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CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Honor looked around the briefing room table at her officers. Aside from Cardones, who had the watch, every department head and acting department head was present. Ensign Tremaine sat in, as well, for Honor had wanted his input from his own experiences planet-side. Each face was tight and worried as she finished briefing them on Dame Estelle's call.


"So that's the situation," she said quietly. "For the first time, we have a clear indication that what we're up against is an off-world government's covert operation of some sort, not a domestic criminal enterprise. We don't know its ultimate objectives, nor do we know when or how it's supposed to kick off, but we know that much."


McKeon nodded, pushing a stylus around in aimless circles on the table before him while he thought. Then he raised his head.


"One thing I think we ought to consider, Ma'am, is just how reliable this dying nomad's information is. Could this mekoha have made him see and hear things that weren't there? Or misunderstand things that were?"


"A point," Honor agreed. She looked down the table at Lois Suchon. "Doctor? What's your opinion?"


"My opinion, Captain?" Suchon's voice held a note almost of petulance, and her shoulders twitched a quick, sulky shrug. "I'm a Navy doctor. I don't know anything about abo physiology."


Honor pressed her lips firmly together and gave the physician a long, level glance. Suchon's dark face flushed, but she looked back with stubborn, petty defiance. She knew she was covered, Honor thought in disgust. She'd been kept abreast of the situation and knew how important information on mekoha's effects on Medusans might become, but no one had specifically asked her to check the literature available from the NPA. Someone, Honor thought, should have. Someone like Commander Honor Harrington, who knew perfectly well that nothing short of a direct order could have gotten Suchon out of her comfortable chair to do so.


"Very well. I'll raise that point with Dame Estelle—and Lieutenant Montoya—after our conference, Mr. McKeon." Honor tapped a note into her own memo board and smiled faintly as Suchon's mouth twisted at the offhand reference to her absent junior. She met the doctor's burning gaze, and her own eyes were cool and brown, holding Suchon's until the surgeon commander looked away angrily.


"I think it's a good question," Honor went on after a moment, "but for the present, let's proceed on the assumption that the information is accurate."


McKeon nodded, and Papadapolous raised his hand.


"Yes, Major?"


"There may be some good news mixed in with the bad, Ma'am," the Marine offered. "Major Isvarian's people should be able to develop at least a little new intelligence on the Stilties' capabilities out of this. At best, they may be able to pinpoint a target outside the Delta for us. If the major can find this shaman, we might be able to stage a quick raid in battle armor and snap up his weapons—maybe even grab him—before he ever gets close enough to the enclaves to be a threat."


"Agreed," Honor said. "On the other hand, we're going to have to be very careful about any moves we make in that direction. Dame Estelle is specifically barred from using the NPA to interfere with native religious matters, and I can't act unilaterally on the planet without her approval. If we can't demonstrate direct off-world interference, her hands—which means our hands, as well—are tied unless and until the shaman's followers actually start using their weapons."


"Understood, Captain. But just knowing where to look and what to look for makes me feel a lot better. I'd much rather catch them in open terrain that lets us use our air support, mobility, and greater weapons ranges than tangle with them inside the enclaves at pointblank."


Honor nodded to the Marine, and he sat back. He'd contributed his bit. Anything else was a matter for the Navy to deal with, and some of the interest in his eyes faded as he waited for them to get on with it.


"You know, Skipper," Dominica Santos said slowly, "I've been thinking about what you said. About all this being just a part of some overall off-world scheme." Honor cocked her head, and the engineer waved a hand.


"It seems to me the only logical suspect is Haven, Ma'am. I know we can't prove that, but I can't see anyone else who'd do something like this. And even if it isn't them, shouldn't we proceed on the assumption that it is? I mean, no one else could hurt us as badly as the Peeps, so if we assume it's them and we're wrong, we'll leave ourselves a lot less exposed. But if it is Haven and we bend over backward to keep from assuming that it is, we're likely to miss something important, aren't we?"


"A point, Skipper," McKeon agreed. "Definitely a point."


"Agreed." Honor drummed gently on the table, then looked back at her exec. "Let's assume for a moment that this is a Havenite covert op, Mr. McKeon. Do you think they'd kick off something like this and then just sit back to let it develop in isolation?"


"I don't think there's any way to know," McKeon said after a moment's thought. "My gut reaction is that they wouldn't, but without knowing their ultimate objective I just can't say."


"Captain?" The voice was hesitant and very young, and Honor gave the speaker a reassuring smile as she turned to him.


"Yes, Mr. Tremaine?"


"Uh, I just wanted to mention something, Ma'am. I noticed it a couple of days ago, but it didn't seem very important then. Now, though—" The ensign shrugged uncomfortably.


"Mention what, Mr. Tremaine?"


"Well, it's just that I've been sort of keeping an eye on the space-to-surface traffic patterns since you called me back aboard, Ma'am. Habit, I guess. And I noticed there doesn't seem to be any Havenite traffic at all, anymore."


"Ah?" Honor looked at McKeon and twitched an eyebrow. The exec looked startled for a second, then grinned wryly.


"Out of the mouths of ensigns," he said, and Tremaine blushed at the chuckle that ran around the table. Then he grinned back at the exec.


"I don't know what it means, Ma'am," McKeon went on in a more serious tone, "but he's right. There's no Havenite traffic to the surface at all. Hasn't been in almost a week."


"Now, that's interesting," Honor murmured, tapping another note into her memo board. "Have they pulled anyone out of their enclave? Any sign of a cautionary evacuation?"


"You'd have to ask Major Isvarian or the Commissioner about that, Ma'am, but I certainly haven't noticed anything to suggest it."


"They might not have to, Captain." It was Tremaine again. "Their consulate's more like a fort than most of the enclaves, and they've got an awful big security force." The ensign paused with a frown and rubbed his chin. "Still, Ma'am, they do have a couple of other enclaves—trade stations with the natives right on the edge of the Delta. They're pretty far to the north, too, now that I think of it. Wouldn't that mean they'd get hit first if this shaman really does attack the Delta?"


"How big are they?" McKeon asked, and his gray eyes were intent.


"Well, I've only overflown them, Sir," Tremaine said uncomfortably, "but they're not very big. Maybe a dozen off-worlders and a native staff in each, I'd say, but it's only a guess."


"You think their size is significant?" Honor asked Mckeon, and the exec shrugged.


"I don't know, Ma'am. But it occurs to me that if their objective is to chase us out and move in themselves, it might just suit their purposes to have a few casualties of their own. Another thing," he added in an even more thoughtful voice. "If we end up with some sort of bloodbath down there and they don't take any casualties, isn't it possible some of the other off-worlders, not just us, might wonder exactly why they were so lucky?"


"You may have a point." Honor made another note and tried to hide an inner shiver at the cold-blooded calculation McKeon's hypothesis suggested. The exec nodded very slowly, then frowned and sat straighter in his chair.


"Wait a second, Skipper. I just thought of something." He tapped on his terminal for a moment, then nodded to himself. "I thought I remembered that." He turned back to his captain. "You remember when we were talking about the decline in Havenite traffic to Medusa?" Honor nodded. "Well, the fact is that their Junction traffic is still running at normal levels, but there are only two Peep ships in Medusa orbit right now. That courier boat of the consulate's and the freighter Sirius."


Honor frowned as something about the name Sirius jogged her memory. Then her eyes widened.


"Exactly," McKeon said. "That ship's been sitting in a parking orbit for over three months. I may be getting paranoid, but that strikes me as a mighty interesting coincidence in light of what the NPA's reporting."


"Excuse me, Skipper, but what do we know about this Sirius?" Santos asked. "Do we have any idea why she's here?"


Honor gestured at McKeon. He glanced back at his screen, then looked at Santos.


"She's big—a seven-point-six m-ton Astra-class," he said. "Captain Johan Coglin, People's Merchant Service, commanding. According to our files, she suffered an engineering casualty—or, more precisely, she's afraid she will if she moves on. Coglin reported his engineers spotted a fluctuation in his Warshawski tuners when he left hyper and declared an emergency. She's waiting for replacement tuners from home."


"She's what?" Santos twitched upright in her chair and frowned.


"A problem, Commander?" Honor asked.


"Well, it just seems awfully odd, Skipper. Of course, I don't know a lot about Havenite maintenance patterns, and a Warshawski flutter isn't anything to monkey around with. If she's really got one, Captain Coglin was probably right to declare an emergency. The only thing is that a fluctuation isn't something that usually creeps up on you. The tuners take more strain than any other sail component, so unless you're terminally dumb, you watch for the tiniest frequency kicks like a hawk. By the time you start showing actual flutter, you're normally well past the point at which they should've been pulled for routine refit, and the Haven government owns all Haven-flagged freighters. They're self-insured, too, so if they take a loss, they can't recover from anyone else on it. It doesn't sound to me like they'd be cutting maintenance corners the way some private owners do."


"Another thing." McKeon's eyes were very bright. "A flutter is something you're more likely to notice going into hyper than coming out. The power bleed when you transit downward tends to hide it."


"But what good would it do them to cook up a reason to keep a freighter in orbit?" Lieutenant Panowski asked a bit plaintively. Honor looked at him, and he squirmed a little. "I mean, they've already got a courier boat in permanent orbit, Ma'am. What would a freighter do for them that a courier boat wouldn't?"


"I don't know about that," Santos said, "but I just thought of something else odd about Sirius's story. They've got tuner flutter, right? Well, why sit here and wait for spares from home? They've already been here for three months, but unless they're way up into critical failure levels, they could pop through the terminus to Manticore. That's a short hop, with minimal tuner stress and demand, and one of the big yards there could put in a whole new sail, much less tuners, in less than two months. But even if they were afraid to transit the Junction, why not order the replacements from Manticore? It'd be a hell of a lot cheaper and faster than shipping them out from home, and we've got scads of privately-owned repair ships. If they send new tuners from Haven, they're either going to have to send their own repair ship to install them or else charter one of ours, anyway, and the time they're spending in orbit has to be costing them a lot more in lost profit than paying us for the parts would." She shook her head. "No. They've got to be up to something, Skipper. There's just no logical economic or engineering reason for the way they're going about this."


"What do we know about the ship's cargo, Captain?" Lieutenant Brigham asked. "Do we know what she's carrying or where she was supposed to be bound from here, for instance?"


"Commander McKeon just told you everything we know," Honor said wryly. "She's been on station since before we arrived. That means Captain Young cleared her."


People sat back around the table with careful nonexpressions of disgust, and despite her worries, Honor had to raise a hand to hide a smile.


"In that case, Ma'am," Ensign Tremaine said, "maybe we should make a customs check on her? I could take PO Harkness and a cutter, and—"


"No, Scotty." Honor spoke almost absently and missed his flush of pleasure as she used his nickname. "We can't do that. Sirius has already been checked by Warlock—" Someone snorted, and Honor paused to bite her tongue. Then she gave them all the closest she could come to a severe look and turned back to Tremaine.


"The point is, she's been officially cleared. We can't go back to re-inspect without some sort of hard evidence that her master lied to Lord Young. And while I think Commander Santos is right and their excuse for being here probably is bogus, we really don't have any evidence, do we?"


Tremaine shook his head unhappily, and she gave a slight shrug.


"More importantly, perhaps, if we did go back to give her a second look, we'd tip our hand. They'd know we figured something was fishy about their ship. If we are being 'paranoid'—" she flashed McKeon a tight smile "—over an innocent coincidence, that might not hurt anything. But if they're really up to something, we could scare them into backing off or finding another way to do whatever they're trying to do. A way we don't know anything about."


"There's another point, too, Skipper." McKeon sighed. "As you say, she's been cleared once. Her skipper might just refuse to let us back aboard, and without evidence that they're involved in what's happening dirt-side or that they lied to Lord Young, we wouldn't have any probable cause to justify forcing him to. We'd kick off all kinds of interstellar protests."


"That I could live with." Honor's voice was cold. "I just don't see any way to do it without giving too much away."


"You know, Skipper," Santos mused, "we might not be able to get aboard her, but it's possible a good, close external scan could tell us something." Honor looked at her, and the engineer shrugged. "I don't know what, but there could be something." She paused for a moment, and then her eyes narrowed. "For one thing, I'd really like to see how their drive compares to the specs they gave Warlock. If this Coglin cobbled up a report on a phony engineering casualty, it's possible he slipped up and built in an inconsistency."


"Such as?"


"Depends." Santos scooted down to sit on the end of her spine and plucked at her lower lip. "There might not be anything—in fact, if they're smart, there probably won't be—but if they have a genuine flutter problem, then there damned well ought to be a lot of wear on their alpha nodes. We should see at least some pitting, maybe a little outright scoring, and the main coil should certainly have a fairly old replacement stamp."


Honor nodded thoughtfully. The main gravity coils in a starship's alpha nodes were always replaced whenever the tuners were. In a sense, the coils were part of the tuner, sharing in its wear, and each of them carried a date stamp when it was installed. More to the point, the grav coil was open to space. There was an excellent chance the date stamp would be visible to a close external examination.


"If we get close enough for that, Ma'am," Webster offered, "I should be able to get a good read on her com activity, too. Maybe even tap into it." He blushed as Honor looked at him, for what he suggested was illegal under half a dozen solemn interstellar conventions. He could be severely disciplined just for making the offer.


"I like it," McKeon said suddenly. "If we turn up a discrepancy like Dominica's talking about, it might just constitute the sort of evidence you need, Skipper."


"It's not impossible for a tuner to go bad early," Santos agreed, "but it's certainly unusual. If we've got a discrepancy between observable wear on the alpha nodes and normal tuner wear, I can give you a written declaration of my own suspicions, Skipper. That's expert testimony, and expert testimony constitutes probable cause for any admiralty court."


"Any Manticoran admiralty court," Honor corrected gently, trying to hide the lump in her throat. The officers who had once been so hostile were now sticking their professional necks far out for her, and she looked down at her hands for a moment.


"Very well, ladies and gentlemen. I'll screen Dame Estelle with your comments and suggestions. In the meantime, I want our orbit shifted." She looked at Panowski. "I want us placed within two hundred kilometers of Sirius. Once we get there—" she turned her eyes to Tremaine "—I want you to take a cutter to the closest Manticoran ship. I'll give you a hardcopy dispatch for her master."


"A dispatch, Ma'am? What sort of dispatch?"


"I won't know that until we know which ship it is," she said dryly. "But I'll come up with something once we do. The point is, your trip will be our pretext for changing orbit—that's why I want you in a cutter instead of a pinnace—and also why I want you to be obvious about your trip."


"Oh." Tremaine sat back for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, Ma'am. I see."


"I'm sure you do." She turned back to McKeon. "While Lieutenant Panowski and Lieutenant Brigham plot our move, Mr. McKeon, I want you to sit down with Lieutenant Cardones. I want this all done with passive sensors. I know we won't get as much, but an active probe would be as big a tip-off as actually boarding her. We're going to need the most intensive passive scan we can come up with, though, and I want you to help Rafe set it up in advance."


"Yes, Ma'am." McKeon met her eye confidently. "We'll take care of it."


"Very good." Honor drew a breath and rose, sweeping her officers with her eyes once more. "Then we know what we're going to do, people, so let's be about it." They rose in turn, only to stop as she raised a hand.


"Before you go," she said quietly, "I just want to say thank you."


She didn't specify for what. And as she looked into their faces, she knew she would never have to.


 


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