskly, and followed McKeon and Cardones out the hatch.

Nimitz settled down in Honor's lap to finish his celery, and she leaned back, running her hand down his flank in long, slow strokes while she considered what Santos had just said. It must have taken guts—and deep concern—for the engineer to risk exposing herself that way. (It never occurred to Honor to wonder if her own actions or example might have had anything to do with Santos's openness.) Most officers, she reflected, would have taken great care to distance themselves from an executive officer they suspected was in bad odor with his CO, lest any of the captain's displeasure splash on them. And how Dominica had said it was just as important as what she'd said. Her concern was obvious, and it was for the ship as a whole first and for McKeon as a person second, but the fact that she cared about McKeon was clear.

And important, Honor decided. It spoke well for any officer that one of his juniors would speak up for him, especially when it was the junior who stood to gain the most if he fell short of his commanding officer's standards. More than that, Santos's remarks reinforced her own judgment that McKeon was grappling with something inside himself, something that even the engineer didn't fully understand.

Dominica Santos would not have spoken for an officer she didn't believe was worth defending, however much she liked him. Honor was certain of that, and as she replayed her own encounters with McKeon, she realized the engineer was right. Whatever his problem was, however hard it seemed for him to meet his captain halfway, he was doing his job. Not as well as he could have, not without a distinctly dangerous disengagement and brittleness, and definitely not the way Honor would have preferred, but he was doing it. He was making himself do it, even while it was obvious that something was tearing him up inside.

She sighed and rose, transferring Nimitz to her shoulder as the 'cat popped the last half-centimeter of celery into his mouth. He pressed his chin into her short hair, chewing happily, and she folded her hands behind her and started for the hatch herself.

It wasn't fair. She shouldn't have to make allowances for her executive officer, shouldn't have to worry about his support or what inner problems were affecting his duty. But no one had ever said life was fair, and the RMN tradition was that there were no bad crews, only bad captains. That applied to the captain's officers, as well. Much as she might want, even need, for McKeon to drop his barriers, it was her job to work with him—or to replace him. And she couldn't replace him. Not simply because the "chemistry" between them was bad.

And not, she thought as the hatch opened, when Santos was right. Somehow, Honor knew, whatever might be bothering Alistair McKeon, he wouldn't let her down in the crunch.


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