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HMS Fearless spiraled gently outward and settled into her new orbit without fuss or bother, and a cutter departed her boat bay and scudded away towards a mammoth Manticoran-registry freighter with a formal, written invitation for the ship's master to join Commander Harrington for supper. The merchant skipper would no doubt be astonished by—and possibly a little apprehensive over—that invitation, but none of the people on Fearless's bridge gave him a thought or paid the cutter much heed. Their attention was bent upon their readouts as passive instrumentation probed cautiously at PMSS Sirius.

She was a big ship, Honor mused, watching her own visual display from her command chair. Fearless herself could have been stowed comfortably in one of the freighter's main holds, and that sort of carrying capacity lent weight to Santos's observation. Letting that much ship sit idle any longer than you had to was like pouring money straight out the airlock. No owner—not even a government bureaucracy like Haven's Ministry of Trade—would do that without a very good reason.

She leaned back and glanced across at the tactical station. Cardones and McKeon had their heads together over the main sensor console, and Webster was equally intent on his communications panels. If any message traffic was going out from that ship, it was on a tight beam, and tight beams were hellishly hard to detect, but the com officer's fingers moved like a surgeon's as he gentled his computers through the search. If there was even a whisker beam out there, Webster would find it. Honor was certain of that.

An intercom signal beeped from her panel, and she depressed the stud on her chair arm.

"Bridge. Captain speaking," she said.

"Skipper, we got a good relay from Tactical's visual search down here—" Dominica Santos's answering voice sounded excited "—and I'm replaying the scan of Sirius's after nodes on my screen. I don't see any pitting or scoring, and the date stamp isn't visible, but I can tell you there's something really strange about them."

Nimitz bleeked softly in Honor's ear, but she shushed him with a gentle stroke of her fingers.

"Can you relay your imagery to my display, Dominica?"

"Sure thing, Ma'am. Just a sec." Honor's display blanked as Sirius vanished from it, then relit almost at once with a frozen, hugely magnified view of the freighter's after hull. One of her drive nodes, smaller than a pinhead against the ship's stupendous size in the main visual display, filled the center of the screen, and Honor frowned. Something about that image looked subtly wrong, somehow, but she couldn't quite put her mental finger on the discrepancy.

"What is it, Dominica?" she asked after a moment.

"It's a lot bigger than it ought to be, that's what it is, Ma'am, and the whole thing's shaped wrong," Santos replied. "Look." A cursor blipped onto the display, indicating the point at which the node passed through Sirius's outer plating, and Honor cocked her head as she noted the wide, soot-black band of shadow. "See that gap around the base of the node head? That shouldn't be there. And look here." The cursor vanished, and a bright green line arced up the side of the exposed node. It started out flush with the node's base, but then it curved much more sharply inward. By the time it reached the node's rounded apex, over a third of the node's total mass lay beyond the line.

"That's a normal node profile, Skipper," Santos said, manipulating the green line to make it flash. "This thing's way too broad for its length, and it's not just a design peculiarity. You can't build one with this profile—the physics won't let you. Besides, look here." The cursor reappeared, pointing to a thick, blunt cylinder protruding a slight distance from the end of the node. "That's the main grav coil, and that thing is almost twice as big in diameter as it ought to be for a node this size. That cross section's better suited to a superdreadnought than any freighter drive I've ever seen, and if they powered it up with no more governor housing than we see, it'd slag the entire after hull."

"I see." Honor stared down at the display, rubbing her nose. "On the other hand, they've obviously built what we're looking at, and they got here under their own power."

"I know," Santos replied, "but I think that's where the gap around the node base comes in. I think the damned thing's on some kind of ram. When they power up, they run the rest of the node—the part we can't see because of the plating—out to clear the hull. That's why the opening's so large; the node head's greatest width is still inside the outer skin, and they have to get it outboard for safe operation. Skipper, that's a pretty well camouflaged military-grade impeller node, or I'll eat my main engineering console."

"Very good, Dominica," Honor murmured. She gazed at the imagery for a moment longer, then nodded. "Make me the best estimate you can of their actual acceleration capability—impeller and Warshawski mode—and write it up. Make sure you save all your data, too. We'll want to pass it on to BuShips for evaluation."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am." Santos cut the circuit, and Honor looked up to find McKeon standing beside her chair, his eyebrows raised.

"Commander Santos says we have a definite discrepancy here, Mr. McKeon," she said, and the exec nodded.

"Yes, Ma'am. I caught the last little bit of your conversation. And I've got something to add, too. Lieutenant Cardones and I have determined that Sirius's nodes are hot."

It was Honor's turn to feel her eyebrows rise. "Could it be a systems test?"

"I don't think so, Ma'am. We're reading a full standby load on all the alpha and beta nodes on this side of her hull, fore and aft both. A systems test would probably run up just the alphas or the betas, not both. And why should they test both the forward and after nodes simultaneously? Besides, the power level's held steady for over ten minutes now."

Honor leaned back to regard him pensively and saw her own thoughts flicker behind his gray eyes. There was no regulation against a ship's holding her impeller drive at standby in parking orbit, but it was almost unheard of. Power was relatively cheap aboard a starship, but even the best fusion plant needed reactor mass, and impeller energy demands were high, even at standby. Maintaining that sort of load when you didn't need to was a good way to run up your overhead. Nor was it good for the equipment. Your engineers couldn't carry out routine maintenance while the drive was hot, and the components themselves had limited design lives. Holding them at standby when you didn't need to would certainly reduce their life spans, and that, again, ran up overhead.

All of which meant no freighter captain would hold his drive at standby without a very compelling reason. But a warship's captain might. It took almost forty minutes to bring your impeller wedge up from a cold start; by starting with hot nodes, you could reduce that to little more than fifteen minutes.

"That's very interesting, Mr. McKeon," Honor murmured.

"Curiouser and curiouser, Ma'am," McKeon agreed. "Oversized impeller nodes and a full standby load. Sounds to me like you've got your discrepancy if you want to go aboard, Captain."

"Maybe, and maybe not." Honor nibbled her lower lip and felt Nimitz nip her earlobe as he detected her worry. She grinned and hoisted him down into her lap to protect her ears, then sobered once more as she looked back up at McKeon.

"The problem is that nothing requires them to give us the real specs on their drive," she pointed out, "and no law says they have to build a freighter whose drive makes economic sense. The fact that their nodes are live and don't show the sort of wear we ought to see if they've got tuner failure would certainly seem to argue that they lied to Warlock about the nature of their engineering problems, but that's all we've got. A good lawyer could probably argue that away, and we'd have to admit that they haven't even sent a shuttle down to the planet—or anywhere else, for that matter—in over two and a half months. Without their making physical contact with anyone else, we can hardly accuse them of smuggling. They've just sat here in orbit, minding their own business like good little law-abiding merchant spacers. That means our probable cause is still awfully weak, and I still have reservations about tipping our hand, as well."

She rubbed Nimitz's ears, wrestling with an unaccustomed indecisiveness. On the one hand, she could probably justify, however thinly, sending an examining party on the basis of her observational data. But if she did, and if the Havenites truly were up to something, they'd know she suspected that they were. And they'd be certain to lodge all sorts of diplomatic protests. What bothered her most was her inability to decide whether it was fear of revealing her suspicions or fear of the protests which most daunted her. She thought it was the former, but a nagging little voice wondered if it weren't the latter.

She closed her eyes, making herself stand back and consider the options with all the detachment she could muster. The real problem was that, under interstellar law, the freighter's master could still refuse her inspectors entry, whatever she cited as probable cause, unless she had evidence that they'd violated Manticoran law or posed a direct threat to Manticoran security, and nothing she had constituted an actual criminal violation. If Captain Coglin refused her the right to board his ship, her only options would be to accept the slap in the face or expel Sirius from Manticoran space. She had the authority to do that to any ship which refused to allow her examination, with or without probable cause, should she so choose, but it was an action she would have to justify to the Admiralty, and she could just see the headlines it would provoke. "rmn expels merchant ship with defective drive." "freighter sent to die in hyper by heartless manticoran officer." "haven protests harrington's inhuman expulsion of damaged freighter."

She shuddered at the thought, but she rather thought she could face the fallout if it came to that. Lord knew some of the news services back home had already had some fairly terrible things to say about her—especially the ones Hauptman and his cronies controlled! Yet the real cruncher was that while she might put a crimp into Haven's plans if she did expel Sirius, she would neither learn what those plans might have been nor insure that they couldn't be reactivated some other way. And it seemed likely that anything as involved as this appeared to be—whatever it was!—would have built-in backups, and that meant—


She opened her eyes to find Webster standing beside McKeon.

"Yes, Mr. Webster?"

"Excuse me, Ma'am, but I thought you'd want to know this. There's a three-cornered secure com net between Sirius, the Haven consulate, and the consulate's courier boat, Ma'am." Honor cocked her head, and Webster gave a small shrug. "I can't tell you much more than that, Skipper. They're using mighty tight-focused lasers, not regular com beams, and there's not much traffic. I've deployed a couple of passive remotes, but they're just catching the edge of the carriers. I can't tap into them without getting a receptor into one of the lasers itself, and they'd be sure to notice that."

"Can you tell if it's scrambled?"

"No, Ma'am. But given how tight their beams are, I'd be surprised if it wasn't. They don't need whiskers this tight for any technical reasons at this piddling little range. It has to be a security measure."

"I see." Honor nodded, and her indecision vanished into tranquillity. "Mr. McKeon, as soon as Mr. Tremaine returns aboard, I want us returned to our original orbit, but put us back into it astern of the Havenite courier boat."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am." McKeon responded automatically, but Honor saw the puzzlement in his eyes.

"Keep a close eye on Sirius, but see if you can determine whether or not the courier's nodes are hot, too," she went on. "I think we've pretty definitely established that something strange is going on out here, and that Haven is at the bottom of it, but we still don't know what. I want to know that, Exec. I want to catch them with their hands dirty and nail them in front of God and everybody."

"Yes, Ma'am." McKeon's puzzlement had turned to understanding, and Honor nodded.

"In the meantime, I want Fearless held on standby for impeller, as well. If either of those two start going anywhere, I want to be able to go in pursuit. Clear?"

"Clear, Ma'am."

"Good." She turned back to her com officer. "Mr. Webster, I need a secure link to Dame Estelle."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. I'll get right on it."

Honor watched her two subordinates return to their stations and leaned back, rubbing Nimitz and looking back down at the frozen imagery of Sirius's impeller node with distant eyes.

"You're right, Honor. They're definitely up to something." Dame Estelle looked tired on the com screen, and Honor wondered if she'd gotten back to sleep at all after their midnight conversation.

"I don't think there's any doubt," Honor agreed. "Especially not now that we've confirmed the courier boat's drive is hot, too. I hate to say it, Dame Estelle, but I really don't like that."

"Don't blame you." Matsuko rubbed her eyes, then lowered her hands to her desk with a sigh. "They wouldn't be on standby if they didn't figure there was a pretty good reason to be going somewhere, and that damned courier boat has diplomatic immunity. We can't touch it if it starts to leave."

"I'm less worried about whether or not I can touch it legally than I am about the fact that there are two of them, Ma'am," Honor said bleakly. Dame Estelle looked at her sharply, and she shrugged. "I'm not looking forward to any diplomatic incidents, but my big problem is that I only have one ship. If I've got two targets headed in different directions, I can only chase one of them."

"But what's the point?" the commissioner almost groaned. "I've got drug-crazed natives armed with black-powder rifles and primed to slaughter off-worlders in job lots, and you've got two starships with drives on standby! Where's the connection?"

"I don't know—yet. But I am certain there is one, and all this com traffic seems significant to me, too."

"I have to agree with that." Dame Estelle sounded glum. "I'll see what I can find out for you."

"Find out?" Honor raised her eyebrows in surprise, and Dame Estelle produced a tired smile.

"I'm afraid I'm not quite as trusting as my exalted superiors in the Ministry for Medusan Affairs would like. My people and I have, ah, acquired a few communications devices not on the official equipment list for my compound down here. We keep a pretty close watch on the message traffic from the off-world enclaves."

"You do?" Honor blinked in astonishment, and Dame Estelle chuckled.

"You don't have to mention that to anyone, Honor. There'd be all kinds of repercussions if you did."

"I imagine there would," Honor agreed with a slow smile of her own.

"You imagine correctly. But as far as the Havenites are concerned, we can keep an eye on their traffic volume, but we can't do much with specific transmissions. They not only scramble their signals but routinely encrypt them, as well. We've managed to break their latest scramble codes—unless they've shifted them again in the last day or so, and I just haven't heard yet—but we can't do much with their encryption."

"Do you think they know you're doing it?"

"Hard to say. They may, though, particularly if there's direct traffic between their courier boat and this freighter of theirs," Dame Estelle said thoughtfully. "We can't touch their ship-to-ship traffic from down here, so that would give them at least one secure com channel."

"But that would assume their mastermind is up here," Honor pointed out. "Otherwise, they'd still have to pass all their command signals through the consulate."

"True." Matsuko's fingers tapped a nervous syncopation on the edge of her desk, and she made a face. "I hate all this guesswork," she sighed.

"Me, too," Honor agreed. She rubbed the tip of her nose. "Well, whatever they're up to, they've obviously been working on it for a long time, and your clan chieftain said his relative warned him the Delta would be a bad place to spend the winter. That's—what? Another two months from now?"

"About that. So you think we've got that long to get on top of this?"

"I don't know. But I do know that we're just beginning to put the pieces together, and that's bound to give us a sense of urgency whether they're really on the edge of activating their operation or not. On the other hand, we've already turned up enough for me to go official with it."

"Go official? How?"

"I'm putting together a dispatch, complete with all of my facts, suspicions, and conclusions, for the personal attention of the First Space Lord," Honor said grimly. "He may think I'm crazy—but he may also just get some help out here."

"How long would that take?"

"At absolute best, given the tenuousness of our information, it would probably take something like fifty hours, and that's assuming he doesn't just decide I'm crazy and he has someone he can divert straight out here. Frankly, I'd be surprised if we saw any useful reaction in less than three or four days, but at least it'd be a step in the right direction."

"And until then, we're on our own," Dame Estelle observed.

"Yes, Ma'am." Honor rubbed her nose again. "What's the status on Barney's patrol?"

"They should be pulling out in about—" Dame Estelle glanced at her chrono "—twenty minutes, now. Barney's down at the hangar for their final brief; then he'll come back here. They're under express order not to land anywhere without checking back in, but he's going to have them keep a close eye on everything they overfly en route to the target area. At least we should be able to determine where this shaman and his parishioners aren't, anyway."

"Good. I'd like to add his findings, good or bad, to my dispatch to Admiral Webster. And I'll feel a lot more comfortable personally once we have some sort of accurate idea of just how bad the situation ground-side really is."

"So will I." Dame Estelle shook herself. "All right, Honor. Thanks. I'll get on my end of things. Keep me posted if anything breaks up there."

"I will, Ma'am."

Honor killed the com link and crossed her legs. She steepled her fingers under her jaw in her favorite thinking posture, and the occasional soft murmur of command and response flowed over her as her bridge crew went about its duties. She never knew exactly how long she sat there, but finally she snorted softly and lowered her hands.

"Mr. McKeon."

"Yes, Ma'am?" The exec looked up. She beckoned to him, and he crossed to her chair as she stood.

"I think we're moving into the end-game phase," she said quietly, pitching her voice for his ears alone. "I'm trying to keep an open mind about that, but too many things seem to be coming together here." She paused, and McKeon nodded in agreement.

"I've been over Papadapolous's deployment plan, and it looks good," she went on, "but I want two changes made in it."

"Yes, Ma'am?"

"First, I want the Marines moved aboard the pinnaces now. There's room for them to bunk aboard—they'll have to hot-bunk, but they can squeeze in—and I want them ready to drop on zero notice. They can armor up on the way down or even after they hit dirt."

"Yes, Ma'am." McKeon pulled out his memo pad and keyed notes into it. "And the second change?"

"I want Lieutenant Montoya and our other medical people back up here. Get them aboard by mid-watch, if you can."

"Excuse me, Ma'am?" McKeon blinked, and Honor hid a sour smile.

"Officially, I've decided that it would be unfair to ask Dame Estelle and the NPA to make do with the services of our junior physician in the event of an incident on Medusa. In light of Commander Suchon's many more years of service, I feel it would be much more reasonable for us to put her experience to good use down there."

"I see, Ma'am." There was a faint gleam in McKeon's eyes. "And the, um, unofficial reason?"

"Unofficially, Mr. McKeon," Honor's voice was much grimmer, "Dame Estelle and Barney Isvarian have quite good medical staffs of their own, and there are a good many other civilian doctors in the enclaves down there. Between them, they should be able to carry Suchon's dead weight." McKeon winced at the acid bite in his captain's voice, but he nodded.

"Besides," Honor went on after a moment, "Lieutenant Montoya may be ten years younger than Suchon, but he's a better physician than she'll ever be. If we need a doctor up here, we're going to need him in a hurry, and I want the best one I can get."

"Do you really think we're going to need one?" McKeon couldn't quite hide his surprise, and Honor shrugged uncomfortably.

"I don't know. Call it a feeling. Or maybe it's just nerves. But I'll feel much more comfortable with Suchon dirt-side and Montoya in Fearless."

"Understood, Skipper." McKeon put away his memo pad and nodded. "I'll take care of it."

"Good. In the meantime, I'll be in my quarters. I've got a dispatch to write." She produced a smile—a strange smile, compounded of fatigue, worry, awareness of her own ignorance, and an odd undercurrent that might almost be excitement—and McKeon felt a tingle sweep over him as he saw it.

"Who knows?" she finished softly, still with that same, strange smile. "I may even have something interesting to put in it in a few more hours."

She walked into the lift with her treecat, and McKeon stood for several seconds, looking at the door which had closed behind her and wondering why her smile had frightened him so.


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