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"Jesus Christ, Westerfeldt! What the hell did you think you were doing?!"

Wallace Canning crouched forward over his desk, hands braced on its blotter as if he meant to leap over it and physically attack the man standing in front of it. His face was congested with fury and his eyes blazed, but Colonel Bryan Westerfeldt stood his ground.

"I didn't do anything," he replied. He spoke quietly, but there was an edge to his voice—not quite a tremble, but an edge—which suggested he was less calm than he appeared.

"Well somebody fucking well did!" Canning spat. "You stu—!"

He shut his mouth with a click, dragging himself back under control, and forced himself back into his chair. Westerfeldt started to speak, but the savage chop of a hand cut him off, and Canning closed his eyes. He inhaled deeply, tension shuddering in his muscles, and made himself think.

Thank God the admiral had departed for the Republic before this fiasco exploded! He swallowed a bitter, half-hysterical giggle at his own choice of verb, and opened his eyes. All their careful work, their cover plan at the lab, the false records—all of it—for nothing. For worse than nothing. The NPA would never rest now that the "criminals" had murdered almost sixty of its field agents! And if they didn't find the false trail they were supposed to find, they might—

"All right," he grated more calmly. "I'm waiting. What happened and how?"

"I passed the initial warning to Summervale, exactly as we discussed," Westerfeldt said in a very careful voice. "As you know, we had to warn him, since he already knew we were wired into the NPA. If he hadn't gotten any advance warning at all, Isvarian and Matsuko would have smelled a rat for sure when they interrogated his people after the bust and found out 'the Organization' hadn't even tried to save their operation, and—"

"I know why we decided to warn him," Canning interrupted coldly. "But I also know you weren't supposed to actually tell him the raid was coming. Damn it, Colonel—they were supposed to get caught!"

"That's what I've been trying to tell you, Sir," Westerfeldt said almost desperately. "I didn't warn them about the actual raid. I never sent them a word about it!"

"What?" Canning tipped his chair back with an abrupt movement and glared at his subordinate. "Then how did they know?"

"I can only speculate, Sir, but Summervale did think he was in charge of security. If you want it, my best guess is that he had his own spotters out to give him a second information source. They must have tipped him Isvarian was coming, because I certainly didn't!"

"But why in hell did he blow the lab?" Canning complained in a less angry, almost querulous voice. "We never told him to do that!"

"That . . . may have been my fault, after all, Sir," Westerfeldt admitted unhappily. "He asked me what to do with the hardware, and I didn't give him specific orders." Canning glared at him, and Westerfeldt's own resentment flared. "Damn it, Sir—I thought he'd try to just cut and run! Why shouldn't I have? I didn't know what kind of lunatic he was! Ambassador Gowan's people recruited him on Manticore; if they knew he was that kind of loose warhead, they never should have gone anywhere near him, however good or politically embarrassing his credentials were!"

"All right. All right!" Canning waved a hand in a gesture midway between anger and placation and bit his lip. "We can't undo it, and at least the fucking Manticorans killed him for us. But you must have known some of the rifles were in the area, Colonel."

"I swear to God I didn't, Sir." Westerfeldt's face was taut. "As far as I know, every one of the rifles we've delivered is still cached in the Shaman's caves. In fact, I ordered a count made at Site One as soon as the shit hit the fan. They haven't completed it yet, but so far the numbers have checked perfectly. I don't think those rifles were ours at all, Sir."

"Oh, crap!" Canning muttered, dragging his hands through his hair and staring at the blotter.

"They must have been Stilty-made, Sir," Westerfeldt said more calmly. "The Shaman's had to hand them out for training sessions. We collect them all afterward, but maybe one of the damned abos took the idea home with him. If we're going to give them weapons that look like they're native-built, then they have to be ones the natives can build, after all. It just never occurred to anyone they might figure out how to make their own gunpowder as well and set up a shop of their own."

"Oh, this is just fucking wonderful." Canning groaned. He closed his eyes in pain, then opened them and impaled Westerfeldt with a glare. "Even if you didn't give the order to blow the lab, Colonel, the field op is your responsibility. This is your mess—you clean it up!"

"But how?" Westerfeldt took a step closer to the desk, his voice almost pleading.

"I don't know." Canning pounded a fist gently on the blotter for a moment, then sucked in a deep breath. "All right. The NPA knows it was an off-world operation, but they still don't know it was us. And that maniac didn't blow the power relays, so when they track them back at least that evidence will still point to a domestic Manticoran operation, right?"

Westerfeldt nodded silently, and Canning's jaw worked in thought. He ought to report this. He knew he should. But if he did, upstairs would probably cancel the entire op, and if he couldn't hang it all on Westerfeldt, the admiral and ONI would crucify him. On the other hand, as he'd just told the colonel, there was still no direct evidence linking Haven to the massacre.

All right. If Harrington and Matsuko didn't know Haven was behind it, what did they know that could hurt him? The rifles. They knew about the fucking rifles, and neither of them were likely to miss the potential danger they represented. So that meant they might try to make some sort of contingency plans, but if they didn't know about the scope of Haven's own plan, then their precautions could hardly be enough to stop it.

He gritted his teeth, knowing full well he was grasping at straws. Yet straws were all he had. If he reported back and the operation was scrubbed, then his career was scrubbed with it. He'd find himself hauled home and buried in one of the Prole housing units on Haven, drawing a Basic Living Stipend right alongside all the other Dolist scum as an example to other fuck-ups, and he came from one of the aristocratic Legislature families. All of his friends, all the other useless drones drawing the BLS with him—everyone—would know about his disgrace. They'd laugh at him, mock him, and he couldn't face that. He couldn't.

Yet what option did he have? Unless . . . ?

He forced his jaws to relax and straightened his shoulders. If he warned ONI and the operation was canceled, he was ruined. If he didn't warn them and the operation was launched on schedule but failed, he'd still be ruined for not having warned them. But if the operation succeeded, he could survive. His family was owed enough debts by other Legislaturists. They could carry it off, possibly even applaud him for his iron nerve and resolve in driving the op to success despite his handicaps. . . .

It was only one chance in three, but a thirty-three percent chance was infinitely more than zero, and it was the only one that offered him survival.

"All right, Colonel," he said coldly. "Here's what you're going to do. First, get in touch with your NPA contacts. If Harrington doesn't find that tap on Matsuko's power collector on her own, you make damned sure someone points her at it. More than that, I want a watch kept on their deployments. If they start forting up in the enclaves or any of Harrington's Marines get deployed planet-side, I want to know. Then get your ass out to the main site. I don't care how you do it, but you sit on the Shaman for three more weeks. Three weeks, Colonel! If Young isn't back by then, then we'll kick the operation off without him. Understood?"

Westerfeldt cocked his head, his eyes narrow and speculative, and Canning met them with a flat glare. He could almost hear gears turning in the colonel's head, feel the other man following his own chain of logic. And then Westerfeldt gave a slow nod as the totals came together for him, as well. If Canning survived, he survived; if Canning went down, he went down with his superior.

"Yes, Sir," the colonel said flatly. "I understand. I understand entirely, Mr. Canning."

He jerked another, sharper nod at the consul, and vanished through the office door.


"Your ticket, Sir." The Silesian trade factor handed over the small chip with a smile. His freight-line employers offered limited passenger accommodations aboard their bulk carriers, but this was the very first passage the factor had ever booked from Medusa.

"Thank you," the man who didn't look a thing like (and who had the papers to prove he wasn't) Denver Summervale said courteously. He slipped the chip into a pocket, rose with a coolly pleasant nod, and left the office.

He stood outside it for a moment, gazing across at the Haven Consulate, and a smile touched his mouth. The pieces had started coming together for him the moment one of his local contacts arrived at his hiding place to report seeing "the boss" dash out of the Havenite enclave and head for the Outback. That had been all he'd had to know to realize he and the lab personnel had been set up by their real employers—and why.

He'd been tempted to do a little something about that, but cooler counsel had prevailed. After all, he was away free and clear largely because he'd set up the aircar pilot to play button man. More than that, it was possible, even probable, that whatever Haven was up to would be even more upsetting to the NPA and the Navy than the drug lab itself had been. If "the boss" pulled it off after all, that would be enough to earn Summervale's grudging forgiveness. If he blew it, then the very people Summervale despised would punish him for his treachery.

He smiled again and turned to walk briskly towards the waiting shuttle.


"I'm sorry, Commander McKeon," Rafael Cardones said, "but we're moving as fast as we can. There's no load on the relay now, and the final stage was an omnidirectional receiver. We're working our way through the possible lines of sight, but with no power flow to track, we're having to do it all by eye. I'm afraid it's going to take time, Sir."

"Understood." Alistair McKeon nodded and patted the younger officer on the shoulder with absent gentleness. "I know you're doing your best, Rafe. Let me know the instant you have something."

"Aye, aye, Sir." Cardones turned back to his station, and McKeon crossed to the command chair. He eased himself down in it and glanced unhappily at the closed hatch to the Captain's briefing room. The catastrophic consequences of the raid on the drug lab had shocked him to the core, and a subdued air of depression hovered over the ship. He knew the Captain blamed herself for it. She was wrong. It wasn't her fault, nor was it the fault of anyone else aboard Fearless, but the entire crew seemed to feel a personal sense of guilt over the disaster, one that cut all the deeper because of their earlier sense of achievement.

Yet there was something else under the guilt and depression. Anger. A seething hatred for whoever had set those charges with murder in his heart. He could feel it pulsing about him, bare-fanged and ugly, and it throbbed deep inside him, as well. For the first time since Harrington had taken command, he was truly one with his ship's company, no longer buttressed off by his own resentment and private despair, and the need to rend and destroy simmered in his blood.

He folded his hands in his lap, then looked up as a chime sounded from the com section. He turned his head, and his eyes narrowed as he saw Webster stiffen and begin punching buttons. He was over on the right side of the panel, in the secure channels section, and something about the way his hands moved rang a warning in McKeon's brain.

He slid from the command chair and padded over to the com officer's shoulder just as Webster plugged a message board into his terminal and downloaded the unscrambled message to it. The lieutenant spun his chair and started to spring erect, then stopped as he saw the exec.

"What is it, Webster?" McKeon asked quickly, worried by the lieutenant's pale face and tight expression.

"It's a priority message, Sir. From Lieutenant Venizelos at Basilisk Control. He says—" The lieutenant broke off and extended the board, and McKeon's face clenched as he scanned the brief, terse message. He raised his eyes and locked them with the lieutenant's.

"No one else hears about this until the Captain or I tell you different, Webster," he said very softly. "Clear?"

"Yes, Sir," Webster said, equally quietly.

The exec nodded and turned on his heel, striding briskly across the bridge. "You have the watch, Mr. Webster," he called over his shoulder, and tapped sharply on the briefing room's admittance panel. The hatch hissed open, and he disappeared through it.


Honor finished the message and laid the board gently on the table. Her face was pale but composed. Only her eyes showed the true depth of her tension as she looked up at McKeon, and the exec shifted his weight uneasily.

"So," she said at last, and glanced at the chronometer. The message had taken ten hours to reach them; Hauptman's courier boat would arrive within another twenty.

"Yes, Ma'am. He has to be coming out to see you personally, Captain," McKeon said softly.

"What makes you so certain, Exec?"

"Ma'am, it can't be for any other reason—not on a Crown courier. That's a deliberate statement, a proof of his political clout. If he were just coming out to check on his own factors, he'd've come on one of his own ships. And it can't be to see Dame Estelle, either. He must have already hit every political lever he has at home, and if he couldn't get Countess New Kiev to interfere, he knows damned well he won't get Dame Estelle to. That only leaves you, Captain."

Honor nodded slowly. There were gaping holes in McKeon's logic, but he was right. She could feel that he was, and there was genuine concern in his eyes and voice. Concern, she thought, which wasn't for himself. It was for his ship and, perhaps, just possibly, for his captain, as well.

"All right, Exec," she said. "You may be wrong. I don't think you are. But whether you are or not, it doesn't change our duties or our priorities, does it?"

"No, Ma'am," McKeon said quietly.

"Very well, then." She looked sightlessly around the briefing room for a moment, trying to think. "I want you to concentrate on working with Rafe and Ensign Tremaine's ground party. Nail that relay's power source down for me. In the meantime, I'll have a word with Dame Estelle and tell her who's coming to call on us."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Good." Honor rubbed her temple, feeling Nimitz's tension on the back of her chair. She sounded cool and confident, she thought. The conscientious captain, concerned only with her duty while her stomach knotted with something much too much like fear and her mind filled with uncertainty. But she had no choice. Her duty was all she knew how to do. Yet, for the first time in her career, when she reached out for the steadying weight of responsibility, it wasn't enough. Not enough.

"Good," she repeated, lowering her hand from her temple. She stared at her fingers for a second, then looked back up at McKeon, and the exec thought her face looked even younger—and far more vulnerable—than he had ever seen it. A familiar flicker of resentment stirred within him like an involuntary mental reflex, but with it came another, stronger impulse.

"We'll take care of it, Ma'am," he heard himself say, and saw the surprise in the backs of her eyes. He wanted to say something else, but even now that was more than he could do.

"Thank you, Exec." She inhaled deeply, and he saw her face change. The Captain was back, settling over her bony features like a shield, and she squared her shoulders.

"In the meantime," she said more briskly, "I'll ask Dame Estelle if she can get Barney Isvarian up here. I want him to sit down with Papadapolous and myself to discuss these new Medusan weapons."

"Yes, Ma'am." McKeon stepped back, braced to attention for just an instant, and turned away. The hatch hissed closed behind him.

"There it is, Mr. Tremaine. See?"

The NPA private stepped back from the electronic glasses swivel-mounted atop the power relay on the ridge above the crater which had once housed a drug laboratory. It had taken hours to track the buried cable from the transmitter below to this point, and their real problem had started then, for the receptor wasn't a direct space up-link, and it was omnidirectional. They hadn't had a clue where its relay was, but now Tremaine peered through the glasses, and his face tightened as he saw the telltale roundness of a parabolic receiving dish. It was on a much higher ridge almost twenty kilometers away, but that smooth arc couldn't possibly be a natural formation, even if it had been painted to look like the rock around it.

"I think you're right, Chris." He looked down at the bearing ring on the glasses' mount, then raised his wrist com to his mouth. "Hiro?"

"Here, Skipper," Yammata's voice came down from the pinnace hovering overhead.

"I think Rodgers has spotted it. Take a look at that ridge to the north, bearing—" he looked back at the ring "—zero-one-eight true from this relay."

"Just a sec, Skipper." The pinnace shifted slightly, and Yammata came back up on the com almost instantly. "Tell Chris he's got good eyes, Skip. That's it, all right."

"Good." Tremaine gave the NPA man a tight nod of approval, then looked back up at the pinnace. "Have Ruth pick us up, and let's get over there."

"Aye, aye, Sir. We're on it."

"Major Papadapolous, Ma'am," McKeon said, and stood aside as Captain Nikos Papadapolous, Royal Manticoran Marines, marched into Honor's briefing room.

There could be only one "captain" aboard a ship of war, where any uncertainty over who someone was referring to in the midst of a critical situation could be fatal, so Papadapolous received the courtesy promotion to avoid that confusion. And he looked every centimeter a major, despite his captain's insignia, like someone who'd just stepped out of a recruiting poster, as he paused inside the hatch. Barney Isvarian was a real major, but far less spruce-looking. In point of fact, he looked like hell. He'd had exactly no sleep in the twenty-nine hours since sixty-one of his best friends were killed or wounded, and Honor was fairly positive he hadn't even changed his clothes.

Papadapolous glanced at the NPA major and clicked to attention, but there was a dubious look in his eyes. The Marine was dark, despite his auburn hair, with quick, alert eyes, and he moved with an assurance just short of cockiness and the limber power of the RMMC's strenuous physical training program. He was probably all spring steel and leather and dangerous as a kodiak max, just like the poster said, Honor thought sardonically, but he looked like an untested recruit beside Isvarian's stained and weary experience.

"You sent for me, Captain?" he said.

"I did. Sit down, Major." Honor pointed to an empty chair, and Papadapolous sat neatly, looking alertly back and forth between his superiors.

"Have you read that report I sent you?" Honor asked, and he nodded. "Good. I've asked Major Isvarian here to give you any additional background you require."

"Require for what, Ma'am?" Papadapolous asked when she paused.

"For the formulation of a response plan, Major, in the event of an attack on the Delta enclaves by Medusans armed with similar weapons."

"Oh?" Papadapolous furrowed his brow for a moment, then shrugged. "I'll get right on it, Ma'am, but I don't see any problems."

He smiled, but his smile faded as the Captain looked back at him expressionlessly. He glanced sideways at Isvarian and stiffened, for the NPA major wasn't expressionless at all. His bloodshot eyes looked right through the Marine with something too close to contempt for Papadapolous's comfort, and he turned defensively back to Honor.

"I'm afraid I can't quite share your confidence, Major," she said calmly. "I think the threat may be somewhat more serious than you believe."

"Ma'am," Papadapolous said crisply, "I still have ninety-three Marines aboard ship. I have battle armor for a full platoon—thirty-five men and women—with pulse rifles and heavy weapons for the remainder of the company. We can handle any bunch of Stilties armed with flintlocks." He stopped, jaw clenched, and added another "Ma'am" almost as an afterthought.

"Bullshit." The single flat, cold word came not from Honor but from Barney Isvarian, and Papadapolous flushed as he glared at the older man.

"I beg your pardon, Sir?" he said in a voice of ice.

"I said 'bullshit,'" Isvarian replied, equally coldly. "You'll go down there, and you'll look pretty, and you'll beat the holy living hell out of any single bunch of Medusans you come across, and that'll be fucking all you do while the nomads eat the rest of the off-worlders for breakfast!"

Papadapolous's face went as white as it had been red. To his credit, at least half his anger was at hearing such language in his commanding officer's presence—but only half, and he glared at the haggard, unshaven Isvarian's wrinkled uniform.

"Major, my people are Marines. If you know anything about Marines, then you know we do our job."

His clipped voice made no effort to hide his own contempt, and Honor started to raise an intervening hand. But Isvarian lurched to his feet before she got it up, and she let it fall back into her lap as he leaned towards Papadapolous.

"Let me tell you something about Marines, Sonny!" the NPA man spat. "I know all about them, believe me. I know you're brave, loyal, trustworthy and honest." The bitter derision in his voice could have stripped paint from the bulkheads. "I know you can knock a kodiak max on his ass at two klicks with a pulse rifle. I know you can pick a single gnat out of a cloud of 'em with a plasma gun and strangle hexapumas with your bare hands. I even know your battle armor gives you the strength of ten because your heart is pure! But this ain't no boarding action, 'Major' Papadapolous, and it's no field exercise, either. This is for real, and your people don't have the least damned idea what they're fucking around with down there!"

Papadapolous sucked in an angry breath, but this time Honor did raise her hand before he could speak.

"Major Papadapolous." Her cool soprano wrenched him around to face her, and she smiled faintly. "Perhaps you aren't aware that before joining the NPA, Major Isvarian was a Marine." Papadapolous twitched in shock, and her smile grew. "In point of fact, he served in the Corps for almost fifteen years, completing his final tour as command sergeant major for the Marine detachment on Saganami Island."

Papadapolous looked back at Isvarian and swallowed his hot retort. The Saganami Marines were chosen from the elite of the Corps. They made up the training and security detachments at the Naval Academy, serving as both examples and challenges for the midshipman who might one day aspire to command Marines, and they were there because they were the best. The very best.

"Major," he said quietly, "I . . . apologize." He met the older man's red-rimmed eyes unflinchingly, and the NPA man slumped back into his chair.

"Oh, hell." Isvarian waved a hand vaguely and flopped back into his chair. "Not your fault, Major. And I shouldn't have popped off that way." He rubbed his forehead and blinked wearily. "But all the same, you don't have any idea what you're getting into down there."

"Perhaps not, Sir," Papadapolous said, his voice much more level as he recognized the exhaustion and pain behind the NPA major's swaying belligerence. "In fact, you're right. I spoke without thinking. If you have any advice to offer, I would be most grateful to hear it, Major."

"Well, all right, then." Isvarian managed a tired, lop-sided grin. "The thing is, we don't have any idea how many of those rifles are out there or what the nomads are planning to do with them. But you might want to bear this in mind, Major Papadapolous. We've fitted that thing with a standard butt stock and test-fired it. It's got a kick you won't believe, but Sharon Koenig was right—it's also got an effective aimed range of somewhere over two hundred meters. It could use better sights, but a single hit will kill an unarmored human being at that range with no trouble at all."

He leaned back in his chair and inhaled deeply.

"The problem is that your people can undoubtedly trash any of them you see, but you won't see them unless they want you to. Not in the bush. A Medusan nomad could crawl across a pool table without your seeing him if he didn't want you to. And while your body armor may protect you, it won't protect any unarmored civilians."

"Yes, Sir," Papadapolous said even more quietly. "But is it really likely that we'll see some sort of mass uprising?"

"We don't know. Frankly, I doubt it, but that doesn't mean we won't. If it's only a series of small-scale incidents, then my people can probably handle it, but someone's been dumping mekoha out there by the air lorry load, as well as teaching them how to make guns. A major incident certainly isn't out of the question. If it comes at one of the Delta city-states, they should be able to at least hold their walls until we can get help to them. If it comes at the off-world enclaves, though—" Isvarian shrugged tiredly. "Most of 'em are wide open, Major Papadapolous, and they don't even know it. Their security people haven't even brushed back the moss on the approaches to establish security or kill zones, and—" he smiled again, an achingly weary but genuine smile "—ain't none of 'em Grunts like us."

"I understand, Major." Papadapolous smiled back, then looked at Honor. "Ma'am, I'm sorry I seemed overconfident. With your permission, I'd like to take Major Isvarian down to Marine Country and get my platoon commanders and Sergeant Major Jenkins involved in this. Then I'll try to give you a response plan that has some thought behind it for a change."

"I think that sounds like a reasonable idea, Major," Honor said mildly, then glanced at Isvarian. "On the other hand, it might be an even better idea to get some food into Major Isvarian and lock him in a cabin for a few hours' sleep before you confer."

"Now that's a real good idea, Captain." Isvarian's voice was slurred, and he listed noticeably as he heaved himself to his feet. "But if Major Papadapolous doesn't mind, I think I'd like a shower first."

"Can do, Major," Papadapolous said promptly, and Honor smiled as she watched him escort a staggering Isvarian from her briefing room.


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