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Honor stood at the mouth of the boat bay personnel tube, watching through the visual display's bay pickups as her cutter mated with the tube's far end. The small craft moved with deliberate precision in the bay's brightly-lit vacuum, settling its ninety-five-ton mass neatly into the waiting cradle, and the rams moved the tube buffers forward, sealing the tube collar to the hatch. The green pressure light glowed, and she drew an unobtrusive breath as the tube hatch opened.

Klaus Hauptman stepped out of it like a reigning monarch. He was shorter than she'd expected, but solid, with the dramatic white sideburns she'd always suspected were artificial. His square face and powerful jaw had certainly benefited from cosmetic surgery—no one's features could be that regular—but the fundamental architecture had been maintained. There was strength in that face, an uncompromising, self-confident assurance that went beyond mere arrogance and pugnacity, and his eyes were hard.

"Commander Harrington." The deep voice was smooth and cultured, hiding any enmity, and he extended his hand.

She took it, and hid a smile as she felt his fingers work slightly about her own hand, feeling for the crusher grip. She'd never suspected he might be a knuckle-breaker. It seemed a bit petty for such a powerful man, but perhaps he needed to express his domination in all ways. And perhaps he'd forgotten she was a Sphinxian, she thought, and let him squeeze to his heart's content. Her long-fingered hand was large for a woman's, too large for him to secure the purchase points he wanted, and she let him build to maximum pressure, then squeezed back with smooth power. Her smile was pleasant, giving no indication of the silent struggle, but she saw his eyes flicker at the unexpected steeliness of her grip.

"Welcome aboard Fearless, Mr. Hauptman," she said, and let her smile grow just a bit broader as he abandoned the struggle and released her. She nodded to McKeon, who stepped forward to her shoulder. "My executive officer, Lieutenant Commander McKeon."

"Commander McKeon." Their visitor nodded, but he didn't offer his hand a second time. Honor watched him flex its fingers at his side and hoped they hurt.

"Would you care for a tour of the ship, Sir?" she asked pleasantly. "Much of it is off-limits to civilians, I'm afraid, but I'm certain Commander McKeon would be delighted to show you the portions of it we can."

"Thank you, but no." Hauptman smiled at McKeon, but his eyes never left Honor. "My time may be limited, Commander. I understand the courier will be heading back to Manticore as soon as he's finished his business with Commissioner Matsuko, and unless I leave with him, I'll have to make special arrangements to return home."

"Then may I offer you the hospitality of the officer's mess?"

"Again, no." Hauptman smiled again, a smile that might have shown just a bit of tension this time. "What I would actually appreciate, Commander Harrington, is a few moments of your time."

"Of course. If you'll accompany me to my briefing room?"

She stepped aside with a courteous gesture for Hauptman to precede her into the lift, and McKeon fell in at her back. The three of them entered the car and rode it in silence to the bridge. It wasn't a restful silence. Honor could feel the bare fangs and flexing claws beneath its surface and told her heart sternly not to race. This was her ship, and the fact that the Hauptman Cartel could undoubtedly have bought Fearless out of petty cash didn't change that.

The lift stopped at the bridge. It was Lieutenant Panowski's watch, and the acting astrogator rose from the command chair as his captain stepped onto the command deck.

"Carry on, Lieutenant," she said, and guided her guest toward the briefing room as Panowski sank back into his chair. No one else even looked up from his or her duties. It was a studied refusal to acknowledge Hauptman's presence, and she smothered a wry smile at her bridge crew's unspoken disapproval of the man as the briefing room hatch opened before them. Of course they all knew or suspected why Hauptman was here, and their silent support was even more precious after the listless depression and covert hostility those same people had once shown her.

The hatch closed, and she waved Hauptman to a chair. The business magnate crossed to it, but paused without sitting and glanced at McKeon.

"If you don't mind, Commander Harrington, I would really prefer to speak to you in private," he said.

"Commander McKeon is my executive officer, Sir," she replied with cool courtesy.

"I realize that, but I'd hoped to discuss certain . . . confidential matters with you. With all possible respect to Commander McKeon, I'm afraid I really must insist on discussing them privately."

"I regret that that won't be possible, Mr. Hauptman." Her face was serene, and no one else needed to know how hard it was for her to keep a brittle edge out of her voice. She drew out her own chair and sat in it, beckoning for McKeon to sit at her right hand, and smiled at Hauptman.

The first true expression crossed her visitor's face—a slight flush on the strong cheekbones and a subtle flaring of the nostrils—as she rejected his demand. Clearly, Klaus Hauptman was unused to having his will crossed. That was too bad, but he might as well get used to it now.

"I see." He smiled thinly and sat in his own chair, leaning back and crossing his legs with elegant ease as if to place the seal of his personal possession on the briefing room. Honor simply sat waiting, head slightly cocked, wearing an attentive smile. McKeon's face was less open. He wore the formal, masklike expression she'd come to know and hate, but this time it wasn't directed at her.

She studied Hauptman from behind her smile, waiting for him to begin, and her brain replayed all that she knew and had heard about him.

The Hauptman clan was one of the wealthiest in Manticoran history, but it was completely devoid of any connection to the aristocracy. That was rare in so powerful a family, but by all reports, Klaus Hauptman took a certain reverse snobbish pride in his very lack of blue blood.

Like Honor's own family, the first Hauptman had arrived on Manticore only after the Plague of 22 A.L.—1454 Post Diaspora, by Standard Reckoning. The original Manticore Colony, Ltd., had bid high for the rights to the Manticore System in 774 P.D. precisely because Manticore-A III, the planet now named Manticore, was so very much like Old Earth. Even the most Earthlike world required at least some terraforming to suit it to a human population, but in Manticore's case that had amounted to little more than introducing essential Terrestrial food crops and carefully selected fauna, and despite Manticore's long year and extended seasons, the off-world life-forms had made the transition to their new environment with ease.

Unfortunately, that ease of adaptation had been a two-edged sword, for Manticore had proven one of the very few planets capable of producing an indigenous disease that could prey on humanity. It took forty T-years for a native Manticoran virus to mutate into a variety which could attack human hosts, but once it had, the plague had struck with stunning power.

It had taken more than a standard decade for the medics to defeat the plague, and it had killed over sixty percent of the colonists—almost ninety percent of those born on Old Earth—before they did. The survivors' harrowed ranks had been depleted well below the levels of assured survivability, and far too many of their essential specialists had been among the dead. Yet as if to compensate for the disaster of the plague, fate had given the colony the ability to bring in the new blood it needed.

The original colonists had sailed for Manticore before the invention of the Warshawski sail and gravity detectors had reduced the risks of hyper travel to a level passenger ships could accept. Not even the impeller drive had been available, and their voyage in cryo hibernation aboard the sublight colony ship Jason had taken over six hundred and forty T-years, but the mechanics of interstellar travel had been revolutionized during their centuries of sleep.

The new technology had meant new colonists could be recruited from the core worlds themselves in a reasonable time frame, and Roger Winton, president and CEO of the Manticore Colony, Ltd., had anticipated the changes. He had created the Manticore Colony Trust of Zurich before departure, investing every penny left to the shareholders after the expenses of purchasing the colony rights from the original surveyor and equipping their expedition. Few other colonial ventures had even considered such a thing, given the long years of travel which would lie between their new worlds and Sol, but Winton was a farsighted man, and six centuries of compound interest had left the colony with an enviable credit balance on Old Earth.

And so Winton and his surviving fellows had been able not only to recruit the reinforcements they needed but to pay those colonists' passage to their new and distant homes, if necessary. Yet, because they were concerned about retaining political control in the face of such an influx of newcomers, the survivors of the original expedition and their children had adopted a new constitution, converting their colony from one ruled by an elective board of directors into the Star Kingdom of Manticore under Roger I, first monarch of the House of Winton.

The Manticore Colony, Ltd.'s, initial shareholders had received vast tracts of land and/or mineral rights on the system's planets, in direct proportion to their original capital contributions. The new constitution transformed them into an hereditary aristocracy, but it wasn't a closed nobility, for even vaster tracts had remained unclaimed. The new colonists who could pay their own passage received the equivalent of its cost in land credits on their arrival, and those who could contribute more than the cost of passage were guaranteed the right to purchase additional land at just under half its "book" value. The opportunity to become nobles in their own right had drawn the interest of an extraordinarily high percentage of young, skilled, well-paid professionals: physicians, engineers, educators, chemists and physicists, botanists and biologists—exactly the sort of people a faltering colonial population required and all too few out-worlds could attract. They'd arrived to claim and expand their guaranteed credit, and many of those so-called "second shareholders" had become earls and even dukes in their own right.

Of those who hadn't been able to pay their own passage in full, many had been able to pay much of the cost and so had received the difference in land credits on arrival. Small by Manticoran standards, perhaps, but enormous by core-world lights. Those people had become Manticore's freeholding yeomen, like Honor's own ancestors, and their families retained a sturdy sense of independence even today.

Yet for all that, the majority of the new arrivals had been "zero-balancers," individuals unable to pay any of their passage, who, in many cases, arrived on Manticore wearing all they owned upon their backs. Individuals like Heinrich Hauptman.

Today, there was little to differentiate, aside from the antiquity of original homestead land grants and certain purely honorific forms of address which were used with steadily decreasing frequency, between the descendants of yeomen and zero-balancers. But traditional memories of social status remained, and the Hauptman clan had never forgotten its hardscrabble roots. The family's rise to its present greatness had begun two Manticoran centuries before with Heinrich's great-grandson, yet Klaus Hauptman, who could have bought or sold a dozen dukedoms, still chose to regard himself—publicly, at least—as the champion of the "little man." It didn't prevent him from cementing business alliances with the aristocracy, nor from enjoying the power and luxury of his merchant prince status or becoming deeply involved in Manticoran politics, but his "commoner heritage" was fundamental to his fierce, prideful self-image. He regarded himself as a self-made man and the descendant of self-made men, despite the wealth to which he had been born.

And that image of himself was what had brought him here today, Honor told herself, for she'd hurt it. She'd caught him, or his employees, at least, dabbling in illegal trade, and to a man of his pride and self-aware importance that constituted a direct attack upon him, no mere business reverse or legal embarrassment. In his own eyes, Klaus Hauptman was the Hauptman Cartel, and that made her actions a personal insult he could not tolerate.

"Very well, Commander Harrington," he said at last, "I'll come straight to the point. For reasons of your own, you have seen fit to harass my interests in Basilisk. I want it stopped."

"I'm sorry you see it as 'harassment,' Mr. Hauptman," Honor said calmly. "Unfortunately, my oath to the Crown requires me to execute and enforce the regulations established by Parliament."

"Your oath doesn't require you to single out the Hauptman Cartel for your enforcement, Commander." Hauptman didn't raise his voice, but there was a vicious snap under its smooth surface.

"Mr. Hauptman," Honor faced him levelly, folding her hands tightly under the edge of the table, "we have inspected all commerce with the surface of Medusa or the Basilisk orbital warehouses, not simply that consigned here by your firm."

"Nonsense!" Hauptman snorted. "No other senior officer on this station has ever interfered so blatantly with Basilisk's legitimate merchant traffic. More to the point, I have numerous reports from my factors here to the effect that your 'customs' parties spend far more time 'examining' my shipments than anyone else's. If that's not harassment, I would very much like to know what you feel does constitute harassment, Commander!"

"What may or may not have been done by previous senior officers has no bearing on my responsibilities or duties, Mr. Hauptman," Honor said with cool precision. "And if, in fact, my inspection parties have spent more time on Hauptman Cartel shipments, that is entirely because our own experience has indicated that they are more likely than most to contain illegal items."

Hauptman's face darkened dangerously, but she made herself gaze back without any sign of her inner tension.

"Are you accusing me of smuggling, Commander Harrington?" The baritone was deeper and darker, almost silky.

"I am saying, Mr. Hauptman, that the record demonstrates that the incidence of contraband in shipments registered to your firm is thirty-five percent above that of any other firm trading with Medusa. Whether you are personally involved in those illegal activities or not, I cannot, of course say. For myself, I doubt it. Until such time, however, as we have satisfied ourselves that no contraband is passing under cover of a Hauptman Cartel manifest, my boarding officers will, at my orders, devote special attention to your shipments." Hauptman's face had grown steadily darker, and Honor paused, regarding him calmly. "If you desire an end to what you regard as 'harassment,' Sir, I would suggest that you insist that your own managers see to their internal housekeeping."

"How dare you?!" Hauptman exploded, half-surging to his feet. Honor's hands tightened further under the table, but she sat motionless. "I don't know who you think you are, but I refuse to sit here and be insulted in this fashion! I'd advise you to watch your wild allegations, Commander!"

"I've stated only facts, not 'wild allegations,' Mr. Hauptman," she said unflinchingly. "If you prefer not to hear them, then I suggest you leave."

"Leave? Leave?!" Hauptman was fully on his feet now, bracing his weight on the table as his voice filled the briefing room like thunder. "I came here to give you a chance to correct your gross mishandling of the situation! If you prefer, I can take it up with the Admiralty—or the government—instead of dealing with a jumped-up, over-inflated commander who insults me to my face by accusing me of illegal activities!"

"That is, of course, your option." Honor felt McKeon's coiled-spring tension beside her, but her own anxiety was fading, licked away by the steadily rising lava of her own anger. "In the meantime, however, you are a guest in my ship, Mr. Hauptman, and you will keep a civil tongue in your head or I will have you ejected from it!"

Hauptman's mouth dropped open in shock at her icy tone, and she leaned into his silence.

"I have not accused you, personally, of any illegalities. I have stated, and the record amply demonstrates, that individuals within your firm are engaged in illegal activities. Your threats to resort to higher authority do not alter that fact, nor will they alter my discharge of my responsibilities in light of it."

Hauptman sank back into his chair, jaw muscles bunched. Hushed silence hovered in the briefing room, and then he smiled. It wasn't a pleasant expression.

"Very well, Commander. Since you choose to see the possibility of my seeking redress through the Admiralty as a 'threat,' and since you seem unwilling to see the justice of extending even-handed treatment to my interests here, perhaps I can put this in terms you can understand. I am telling you, now, that you will cease harassing my ships and my shipments or that I will hold you personally—not the Navy, not the Government, you—responsible for the damage you are inflicting upon my business and personal good name."

"Whom you choose to hold responsible and for what is your affair, not mine." Honor's voice was cold.

"You can't hide behind your uniform from me, Commander," Hauptman said unpleasantly. "I am asking only for the courtesy and respect due any law-abiding private citizen. If you choose to use your position as an officer of the Crown to pursue some sort of personal vendetta against me, I will have no option but to use my resources to respond in kind."

"As I've already stated, I have not and do not intend to level any accusation against you personally until and unless clear and incontrovertible evidence that you knowingly permitted your employees to engage in illegal activities is presented. In the meantime, however, threats against me as an individual will have no more effect than threats to pressure me through my superiors." Honor's mind was cold and clear with the ice-hot flicker of her own anger, and her eyes were dark brown steel. "If you wish your shipments to pass with minimal delays for inspection, all you must do is see to it they contain no contraband. That," she added with cool deliberateness, "should not be an insurmountable task for a law-abiding private citizen of your means and authority, Sir."

"Very well, Commander," he grated. "You've chosen to insult me, whatever legalism you care to cloak that in. I'll give you one more opportunity to back off. If you don't, then I'll by God push you back."

"No, Sir, you will not," Honor said softly, and Hauptman gave a crack of scornful laughter. His body language radiated fury and contempt as he gave his renowned temper full rein, but his voice was hard and cold when he spoke once more.

"Oh, but I will, Commander. I will. I believe your parents are senior partners in the Duvalier Medical Association?"

Despite herself, Honor twitched in surprise at the complete non sequitur. Then her eyes narrowed, and her head tilted dangerously.

"Well, Commander?" Hauptman almost purred. "Am I correct?"

"You are," she said flatly.

"Then if you insist on making this a personal confrontation, you should consider the repercussions it may have on your own family, Madam, because the Hauptman Cartel controls a seventy percent interest in that organization's public stock. Do I make myself clear, Commander?"

Honor stiffened in her chair, her face paper-white, and the steel in her eyes was no longer chilled. It blazed, and the corner of her mouth twitched violently. Hauptman's own eyes gleamed as he misinterpreted that involuntary muscle spasm, and he leaned back, smiling and triumphant.

"The decision is yours, Commander. I am merely an honest merchant endeavoring to protect my legitimate interests and those of my shareholders in this system. If you insist on interfering with those legitimate interests, you leave me no choice but to defend myself in any way I can, however distasteful I may personally find the measures to which you compel me . . . or however unfortunate their consequences for your parents."

Honor's muscles quivered with hate, her fingers taloned in her lap, and she felt her lips draw back to spit her defiance in his face, but someone else's flat, cold voice spoke first.

"I suggest you reconsider that threat, Mr. Hauptman," Alistair McKeon said.

The sudden interruption was so utterly unexpected that Honor turned to him in amazement. Her executive officer's face was no longer masklike. It was tight with anger, the gray eyes snapping, and Hauptman regarded him as if he were an item of furniture whose presence the magnate had forgotten.

"I'm not accustomed to accepting the advice of uniformed flunkies," he sneered.

"Then I suggest you become accustomed," McKeon replied in that same, hammered-iron voice. "Ever since your arrival in this briefing room, you have persistently attempted to construe Commander Harrington's actions as a personal attack upon yourself. In the process, you have insulted her, the Royal Navy, and the discharge of our duties to the Crown. You have, in fact, made it abundantly clear that neither the law nor your responsibilities under it are as important to you as your own precious reputation. Despite your calculated insolence, the Captain has maintained an air of courtesy and respect, yet when she refuses to ignore her duty as an officer of the Queen or modify it to suit your demands, you have seen fit to threaten not just her personally, but the livelihood of her parents." Contempt blazed in the lieutenant commander's eyes. "I therefore warn you, Sir, that I will be prepared to so testify in any court of law."

"Court of law?" Hauptman reared back in surprise, and Honor felt almost as surprised even through her fury. What was McKeon—?

"Yes, Sir, a court of law, where your persistent attempts to compel the Queen's Navy to abandon its responsibilities will, no doubt, be seen as proof of collusion in treason and murder."

Absolute shock filled the briefing room with silence in the wake of McKeon's cold, hard voice. Hauptman paled in disbelief, but then his face darkened once more.

"You're insane! You're out of your mind! There's no—"

"Mr. Hauptman," McKeon interrupted the sputtering magnate harshly, "forty-seven hours ago, sixty-one Native Protection Agency police were killed or wounded in the pursuit of their duty. They were murdered, by off-world individuals trading with the Medusan natives in prohibited drugs. The laboratory manufacturing those drugs was powered by way of an unauthorized shunt installed in the backup orbital power collector of Her Majesty's Government's enclave on Medusa. That shunt, Mr. Hauptman, which Navy personnel discovered and positively identified not eight hours ago, was not installed after the collector was placed in Medusa orbit; it was installed when the collector was manufactured . . . by the Hauptman Cartel!"

Hauptman stared at him, too shocked to speak, and he continued in the same, grating voice.

"Since that shunt constitutes unimpeachable physical evidence linking your cartel or individuals employed by it with the drug operation, and hence with the murder of those officers, your blatant efforts to divert official attention from your operations here can only be construed as an effort to conceal guilt—either yours, or your employees. In either case, Sir, that would constitute collusion and thus make you, personally, an accomplice after the fact to murder at the very least. And I remind you that the use of Her Majesty's property in a capital crime—particularly one which results in the death of Crown officers—constitutes treason under the law of this kingdom. I respectfully submit—" he didn't sound at all respectful, Honor thought in shock "—that it is in your best interest and the interest of your cartel's future business reputation to cooperate fully with Commander Harrington's efforts to discover the true guilty parties rather than place yourself in a position of grave suspicion by obstructing an official investigation of Her Majesty's officers in this system."

"You're insane," Hauptman repeated, this time in a whisper. "Treason? Murder? You know Hauptman's hasn't—that I haven't—"

"Sir, I know only the facts I've just stated. Under the circumstances, and assuming you continue in your vendetta against the Captain—your vendetta, Sir, and not hers—I believe it would be my duty as an officer of the Queen to lay those facts before a court."

Alistair McKeon met Klaus Hauptman's disbelieving eyes with a cold, gray glare, and the magnate blanched. Honor made herself sit very still, grinding her heel down on the rage that still roared within her. Not for a moment did she believe Hauptman had been personally involved with the power tap or the drug lab. For that matter, she was almost certain he hadn't been personally involved in any of the illegal activities of his cartel in Basilisk. But his overweening pride and arrogance had been able to see the consequences of her actions only as a personal attack, and he had descended to the lowest and most contemptible of tactics simply to divert embarrassment from himself and punish her for daring to do her duty. That casual abuse of his own power and position filled her with as much revulsion as rage, and she had no intention of tempering McKeon's totally unexpected counterattack in any way. Hauptman had set the tone himself; now he could live with it.

"You wouldn't dare," the magnate said softly.

"Sir, I would." McKeon's voice was chipped flint, and Hauptman sat back in his chair, glaring back and forth between him and Honor.

"All right," he grated at last. "I see you've covered yourself after all, Commander Harrington. So go ahead, play tin-god out here. I wash my hands of the entire situation. Examine anything you damned well want, but don't you ever—ever—think this is over!"

McKeon gathered himself afresh, but Honor touched his arm and shook her head. She stood in silence, and when the exec made to rise with her, she waved him gently back into his chair. She inclined her head coldly at Hauptman, then gestured at the briefing room hatch, and the seething magnate stalked through it as it opened.

The bridge was still as death when they emerged onto it, but Honor scarcely noticed. She accompanied Hauptman into the lift, and the two of them rode to the boat bay in a silence deeper than the stars. But when they arrived, Honor reached out and pressed the override button, holding the lift door closed, and turned to him.

"Mr. Hauptman," she said in a voice of frozen helium, "you've seen fit to insult me and my officers and to threaten my parents. In fact, you have descended to the tactics of gutter scum, and that, in my opinion, Sir, is precisely what you have proven yourself to be." Hauptman's nostrils flared in a congested face, but she continued in the same ice-cold voice.

"I am fully aware that you have no intention of forgetting this incident. Neither, I assure you, have I. Nor will I forget your threats. I am a Queen's officer. As such, I will react to any personal attack upon me only if and as it arises, and for myself, both personally and as a Queen's officer, I dislike the custom of dueling. But, Mr. Hauptman, should you ever attempt to carry through your threat against my parents—" her eyes were leveled missile batteries and the tic at the corner of her mouth jerked like a living thing "—I will denounce you publicly for your contemptible actions and demand satisfaction. And when you accept my challenge, Mr. Hauptman, I will kill you like the scum you are."

Hauptman stepped back against the wall of the lift, staring at her in shocked disbelief.

"Believe it, Mr. Hauptman," she said very, very softly, and let the lift door open at last.


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