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CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Lieutenant Samuel Houston Webster hummed to himself as he worked his steady way through the mountain of routine signal traffic. Venerable and sacrosanct tradition required every communications officer to resent the paperwork his position entailed, but Webster was guiltily aware that he failed to measure up in that respect. There were days he resented the time it used up, yet the fact that he, alone of his ship's other officers, knew as much about Fearless's information flow as the Captain tickled his ego. More than that, it was surprisingly difficult to resent anything he "had" to do for Captain Harrington.


His fingers danced over his console with practiced ease, and a small corner of his mind occupied itself with other matters even as he kept an eagle eye on the secure traffic he was breaking down into clear. The Captain was good people, he told himself. That was about the strongest accolade in his vocabulary, and very few of his superiors ever earned it. Webster wasn't vain or arrogant, but he was entirely aware that the fortunate accident of his birth meant he was almost bound to become a senior officer himself someday. As such, he'd discovered that he had a tendency to look at his superiors of the moment through two sets of eyes. One belonged to the very junior officer he was, eager to learn from their greater experience and example, but the other belonged to the future flag officer he intended someday to be, and that second set of eyes was more critical than his cheerful exterior might suggest.


He'd been very disappointed in Lieutenant Commander McKeon, for example. If anyone on board should have seen what the Captain was up to and helped her achieve it, it was her exec. But McKeon seemed to have come around, and Webster had made a very careful note of the way the Captain had avoided climbing all over him before he did. There'd been times he'd been a little upset with her for not jerking McKeon up short, but the final result she'd achieved with him had been an eye-opener.


It was funny, in a way. Captain Harrington was so quiet. The RMN had its share of characters, and Webster had known captains who could blister battle steel when they were ticked. Captain Harrington never even raised her voice, and he'd never once heard her swear. Not that her calm manner meant anyone but an idiot would ever take liberties with her. In fact, he'd been surprised to realize that her very quietness was even more effective precisely because it was so different from the fire and thunder another captain might have shown.


He admired that, just as he admired the way she maintained her distance from her subordinates, always there, always approachable, but never letting anyone forget that she was in charge. Yet at the same time, she could rattle someone's cage any time she chose—like the way she'd forced Rafe Cardones into finding the answer to that problem with the drones—and she seemed to know everything there was to know about all of them. She even knew that while Cardones liked being called "Rafe," Webster passionately hated it when people called him "Sam." He rather doubted that information was listed anywhere in their personnel jackets, and he was at a loss to figure out how she'd acquired it.


Another message flickered on his display, the jumbled symbol groups flowing magically into clear text, and he paused. His eyebrows rose in surprise, and then he began to smile as he read it through. He sat for a moment, tapping on the edge of his console in thought, then nodded to himself. This one would go into the hopper last, he decided. It was only a routine "information" message, but Webster had a keener sense than most of the infinitely polite infighting between the Navy's first families. He rather thought it would make the Captain's day—if not her week—and it would be a nice surprise to finish out the traffic.


He tapped a priority number into the terminal and brought up the next message with a grin.


 


Honor sat working at her own terminal in the quiet of her cabin. She'd been spending too much time in her bridge briefing room. Knowing the Captain was just on the other side of that hatch, hovering over them, could have an inhibiting effect on junior officers, and with McKeon coming around it was no longer necessary to hover. They'd made great strides over the past week and a half. Not enough to completely compensate for the time they'd lost building their professional relationship, but certainly enough to leave the day-to-day affairs of the ship completely in his hands. So she'd brought her workload "home" to deal with.


She finished Dominica Santos's weekly maintenance report, approved the suggestions the engineer and McKeon had made for dealing with several minor problems, and paused to rub her eyes. The dining cabin hatch slid open, and MacGuiness padded through it with a fresh cup of hot cocoa as if her thoughts had summoned him.


"Thank you, Mac." She sipped with a smile, and he smiled back.


"You're welcome, Ma'am," he said, and vanished as quietly as he'd appeared. She took another sip and set the mug aside, preparing to jump back into the minutiae of her reports, when the admittance buzzer sounded. She hit the intercom key.


"Yes?"


"Communications Officer, Ma'am," her Marine sentry announced, and she made a face. Not because it was Webster, but because it meant he was bringing her the day's routine message traffic.


"Come in, Samuel," she said, and opened the hatch.


Webster walked in with the message board tucked under his arm, came briefly to attention, and extended it.


"The—"


"—daily traffic," Honor finished for him wryly, and he smiled.


"Yes, Ma'am. No special priorities."


"Well that's a relief."


She took the board and pressed her thumb to the security panel, receipting the traffic, and wondered yet again why the Navy insisted on using up an officer's time hand-delivering a ship's routine mail. Webster could have dumped the whole thing to her terminal direct from the bridge with the press of a key, but that wasn't the way the Navy did things. Perhaps, she thought, hand delivery was supposed to insure captains actually read the stuff.


"Yes, Ma'am." Webster came back to attention, gave her another smile, and disappeared back through the hatch.


Honor sat for a moment, gazing back and forth between the message board and her terminal while she pondered which boring bit of paperwork to turn her attention to next. The message traffic won out—at least it had come from a source outside Fearless—and she drew the board towards her and keyed it alive.


The first message appeared on the built-in display, and she scanned it idly, then punched for the next. And the next.


It was remarkable what gems of information the Lords of Admiralty in their wisdom deemed it necessary for their captains to know. She couldn't quite see, for example, why the Acting Senior Officer on Basilisk Station needed to know that BuShips had decreed that henceforth all RMN dreadnoughts should trade in two of their cutters for a sixth pinnace. Perhaps it was simply easier for them to send it to all captains than go to the trouble of looking up the ones who really needed it?


Her lips quirked at the thought, and she worked her way more briskly through the traffic. Some of it was both pertinent and germane to her duties, like the specific addition of force knives to the contraband list for Medusa, and other bits and pieces were moderately amusing, yet most of it was boring in the extreme.


But then she came to the last message, and her eyes opened very wide indeed. She sat bolt upright in her chair, a corner of her eye noting the way Nimitz had risen on his padded perch to mirror her reaction, and read it a second time.


It wasn't even addressed to her, but her face blossomed into a smile and her eyes began to dance as she read it yet again. It had been copied to her for her "information," not for any required action, and she began to chuckle aloud as she recalled her earlier suspicions that someone approved of her actions. Whoever that someone was had apparently decided to give her a very broad hint of his or her approval, for there was no other conceivable reason for this to have been sent to Fearless.


It was a routine dispatch from the CO of HMSS Hephaestus to Admiral Lady Lucy Danvers, Third Space Lord. Danvers was the head of BuShips, and Vice Admiral Warner's dispatch was a "regret to inform you" response to Captain Lord Young's recent request to BuShips for special refit priority. Admiral Warner's inspection teams had, it seemed, confirmed Captain Lord Young's own initial assessment and determined that heavy wear to the Warshawski sail tuners aboard Her Majesty's heavy cruiser Warlock made their replacement a matter of urgent priority. This necessary overhaul meant, unfortunately, that that vessel's refit must be extended for a minimum of eight more weeks in order to carry out the required installation and tests. Vice Admiral Warner would, of course, expedite the work in every possible way and remained Admiral Danvers's obedient servant and etc.


Honor placed the message board carefully on her desk and tried not to giggle. She hated the way she sounded when she giggled, but this time she couldn't help it. She rose, still snickering like a naughty schoolgirl with a secret, and reached out to scoop Nimitz off his perch. She held him at arm's length, and the treecat chittered with his own equivalent of a giggle as she whirled him in circles about the cabin.


"Well, that's that, Sir." PO Harkness scrubbed sweat from his forehead with a grubby handkerchief, then returned it to his coveralls' forearm pocket.


"It is, indeed," Ensign Tremaine agreed. He kneaded his stiff back muscles with one hand and wondered if it would be beneath an officer's dignity to do a little brow-mopping of his own.


"Thanks, Mr. Tremaine." Gunny Jenkins—for some reason known only to Marines, the senior Marine noncom on any ship was always called "Gunny," even when, like Jenkins himself, he was a company sergeant-major—wasn't even sweating, Tremaine noticed with some resentment. Jenkins made one last eyeball check of the empty suits of battle armor webbed into the pinnace's cargo bay, made a notation on his memo board, and closed the bay hatch.


"You're welcome, Gunny," Tremaine replied. Harkness was silent, eyeing the Marine with an air of infinite superiority, and Jenkins replied by ignoring the burly petty officer entirely.


"That just leaves the ammo pallets for Pinnace Two," Jenkins went on cheerfully as the three of them headed down the access tube from the pinnace airlock, and Tremaine swallowed a moan. He'd been hoping to leave that till next watch, and the look on Harkness's face said he'd hoped the same thing. The ensign started to object, then bit his lip. No one could have called Jenkins's expression a smirk, exactly, but it certainly came close. Perhaps, Tremaine thought, PO Harkness had a point where Marines were concerned. . . not that he intended to give Jenkins the satisfaction of hearing him say so. Instead—


"Of course, Gunny," he said even more cheerfully. "If you'll step right this way? PO?"


"My pleasure, Mr. Tremaine," Harkness said sourly, and Jenkins waved for his work party to fall in astern as they headed across the boat bay towards the stacked pallets.


* * *


"—so the pinnaces are combat-loaded if we have to drop them."


McKeon finished his report and switched off his memo pad, and Honor nodded. It was late, by Fearless's clock. The remains of supper lay on the snowy tablecloth between them, and Nimitz was still busy with his own plate at the table's far end. She crossed her legs and watched his needle-sharp teeth remove the flesh from a Sphinxian tree-hopper drumstick with surgical precision as she toyed with a fork. It was remarkable, she thought for the thousandth time, how neat his table manners were where anything but celery was concerned.


"I think we're about as ready as we're going to get, then," she said finally.


"I only wish we knew what we're ready for," McKeon agreed a bit sourly, and she gave a faint smile.


"We've had the better part of two whole weeks since Hauptman's visit with no alarms and excursions at all," she pointed out.


"Which only makes me think something extra nasty is sneaking up on us." McKeon sighed, then produced a wry smile of his own and stood. "Well, whatever happens will happen, I suppose, Ma'am. Good night."


"Good night, Mr. McKeon."


He gave her a small nod, and she watched him leave. Quite a change there, she told herself with undeniable satisfaction. Quite a change.


She stood herself and reached for the sadly depleted bowl of salad. Nimitz's head came up instantly, his green eyes bright, and she smiled.


"Here, Greedy Guts," she told him. She handed over the celery stalk and turned towards her private head. She could already feel the luxury of a long, hot shower.


 


The raucous sound of a buzzer woke her.


Honor's eyes popped open as the buzzer snarled a second time. She was a heavy sleeper by nature, but her first tenure in command of a Queen's ship had changed that, and Nimitz complained sleepily as she sat up quickly. The 'cat half-slid and half-rolled down into her lap from his favorite sleeping perch on her chest, and she set him gently aside with one hand as she turned and punched the com key with the other.


The buzzer stopped snarling at her acknowledgment, and she ran her hands quickly through her short hair. That was one advantage of wearing it like a man. There was no point pretending she was a beauty, anyway, and at least this way she didn't have to waste time making it look pretty when someone woke her in the middle of the night. She snatched the kimono her mother had given her for her last birthday from the bedside chair and slipped into it, then hit the com key a second time, accepting the call with full vision.


The screen was painfully bright in the dark cabin. It was also a split-image conference call, and Dame Estelle looked out of one side of it. Fearless had adjusted her shipboard day to match that of the Government Compound, and like Honor, Matsuko wore a robe over her nightclothes, but Barney Isvarian was in uniform in the other half of the image. Honor saw Surgeon Lieutenant Montoya, her own assistant physician, behind him and recognized the antiseptic cleanliness of one of the NPA's native clinics in the background.


"Sorry to wake you, Honor, but it's important." The commissioner sounded almost frightened, and Honor sat straighter as she finished belting her kimono.


"What is it, Dame Estelle?"


"Two pieces of information. One came in two days ago, but it was so vague I decided to sit on it a while before I passed it on to you. Barney just screened me with the second, and it changes the one I already had."


Honor nodded and cocked her head, inviting the commissioner to continue.


"I had a visit from Gheerinatu, one of the Medusan nomad clan chiefs, Wednesday," Matsuko said. "He doesn't like the Delta city-states any better than any other nomad, but we helped his clan out two years back. Given the weather here, the nomads tend to migrate from hemisphere to hemisphere—or at least to the equatorial zone and back—with the seasons, but Gheerinatu's clan got caught in an early storm while it was crossing the Delta. We pulled most of his clansmen and about half their herds out of a flash flood with NPA counter-grav just before they all drowned, and that makes us friends of his."


She paused, eyebrow quirked as if to ask if Honor was with her, and Honor nodded.


"All right. Gheerinatu's from the north—his clan's part of the Hyniarch . . . well, I guess we'd call it a clan federation. Anyway, he's heading south for the winter, but he's got relatives all over the northern hemisphere, and he dropped by to tell me that one of those relatives from up near the Mossybacks sent him a message. It wasn't a very specific message, but Gheerinatu thought we should hear about it. Roughly translated, it was a warning that the Delta would be an unwise place for Gheerinatu and his herds to pass the winter."


Honor's face tightened, and Dame Estelle nodded.


"Exactly what I was thinking, but it's the first whisper we've heard from the native side, and, as I say, it was pretty darn unspecific. That's why I didn't pass it on to you—until this other thing came up." The commissioner nodded at her own pickup, her eyes turning to the side of her screen which held Isvarian's image. "You want to take it from here, Barney?"


"Yes, Ma'am." Isvarian shifted in his chair and looked straight at Honor. "I'm over in the clinic we run up by Dauguaar on the Three Forks, Captain," he said. Honor thought for a moment, summoning up a mental map of the Delta, then nodded. The Three Forks River was well up to the north, and Dauguaar was about the farthest north of all the city-states. Which meant it was also closest to the Mossybacks.


"We got a call late this morning," Isvarian went on, once she had the geography in mind. "A nomad had staggered up to the city gates and collapsed, and the city guard had dragged him to the clinic and turned him over to us. The duty medic recognized the symptoms immediately—mekoha poisoning, and a pretty advanced case, at that—but he also noticed that the nomad had an unusual-looking belt pouch. He opened it up while his native orderlies carted the nomad off." Isvarian reached for something beyond the field of the pickup, then showed Honor a leathery-looking pouch. He opened it, and her mouth tightened as she saw the dull gleam of bullet-shaped lead projectiles.


"He had a powder horn, too," Isvarian resumed grimly. "No one saw any sign of a rifle, but that was enough to sound all the alarms and get me out here as fast as I could move an aircar. Fritz here—" he gestured at Montoya, who gave his captain a tired smile "—wanted to come with me to see mekoha poisoning first-hand, so I brought him along. The two of us spent most of the time since sitting by his bedside, listening to him babble till he died about ten minutes ago."


The NPA man shrugged, and his eyes were unhappy.


"He was pretty far gone. Mekoha doesn't leave a lot of IQ when you get to such an advanced stage, and his motor control was shot, which made him even harder to understand, but I got enough to scare the hell out of me, Captain. He kept going on about new weapons—the rifles—and some nomad shaman whose 'hands overflow with holy mekoha.' That's pretty near a direct translation."


"Oh, crap," Honor whispered before she could stop herself, and Isvarian nodded.


"It gets worse, Ma'am," he warned. "That was enough to confirm this shaman—whoever the hell he is—has some direct link both to the people who built the lab and whoever introduced the rifles, assuming they're not the same people. I think we can abandon any hope that they aren't, though. According to our dying nomad, the shaman's had a direct vision from the gods. It's time for the natives to drive the accursed off-worlders from the sacred soil of Medusa, and the gods have given him these magical weapons to do the job with. Worse, the gods have told him that not all off-worlders are evil. Some are servants of the gods and revere them with proper awe, and these godly off-worlders are the source of his 'holy mekoha.' It sounds like he's been putting together some kind of nomad army, and he's been promising them that when the evil off-worlders have been driven away or given to the gods as proper sacrifices, these good off-worlders will come to the nomads and give them even more wonderful weapons and all the mekoha they can ever want."


The major fell silent, his face tight with strain and worry, and Honor bit her lip hard. Silence dragged out, broken at last by the Resident Commissioner.


"So there it is, Honor. It's not some kind of criminal operation. It's a deliberate attempt by someone to engineer a major native uprising and push the Kingdom right off the planet."


"Haven," Honor and Isvarian said simultaneously, and blinked at one another.


"That was my first thought, too," Matsuko said quietly. "But because it's the first possibility to occur to all of us, I think we'd better work on keeping an open mind about it. On the other hand, I can't think of anyone else it might be, and Haven has certainly been the most persistent in insisting that we don't have real sovereignty down here."


"True," Honor said. She rubbed the tip of her nose and frowned at the com screen. "I suppose it might be the Andermani," she said at last. "Gustav XI wouldn't mind getting a firm toehold in Basilisk, and he could figure we'd automatically jump to the conclusion that it was the Peeps. I can't quite see it, though, however hard I try. His attention is focused on Silesia right now, and he'd be worrying more about the Midgard Federation than us. Any jump this way could only antagonize us, and he doesn't need that if he's thinking about taking on the Silesians and their allies."


"What about somebody else? One of the single-system nations in the area?"


"I doubt it, Dame Estelle. Everybody out here is too busy keeping her head down and trying not to attract Haven's attention. Besides, what good would Medusa do any of them?"


"But what good would Medusa do Haven?" Isvarian asked doubtfully.


"I'm not sure." Honor rubbed her nose harder. "Haven's ultimate objective would have to be the terminus, and I can't quite see how getting us off Medusa would help them there, even if it got them onto the planet in our place. But just because you and I can't see how it would help them doesn't mean they can't."


"I'm afraid I'll have to go along with that." Matsuko sighed. "But the fact that we can't see any logical reason for them to be doing this means that I've got to have absolute proof that they are before I start leveling any sort of official complaints or charges."


"Agreed." Honor leaned back and crossed her arms under her breasts. "We need more information." She looked at Isvarian. "Do we know where this dying nomad came from, Barney?"


"Not specifically. Judging by the style of his personal gear and his dialect, he was a long way from home for someone traveling on foot or jehrnback. I'd guess he's probably from somewhere in the Mossyback Plateau area, maybe a little south of there. Call it seven or eight hundred klicks north of the Delta."


"Could he have made it that far in his condition?"


Isvarian glanced at Montoya, and the lieutenant shook his head. "I don't believe so, Ma'am. I'm no expert on Medusans, but I spoke with the clinic doctor, and given the patient's condition and how quickly he faded after we got here, I'd be surprised if he stayed on his feet more than twenty to thirty hours after his last pipe."


"How far could he have come in thirty hours, Barney?"


"Not seven hundred kilometers, Captain, that's for sure. Medusans move faster on foot than we do, but even with a jehrn, he couldn't have made more than two, three hundred klicks, max, in his condition."


"All right. That gives us a rough idea of where to start looking for anyone he might have been with."


"Right." Matsuko nodded firmly. "Barney, I want a patrol sent up that way soonest."


"Yes, Ma'am."


"Better send them in some force," Honor warned. "Just to be on the safe side."


"And with somebody who keeps his head in command," Matsuko agreed, and Isvarian nodded again.


"I can have an armed ten-man skimmer on its way just after local first light," he said. "Call it eight hours from now."


"Good. In the meantime," Honor said with a wry, taut grin, "since you two have ruined my night's sleep, I might as well ruin a few people's nights up here. I don't know if we'll come up with any bright new insights, but it can't hurt to ask. And I'll pass the word to Papadapolous, too. He'll probably want to talk directly with you, Barney."


"No problem. Dame Estelle has my personal com code. Government House can relay to me over a secure channel wherever I am."


"Fine. In that case, Dame Estelle, if you and Barney will excuse me, I think I'd better get dressed. I'll screen you back in a couple of hours to let you know what we come up with—or let you know if we don't come up with anything at all."


"Thank you, Honor." The relief in Dame Estelle's voice was unmistakable, and Honor smiled at her as she cut the connection.


It was a smile that died instantly into a worried frown when the screen went blank. She stood abruptly and started looking for her uniform.


 


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