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Medusa was still the most boring looking planet she'd ever seen, Honor reflected, brooding over the main visual display once more, but it was beginning to seem appearances could be deceiving. She remembered something she'd read once, some ancient curse from Old Earth about living in "interesting times." It made much more sense now than it had when she first read it.

She hid a sigh, walked across to her chair, and eased herself into it without officially taking over the watch from McKeon. Her brain was busy.

Two days had passed since Hauptman's visit. Two whole days without a single new disaster, which was almost enough to make her skin crawl with anticipation. Not that there hadn't been "interesting" developments. Dame Estelle's sulfurous description of her interview with Countess New Kiev's courier had been one. Honor had never imagined the genteel, composed Resident Commissioner could be so elementally enraged. Dame Estelle had looked ready to bite pieces out of the furniture, but as Honor had listened to her account of the meeting, she'd understood perfectly.

It seemed New Kiev was feeling the heat from the financial community in general and, apparently, from the Hauptman Cartel in particular. From Dame Estelle's remarks, Honor was beginning to suspect that the big Manticoran merchant cartels had contributed rather more heavily to the Liberal Party's political coffers than she'd ever thought. The notion of an alliance between the parliamentary advocates of increased welfare spending and the captains of industry seemed a bit bizarre to Honor, but something was certainly giving them an awful lot of clout with the Opposition, for Countess New Kiev had decided to turn the screws on Dame Estelle to propitiate them.

Honor had been astounded to learn from the commissioner that New Kiev had been told in unambiguous terms to keep her hands off the Navy's operations on Basilisk Station. That must have been a rude shock for her, Honor told herself with secret delight, and it reinforced her own suspicion that someone well up the chain of command approved of her actions. It was also, she reflected, the first time since the Basilisk Annexation that the Minister for Medusan Affairs had been told—rather bluntly, she gathered—that her authority ended at the outer edge of the planetary atmosphere. It was a long overdue assertion of the Fleet's authority and responsibility, although, given the officers and ships normally assigned here, she had little faith it would last.

But it was holding for now, and New Kiev didn't like it a bit. More, it sounded as if her authority even within her own planetary bailiwick had taken a beating.

Honor hadn't quite understood the gleam in the commissioner's eye once she stopped ranting and started speculating on the political situation back home. Of course, Honor didn't understand most of the machinations that went on inside the Parliament of Manticore. She vastly preferred the Navy, where the chain of command was at least generally clear, whatever infighting went on between factions and power groups. But Dame Estelle did seem to grasp the byzantine rules of the game, and she appeared convinced that something deep, complex, and probably drastic was going on beneath the surface . . . and that whatever it was boded ill for Countess New Kiev.

Honor could follow some of her reasoning, for as Dame Estelle had pointed out, New Kiev, as one of the leaders of the Opposition, held her present post only because the Ministry for Medusan Affairs was traditionally assigned to the Liberal Party as some sort of quid pro quo left over from the original, tortuous annexation fight in Parliament. But there were limits to how far from the Government line she could stray without losing her position, and it seemed she'd reached them, for her messenger had arrived in Dame Estelle's office with "suggestions," not directives.

The commissioner hadn't cared for those suggestions at all, and as far as Honor could decipher them, they seemed to have consisted entirely of variations on a single theme. Dame Estelle should remember the commercial importance to the Kingdom of its great trading houses. She should strive to adopt a "more conciliatory tone" when dealing with them and "mediate between the Navy's overly rigorous application" of the commerce regulations and the cartels' "legitimate concerns over sudden and abrupt changes in the regulatory climate." Above all, she should "remember the transitory nature of our custodial presence on Medusa" and avoid any actions which would anger the natives or those who would someday trade with them as equals. And, of course, she should "strive to abate" the possibly over-zealous manner in which the present senior officer on Basilisk Station seemed to be wielding her powers over the remainder of the star system.

It had, Honor reflected, sounded like the most mealy-mouthed, double-tongued case of interstellar arm-twisting she'd ever heard of, and its timing had been unfortunate. Dame Estelle had been back in her office for less than ten minutes after a visit to the Government House hospital, where the worst injured of her wounded NPA troopers had just died, when New Kiev's courier caught up with her, and she hadn't been in the mood for it.

She'd snapped the unlucky messenger's head off and sent him home with it under one arm and a detailed account of the nature and severity of recently discovered violations of Her Majesty's Medusan Protectorate's laws under the other. And, she'd told Honor with grim delight, she'd concluded her report with the observation that the discovery of those violations had been made possible solely by the "dedicated, professional, persistent, and outstandingly successful efforts, both in their own right and in association with the NPA" (that was a direct quote) of Commander Honor Harrington and the crew of HMS Fearless. Under the circumstances, Dame Estelle had added, she had no intention of striving to abate Commander Harrington's activities and every intention of aiding and abetting them in any way she could. And if Her Majesty's Government disapproved of her intentions, she would, of course, submit her resignation.

The fact that her offer to resign hadn't been taken up seemed, in Dame Estelle's opinion, to validate her conclusion that New Kiev was in some sort of trouble back home. Honor wasn't so certain about that, but when she added it to the evidence of unanticipated support from her own superiors, she had to concede that the commissioner might just have a point.

The problem, of course, was that the support might well vanish if she and Dame Estelle couldn't carry through and deliver either the parties behind the drug lab (and, almost certainly, the new weapons, as well), or else demonstrate that those criminals' activities had been stopped once and for all. And the unhappy truth was that they had achieved exactly nothing further since Hauptman and the courier had taken themselves back through the Basilisk terminus to Manticore.

Honor half-reclined in her chair, crossing her legs and steepling her fingers under her chin while Nimitz napped on the chair back, and tried to think of anything else she might have done. Or, for that matter, might still do.

The tap on the power collector was, she was almost positive, a dead end. Oh, she had no doubt it had been installed when the collector was first put in by the Hauptman Cartel, but despite McKeon's savage counterattack on Klaus Hauptman and the investigations no doubt underway back home, it was unlikely anyone would ever be able to prove precisely how. If some highly placed individual within the cartel had ordered it, any records which might once have existed had very certainly been destroyed long since. And if someone had slipped it in when the prefabricated collector components were assembled here in Basilisk, it could have been any one or two of scores of people involved in the project. In either case, the chance of ever figuring out who'd done it was astronomically remote.

But Dame Estelle was right about one thing. Tapping off of the Government's own backup collector had shown a degree of arrogant self-confidence which sat very strangely with how meticulously the lab itself had been hidden. There'd been no need to tap that particular collector. Even if they hadn't wanted to use their own collector, a geothermal plant, or even a simple hydro generator, installed in the volcanic springs two kilometers from the lab could have provided the needed power. And it could have been run in by wire, without the betraying risk of beamed receptors and relays. It was as if their opponents had a split personality. One side of them hid the presence of their drug-making facilities with obsessive care, but the other ran utterly unnecessary risks that almost seemed to flaunt its nerve by stealing power for those same facilities from its enemies.

And, she thought grimly, there might even be a third personality, given the way the lab had been blown. That had been a terminally stupid thing for any criminal organization to do; the NPA would never give up looking for whoever had ordered it done. It was almost like a deliberate challenge, designed with malice aforethought to goad the authorities into the most violent reaction possible.

The problem was that none of it made sense. Not only did the bad guys seem to be going off in half a dozen directions at once in their planning, but the very scale of the operation was absurd. Dame Estelle was right. Whatever these people were after, it wasn't the profits from drug running or selling guns to the natives. It smacked of some organized off-world covert operation, but what was its purpose? Arming the Medusans and feeding them drugs that inspired violence had all the earmarks of an effort to engineer a native insurrection, yet no possible Medusan "uprising" could hope to defeat the forces Manticore could put into Basilisk to stop it. There might be a great deal of bloodshed before it ended, but most of the blood would be Medusan, not Manticoran, and the most likely upshot would be a powerful, permanent military presence on Medusa in place of the lightly-armed NPA troopers now stationed there.

Unless, of course, whoever was behind it (she very conscientiously avoided assuming it was the Republic of Haven) might be hoping for another response entirely. It was always possible that a bloodbath on Medusa would be grist for the Liberal/Progressive mill and wake such revulsion in Parliament as to enable the anti-annexationists to finally get Manticore entirely off the planet. It struck Honor as unlikely in the extreme, but it was possible. Yet even if that worked, it would never get the Kingdom to renounce its claim on the Basilisk terminus of the Junction, and what good would it do anyone—even Haven—to simply get the NPA off Medusa?

No, there was something else going on here. Something she and Dame Estelle were both missing, but something definitely linked to off-world interests other than a purely domestic Manticoran criminal operation. Honor was certain of that, even if she couldn't quite make the next connection in the chain, and that meant—


Honor twitched up out of her reverie at the sound of Captain Papadapolous's voice. Her surprise roused Nimitz, and he sat up to yawn at the Marine.

"Yes, Major?" she replied. Then she noticed Barney Isvarian standing by the briefing room hatch, and her eyes narrowed. "You have that deployment plan for me?"

"Yes, Captain. Sorry it took so long, but Major Isvarian—Well, he was pretty worn out, Ma'am, and then we had to chase around assembling decent maps and some hard figures on what the NPA actually has on-planet."

"No problem, Major," Honor said, and meant it. If there'd been the least trace of defensiveness in Papadapolous's tone she might not have, but he was simply stating facts, not making excuses. She climbed out of her chair and shook herself, then looked over at the officer of the watch.

"Mr. McKeon?"

"Yes, Skipper?" The exec looked up from his displays, and Honor saw one or two heads twitch as if they wanted to turn and look at him. His use of the word "skipper" no longer sounded outright alien, but it didn't sound exactly natural, either. Not yet.

"I'd appreciate it if you could join Major Papadapolous, Major Isvarian, and me in the briefing room. I'd like your input on this."

"Of course, Ma'am." McKeon rose and looked down at Lieutenant Cardones. "You have the watch, Mr. Cardones."

"Aye, aye, Sir. I have the watch," Cardones replied, and McKeon walked briskly into the briefing room with Honor and Papadapolous.

The Marine, who had always seemed detached from Honor's relations with her naval officers anyway, appeared blissfully ignorant of any change in her relationship with McKeon. He crossed to the briefing room table and fed a pair of data chips into one of the terminals, then waited while Honor and McKeon found seats. Isvarian, who looked infinitely better than the last time Honor had seen him in this compartment, also found a seat, and Papadapolous cleared his throat.

"Basically, Captain, Commander McKeon, I'd like to give you a brief overview of our ideas before I show you the actual deployment order. Would that be acceptable?"

"Of course," Honor replied.

"Thank you, Ma'am. Very well, then. First, we had three basic problems to consider. One, we have to respond to a threat whose parameters we cannot establish with any degree of certitude. Two, our resources are limited, and those currently off-planet—Fearless's Marine detachment—aren't concentrated in one place at the moment. Three, the ideal solution requires the integration of our Marines and their firepower with the NPA's local expertise and troop strength into a single force operating under a unified field plan.

"After lengthy discussions with Major Isvarian, my platoon commanders and I have come to the conclusion that we won't know how powerful the opposition is until and unless we actually see it coming at us. There's simply no way for us to know at this time, though that may change if new intelligence is developed on Medusa. Anything that gives us some clear picture of potential enemy troop strength would be invaluable, and Major Isvarian has assured us that his people will do everything they can to get that information for us.

"Next, there's the problem of getting our own available strength concentrated. The NPA only has about a five-company field strength, once we allow for essential detachments, and my own company is understrength just now. So, with your permission, Captain, I'd like to recall the Marines currently detached to the customs and inspection parties. I believe the traffic volume has dropped to a level which would permit us to reduce the number of inspection boats and consolidate Navy ratings to crew them, which would release our Marines for possible ground combat. If we can do that, I'd have four full-strength platoons to work with, not three partial ones."

Papadapolous paused and raised an eyebrow at Honor. In turn, she glanced at McKeon and raised an eyebrow of her own.

"I think we could do that, Ma'am," the exec said after a moment. "We can probably get by with two fully-crewed inspection boats, given present traffic levels."

"Very well, Major Papadapolous," Honor said. "You have your Marines back again."

"Thank you, Ma'am. That gives me much greater flexibility." The Marine smiled briefly, and Isvarian nodded his own satisfaction.

"Given that troop strength," Papadapolous resumed, "I'd like to move it down to the surface as soon as possible. Our basic deployment plan is intended to provide maximum coverage for the off-world enclaves with, as Dame Estelle and Major Isvarian have requested, as much capability as possible to go to the aid of any of the native city-states, as well.

"Toward these ends, I intend to reconfigure two squads' worth of our battle armor for the recon role. As you no doubt know, Captain—" the Marine's tone suggested that she might not know but chose, diplomatically, to assume that she did "—our powered armor is designed to confer maximum tactical flexibility by allowing us to configure it for specific mission parameters. Normally, we operate with fairly heavy weapon loads, but that limits our endurance in two ways. First, the weaponry itself displaces power cells we might otherwise carry, and second, most of our heavy weapons are energy intensive, which ups the drain on the cells we can carry. It gives us a lot of firepower, but only over relatively short engagement times.

"In the recon role, weaponry is cut back to a bare minimum in favor of additional sensor systems, which simultaneously allows us to add additional cells, reduce overall power requirements, and substantially upgrade sensor capability. A Marine in standard armor configuration has an endurance of less than four hours under sustained combat conditions; in recon configuration, his endurance is over fifty hours, he can sustain speeds of sixty kilometers per hour even through rough terrain, and he can 'see' much better. The trade off is that his offensive power is little greater than that of a Marine in standard battle dress."

He paused and watched his audience's faces as if to be certain they were with him, and Honor nodded.

"All right, what I intend to do is use my two squads of recon-configured armor as scouts. Once we know an incident is under way, the scouts will go out looking for potential hostiles and attempt to identify them so that air strikes can interdict them short of the enclaves if at all possible. They'll have the speed and sensor capability to cover lots of ground, and their armor should protect them from anything the natives have. Major Isvarian assures me that not even a Medusan nomad can hide from full-range battle armor sensors if we know his general area, so even if they're pushed back into the enclaves, I anticipate developing reasonably complete tactical data from them.

"The third squad of battle armor will be configured for maximum combat capability and stationed centrally within the enclaves. As information on enemy movements comes in, it will be shifted in response. Given the firepower each Marine will represent, I can probably deploy them by sections or even in two-man teams to deal with anything short of a massed charge, and they'll represent my primary striking force." He paused and frowned slightly. "I'd really prefer, in some respects, to use them as my reserve, instead, given their mobility and combat power, but I'm afraid they'll prove too valuable in the offensive role to make that practical.

"In the meantime, however, I intend to break up two of my other three platoons and integrate their personnel with Major Isvarian's NPA troopers. Our people have better armor and generally more powerful weapons than the NPA, and they're trained for full-dress combat situations, while the NPA are primarily policemen. I'd like to hand them out on a squad basis, attached to experienced NPA platoon or company-level commanders to supplement their firepower and tactical flexibility. At the same time, I want to cross-attach at least one NPA officer who knows the terrain well to my heavy-armored squad. If possible, I'd like more than one member of the NPA, in case I have to split the squad, since getting maximum utility out of our people will require their knowing exactly where they're going and exactly what the ground will look like once they get there.

"With our Marine elements in support, the NPA will then provide the primary perimeter control force. Its assigned mission will be to cover the enclaves and pin down any attackers until the heavy-armored squad or even scouts in the vicinity can deal with the attack. They will be instructed not to expose themselves to avoidable casualties, since they'll be much less well-protected, but they should be able to take care of themselves if they're forced into sustained action.

"My fourth and final platoon and the heavy weapons section will form our central reserve. The heavy weapons section will be on call for the entire force, and Major Isvarian has assured me of sufficient counter-grav to give us good mobility. I hope to detach the section, or even individual weapon teams, on a purely temporary basis, returning them to the reserve as quickly as possible, but we'll have to play that by ear once something breaks. Fourth Platoon, however, will be maintained intact and concentrated for as long as possible to deal with penetrations. Again, Major Isvarian tells me the NPA can provide us with transport both to reach trouble spots and to return Marines to the reserve as quickly as possible once a problem has been dealt with."

He paused once more, cocking his head as if to consider everything he'd just said, then nodded.

"Under the best possible conditions, Captain, we're going to be spread very thin. On the other hand, our communications should be infinitely superior to the enemy's, as will our sensor capability and individual firepower. Major Isvarian and I have considered the known capabilities of the natives' new rifles, and we believe our people should be able to deal with any single group of enemies relatively quickly, even if outnumbered by a very heavy margin. Our greatest fear is numerous, small, simultaneous incursions which would over-extend our forces and slip at least some attackers past us unengaged. That possibility is especially serious in the relatively built up areas of the Delta. Our sight-lines are going to be a lot shorter than in the open field, and so are our engagement ranges and firing lanes. That's why I want those scouts so badly, and it's also the reason we're deliberately spreading our people out so much—to give us shorter response time to any given threat."

"I understand, Major," Honor said, privately impressed by the difference between what she was hearing now and Papadapolous's original airy, off-handed disparagement of his task's difficulties.

"In that case, Ma'am," the Marine said, punching commands into his terminal, "let me show you the specific initial deployment grid Major Isvarian and I have come up with." A very large-scale holo of the enclaves and the Delta immediately around them glowed to life above the conference table. "As you can see, Captain, we'll place our first scouting element here, along the line of the Sand River tributary channel. Then we'll put another element here, and another here. After that . . ."

Honor sat back and watched the holo blossom with light codes as Papadapolous, with occasional support from Isvarian, detailed their plan. She was a Navy officer, not a Marine, but it looked impressive to her. More importantly, Isvarian seemed completely satisfied with it, and she contented herself with a knowing expression and tried to nod in all the right places. Yet even as she listened something nagged at her. She couldn't quite put her finger on it until Papadapolous finished and turned to her expectantly while the big holo glowed behind him.

"Very impressive, Major," she said then. "It looks to me like you've given careful consideration to maximizing your own capabilities while limiting those of your enemies. Do you mind if I ask a few questions?"

"Of course not, Captain."

"Thank you. First, have you and Major Isvarian discussed this with anyone else ground-side yet?"

Papadapolous glanced at Isvarian, and the NPA major answered for him.

"We've talked to my two senior field men, Dame Estelle, and George Fremont, her deputy. That's all so far, Captain."

"I see. And could you tell me how much advance planning and warning your people would need to make this work, Major Isvarian?"

"At least a week to achieve this kind of integration. In fact, I'd like at least ten days."

"I see," Honor repeated, and hated herself for the question she had to ask next. "And have you determined yet how the operators of that drug lab realized your raid was coming, Major Isvarian?"

The NPA man's face tightened, and she knew he'd suddenly seen where she was headed, but he made himself answer in a level voice.

"No, Ma'am."

"Then I'm very much afraid, gentlemen, that we have a problem," she said quietly.

"Problem, Captain?" Papadapolous looked puzzled, and Honor turned towards him, but Isvarian raised a hand.

"May I, Captain?" he asked heavily, and Papadapolous looked across the table at him as she nodded.

"We screwed up, Nikos," Isvarian sighed. "To be more specific, I screwed up. We've got a security problem down there."

"I don't understand, Sir." Papadapolous glanced at Honor. "Captain? How could anything the Medusans know about us materially affect our operations? Surely the technological gap is too extreme for them to realize the sort of threat our weapons represent."

"As far as the natives are concerned, you're probably right, Major," Honor said. "But we have very good reason to believe the weapons we're so worried about were supplied to them by off-worlders, and those same off-worlders would appear to have information sources within the NPA or—more probably, in my opinion—within the NPA's civilian support structure. In either case, any pre-positioning of your people would tip them off as to what we're up to."

"I follow that, Ma'am," Papadapolous said with a frown, "but I'm afraid I'm still not certain exactly what you're getting at. Wouldn't their knowledge serve as a deterrent against any open action?"

"Our problem is that we don't know what they're really after, Nikos," Isvarian said. "I know Dame Estelle thinks it's more than just money, and it looks like Captain Harrington agrees with her." He shrugged. "If both of them think that, I'm certainly not prepared to argue with them. But that means that knowing what we intend to do won't necessarily deter them at all—and it will give them the opportunity to adjust their own plans accordingly if they decide to go ahead."

"But to what effect?" Papadapolous asked.

"We can't know that," Honor cut in before Isvarian could reply. She nibbled on her lip for a moment, wondering how much to worry the Marine with. Clearly Papadapolous was concentrating—as he ought to be—on the tactical problem he faced. Equally clearly, he wasn't aware of the behind-the-scenes tension and maneuvering to pull Fearless's (and Honor's) teeth. Or, at least, not of how that might affect his own problems.

"One possibility is that we might scare them back underground," she said finally, choosing her words with care. "Presumably, they're up to something fairly involved, and certainly what we've seen so far suggests some very long-term planning. While our immediate objective has to be to prevent casualties and limit damage, a deterrent that's too effective may handicap our long-term objective of stopping them entirely, since we can't do anything to derail their ultimate intentions until they come into the open and try to implement them." She started to add something more about her own possible time constraints, then decided against it.

Papadapolous watched her face with an attentive frown. He seemed quite aware that there was something she hadn't said, but she'd said enough to give him plenty of food for thought.

"I see," he said after a moment. He gazed at his holo, eyes thoughtful, then looked back at Honor. "Would you care to offer any suggestions, Ma'am?"

"Only one," she said, and turned to McKeon. "We've just agreed we can cut down on the inspection flights. Can we restrict them to just the boarding shuttles?"

"I don't see any reason why we couldn't," McKeon said after a moment's consideration. "It's what they were built for, after all."

"In that case, I want all three of those pinnaces reassigned from the Government Compound to Fearless," Honor told Isvarian. "With all three of them available, we can land Major Papadapolous's entire force in a single assault drop."

"And retain them all aboard ship without giving away our deployment plans in the meantime," Isvarian said with a nod.

"Precisely. Major?"

"Well . . ." Papadapolous seemed unaware he'd spoken as he peered back down at his display with puckered eyes, and she could almost see the thoughts racing through his brain. He started to speak again, only to pause once more, then nodded slowly.

"It's going to be messier, Ma'am," he warned, "and with all my people up here, there's going to be a lot more room for us to pick up on an incident late or bobble our coordination and let something through into the enclaves. That's what concerns me most, but we're not going to be able to integrate my squads with NPA formations without time for them to train in coordination with their parent units, either, so we're going to lose a lot of flexibility and responsiveness once we're down, too. Still, I think we can probably work something out." He rubbed his jaw, still staring at the holo, then looked up at Isvarian.

"Can you stay aboard another day or so, Major? We're going to have to rethink the entire ops plan, and I'd really value your input."

"I'll be happy to, Nikos." Isvarian rose to join his study of the holo. "And I'm not sure we'll lose quite as much flexibility as you think. We can still plan my people's original positions to tie into your eventual deployments, and maybe we can use First and Second Platoons as squad level reaction forces rather than trying for unit-by-unit integration."

"That's what I was thinking," Papadapolous agreed. "And then—" He broke off and looked at Honor with a hint of apology. "Sorry, Captain. The Major and I can get into the nuts and bolts on our own time. I'll try to have a preliminary plan for you by the end of the day."

"That will be fine, Major," Honor told him. She rose and smiled at him and Isvarian. "I'm still impressed, gentlemen, and I have every confidence your final solution will work out equally well."

She gave them another smile and beckoned to McKeon. She and the exec walked out of the briefing room. Behind them, through the closing hatch, she saw the two officers they'd left behind hunched over the holo with their heads close together in earnest conversation.


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