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CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Lieutenant Frances Malcolm, Medusan Native Protection Agency, stretched and yawned in her bucket seat. The skimmer swept onward above the rugged foothills, humming across the endless kilometers of moss on the quiet whisper of its turbines, and something thumped behind her. She turned in her chair and looked back just as Corporal Truman, the skimmer's gunner, dropped down out of his dorsal turret.


"Sorry, Franny." Malcolm hid a reflexive wince. Like Barney Isvarian, she was an ex-Marine, but the NPA wasn't real big on punctilious formality, and Truman was a career cop who'd transferred in from the San Giorgio City Police on Manticore. She'd given up on trying to turn him into anything resembling a soldier. There was no point in it. For that matter, she told herself firmly, there was probably no reason. The NPA wasn't the Corps, but while its members might seem casual to an outsider, they kept their heads when someone dropped them in the pot.


"I forgot my thermos," Truman went on. He scooped up the insulated container and hopped back up onto the raised firing step. Malcolm heard the thermos open and the gurgle as he poured coffee at his station and shook her head with a slight grin. No, this definitely wasn't the Corps.


"Coming up on the three hundred-klick mark, Franny," her pilot murmured, and Malcolm nodded. They'd flown a standard sweep pattern since leaving the Delta, and that had slowed their rate of advance to little more than seventy-five kilometers per hour. It made her feel as if they were barely poking along, especially in light of the urgency Isvarian had stressed in his briefing, but at least they were nearing the limit of their best estimate of how far the dead nomad could have come. And, she thought, she could say with certainty that there hadn't been any large numbers of rifle-armed Medusans in the area they'd swept. No one could hide that many iron rifle barrels or warm bodies from her sensors, and—


"What's that?" Sergeant Hayabashi's voice broke into her thoughts, and Malcolm raised her head. The sergeant was frowning down at his own instrumentation, and Malcolm felt her lips purse as she saw the bright blip shining from Hayabashi's screen.


"It's a power source," she said unnecessarily. "Could be an aircar's electrical system, or it might be a small generator."


"Well whichever it is, it shouldn't be here, should it?" Hayabashi asked, and Malcolm shook her head.


"Nope. But let's not jump to any conclusions, Sergeant," she said in her most judicious voice. "We're supposed to be looking for hopped-up natives. This could be someone grounded with a mechanical failure."


"Yeah, and I could be my own maiden aunt, Ma'am," Hayabashi replied, and Malcolm grinned at the sergeant's sour tone. "Anyway, it—"


The sergeant broke off as the blip vanished. He tapped keys, then frowned at the lieutenant. "Something cut off the scan, Ma'am," he reported.


"I saw." Malcolm adjusted her own systems. "We've lost the LOS. Maybe a ridge line cut it off—or it could be hidden behind something and we just happened to get a peek."


"Hidden?" Hayabashi gave her a sharp glance, and she shrugged.


"I didn't say I thought it was innocent, Sergeant. I only said it could be." Malcolm turned to her pilot. "Bring us back in a circle, Jeff. And drop us to a hundred meters or so. I want a visual on this thing if we can spot it."


"Coming back around now," the pilot replied. The skimmer swept around in a sharp turn, and Hayabashi grunted as he switched to visual.


"Well, shit," he muttered a moment later, then grimaced. "Sorry, Ma'am, but you were right. See there?"


The sergeant's finger tapped his display, and Malcolm craned her neck to look. Her eyes narrowed as she saw the camouflage-netted aircar nose parked just inside what looked like a natural cave opening. She shook her head, and glanced at her thermal and magnetic sensors. There was nothing on them, and she looked up at the pilot.


"Hold us in hover, Jeff. And you get sharp, Truman," she added, glancing back over her shoulder as she activated her com link to NPA Control. "I don't really expect any trouble, but remember the lab raid. This looks awfully sus—"


An alarm shrilled on her own console, and she whipped back to it in shock. Magnetic signatures glared suddenly, and with them came heat sources, as well. They blossomed all over her display like heat lightning, almost as if they were springing out of the ground itself—and that, she realized an instant later, was precisely what they were doing. The aircar's cave was only one entry to what must be an enormous cave system almost directly under her skimmer, and the natives were boiling out of it as if her return to check the aircar had been some sort of signal!


And they were firing. Puffs of smoke sprouted from the moss like toadstools, merging into an incredible carpet of gray-white fog. The skimmer bucked as hundreds of eighteen-millimeter projectiles slammed into its belly, and someone screamed behind Malcolm.


The skimmer wasn't armored. Its composites were tough and elastic, but they weren't armor, and more bullets punched through its thin skin. She heard Truman cursing in a high, incredulous falsetto, but his pulser turret was already in action, each barrel spitting fifteen-millimeter explosive darts cased in ceramic frag jackets at a cyclical rate of over a thousand rounds per minute. His fire cut across the ground like a lash of flame, shredding moss and Medusan with equal abandon, yet he could fire in only one direction at a time, and still more armed natives were erupting out of other holes in the ground.


The turbines shrieked as the pilot gave them full throttle, but he was too late. Sergeant Hayabashi jerked in his chair with a hoarse, wracking grunt of explosive agony as a massive slug ripped vertically through his body. It emerged between his shoulders, spraying blood and tissue across the cabin roof, and the sergeant toppled wearily forward over his displays. Malcolm smelled blood and the stench of ruptured organs, and then ragged holes punched themselves through the starboard turbine casing and the engine began to stream the bright, hot flame of burning hydrogen.


None of it was real. Shock and horror yammered at the core of her brain, but her hands moved with a life of their own. Her fingers didn't even tremble, and her voice was very calm as she pressed her boom mike closer to her lips.


"NPA Center, this is Sierra-One-One. My position three-zero-zero kilometers north Three Forks River." The damaged turbine exploded, wrapping one whole side of the fuselage in flame until the frantic pilot cut the hydrogen feed, and Malcolm felt the skimmer start to vibrate with a strange, wild harmonic as the incredible hail of crude bullets battered its grav-coils. "I am under fire by armed natives. We have taken casualties. We are going down." Truman shrieked and fell out of his turret, clutching at a blood-spouting belly wound, and the heavy pulsers fell silent.


"Ditching stations!" the pilot screamed, but he went on fighting his dying controls. Every second he kept his plunging craft aloft put a tiny bit more distance between him and the Medusans trying to kill him.


"Repeat, Sierra-One-One is going down, NPA Control," Malcolm said in that same flat, unnaturally calm voice. "Require assistance. Repeat, require assistance!"


She jerked off the com headset and lunged across the shrieking, writhing Truman for the dorsal turret. She dragged herself up into it, fighting the dying skimmer's shuddering heaves as she slammed her shoulders into the shock frame harness Truman should have donned. The straps dropped and locked, her hands found the firing grips, and she poured a tornado of fire into the howling mob of Medusans charging towards the only smooth place the pilot could hope to set them down.


They hit with a bone-breaking shock, and Malcolm clung to her weapons, grunting in anguish as the harness straps bit into her. She heard someone else scream, but the pilot had known what he was doing. The skimmer porpoised across the ground in a bow wave of shredded moss, shedding bits and pieces through a billowing cloud of dust, yet they were down and intact.


And thousands of screaming Medusan nomads were charging straight after them.


Malcolm heard sobs and moans and bubbling screams from her wounded and dying crew, but she also heard firing ports slamming open and the high, shrill whine of the first pulse rifle. She'd struck her head on something during that wild, careening slide, despite the shock frame, and flowing blood blinded her left eye, but her right was clear. The power light still blazed on the turret's twin weapons, and the training gear hummed smoothly when she hit the pedal.


She traversed her fire, sweeping it back and forth across that incredible tidal wave of bodies. She killed them in scores, in hundreds, and still they came. The turret starred as more bullets slammed into the skimmer. Some of them came from behind her, and flying plastic chips cut her face, spalled from the thick canopy's inner surface, but Malcolm clung to the grips, pouring her fire into the shrieking mob.


She was still firing when clubs and rifle butts smashed the turret and dozens of Medusan hands dragged her out of it.


The knives were waiting.


 


The com terminal buzzed quietly on Honor's desk.


She stepped out of the shower, toweling her short fuzz of hair vigorously, then dragged her kimono over her wet skin and punched acceptance.


"Captain?" It was Webster, and her nerves tightened as she heard the anxiety in his voice. "Priority signal from Lieutenant Stromboli, Ma'am."


"Put him through."


"Aye, Ma'am." Webster vanished from the screen, replaced by Max Stromboli's worried face.


"What is it, Lieutenant?" Honor deliberately pitched her voice lower than usual and spoke slowly, and the lieutenant swallowed.


"Ma'am, I thought you should know—we copied some message traffic from an NPA skimmer about fifteen minutes ago. They said they were under fire from Stilties and going down. Then they went off the air. Air Control is still trying to raise them, but we're not getting anything back."


"Was it Major Isvarian's patrol?" Honor's voice was suddenly sharper, despite her self-control.


"Yes, Ma'am, I believe it was. And—" Stromboli broke off and looked away for a few seconds as someone said something from off-screen, then he turned back to Honor. "Ma'am, I don't know if it's connected—I don't see how it could be—but that Havenite freighter, the Sirius, just started to move out of orbit, and she sure didn't clear it with us."


Stromboli looked more puzzled than concerned by his latest datum as he gazed into his own com screen at his captain, but Honor felt her skin twitch. The same humming certainty that filled her as she grappled with a complex tactical maneuver filled her now as all the pieces snapped instantly and intuitively into place. It couldn't be. The whole idea was preposterous! Yet it was also the only answer that even began to fit the known data.


Stromboli flinched back from his com as her eyes hardened in sudden understanding. She noted his reaction and made herself smile at him.


"Thank you, Lieutenant. You did well. I'll take it from here."


She cut the circuit and flipped up a clear plastic shield on the side of her terminal. Only the captain's cabin terminal had that shield, and she jammed her thumb down on the big, red button it had covered.


The ululating scream of Fearless's battle stations alarm wailed through the light cruiser's hull. Crewmen rolled out of their bunks, dropped cups of coffee, jumped up from mess tables, threw down playing cards and book readers, and bolted for their stations. That shrill, electric sound was brutal, designed to get inside a person's bones and snarl there, and only a dead man could have ignored it.


Honor let the alarm shriek and punched the intercom for the bridge. Panowski was officer of the watch, and his eyes were wide and stunned as he recognized her.


"Bring the drive up—now, Lieutenant!" she snapped.


"Aye, aye, Ma'am!" Panowski actually saluted his pickup, then licked his lips. "What are we doing, Captain?" he blurted, and she chopped her hand at him.


"I'll explain later. Have communications raise Dame Estelle. I'll speak to her when I reach the bridge. Now move on that drive, Lieutenant!"


She cut the circuit and whirled to her own locker. She jerked it open and yanked out her vac suit and shed her kimono in one flowing movement, then sat on the edge of the bed and shoved her feet into the suit. The Navy's skin suits were little more cumbersome than pre-space scuba suits, unlike the hard suits of meteor miners and construction workers, and Honor was glad of it as she made the plumbing connections with painful haste and hauled the suit up over skin still wet from the shower. She thrust her arms into the sleeves, then sealed it and grabbed her helmet and gauntlets from the locker even as her eyes checked the suit telltales and found them all green.


Nimitz had hurtled from his perch at the first shrill of the alarm. He'd been through this same drill as often as she, and he scurried across the cabin to the boxlike affair she'd had clamped to the bulkhead below her sailplane plaque immediately after coming aboard. That box wasn't Fleet issue, and it had cost Honor a small fortune, for it was a custom-built life support module, sized to Nimitz's stature and fitted with the same search and rescue beacon as a Fleet vac suit. It was good for a hundred hours on its internal life support, and the door slammed automatically behind him as he fled into it. He couldn't open it from the inside, but unless something scored a direct hit on it, he could survive even if battle damage opened the cabin to space.


She paused to give the module door lock a single double-checking slap, and then she vanished through the cabin hatch and headed for the lift at a run.


The alarm stopped screaming while she was in the lift, and she made herself move briskly but confidently when the door opened onto the bridge. All stations were manned, and she heard the background mutter of voices reporting readiness states while the battle board moved from amber to the steady, scarlet glow of readiness with gratifying speed.


McKeon had beaten her there. He stood beside her command chair, hands clasped behind him, his face calm, but there were beads of sweat along his hairline. She nodded acknowledgment of his presence and slipped past him into her chair. Its displays and monitors began deploying about her as she sat, surrounding her with a flow of information that awaited her slightest glance, but she kept her eyes on McKeon.


"Status?"


"All stations manned, Captain," the exec said crisply. "Impeller wedge coming up—we should have movement capability in another ten minutes. Sirius has been underway for six-point-eight minutes . . . at four hundred and ten gees."


He paused, and Honor's jaw clenched. That was low for most warships, but impossibly fast for a freighter, and it confirmed Santos's deduction. Only military impellers could have produced that kind of acceleration for a ship Sirius's size . . . and only a military grade inertial compensator could allow her crew to survive it.


"The courier boat?" Her voice was sharp, and McKeon frowned.


"She started powering her wedge just after we did, Ma'am."


"Understood." Honor looked over her shoulder. "Do we have a link to the Resident Commissioner, Mr. Webster?"


"Yes, Ma'am."


"Put it on my screen." Honor looked back down just as a pale-faced Dame Estelle appeared. The commissioner opened her mouth, but Honor raised a hand and spoke first. "Excuse me, Dame Estelle, but time is short. I think I know what's going on now. Have you heard anything more from your patrol?" Matsuko shook her head mutely, and Honor's face went more masklike still.


"Very well. I am dropping my Marines now." She shot a sideways glance at McKeon, and he nodded and hit an intercom key to give the order. "Aside from that, there's very little we can do for you, I'm afraid. And unless I miss my guess, we're going to have problems of our own soon enough."


"I understand," Dame Estelle broke in, "but there's something you should know before you do anything else, Captain." Honor cocked her head and gestured for the commissioner to continue. "We picked up a transmission from the general area where our patrol went down just after we lost contact with Lieutenant Malcolm," Matsuko said quickly. "It was scrambled but not encrypted, and we just broke the scramble. The transmitter didn't identify himself, and he used a code name for his recipient, but we detected a transmission to the freighter from the Haven Consulate immediately afterward, so I think we know who it was intended for."


"What did it say?" Honor demanded. Dame Estelle didn't answer in words; she simply played the message off, and Honor's eyes went cold and flat as a male voice gasped over her com.


"Odysseus! It's Odysseus now, damn it! The frigging Shaman's lost his goddamned mind! They're boiling up out of the caves, and I can't hold them! The hopped-up bastards are kicking off right fucking now!"


A surflike roar of Medusan voices and the whiplash cracks of countless rifles echoed behind the words, and then the sounds cut off as Dame Estelle stopped the playback.


"Thank you, Dame Estelle," Honor said flatly. "I understand what's happening now. Good luck."


She killed the circuit and bent over her maneuvering display, ignoring McKeon as she punched in the parking orbit pattern and laid vectors across it. It was going to be close, but there was far less orbital traffic than there had been, and if she could pull it off . . .


"How long for impeller now?" she asked without looking up.


"Four minutes, twenty seconds," McKeon said tightly, and Honor nodded to herself. She could do it. Probably. She fed McKeon's readiness numbers into her display, and a time-to-execution readout began to blink its way steadily downward.


"Thank you. Are the Marines away?"


"Yes, Ma'am. And Commander Suchon. Lieutenant Montoya came aboard an hour ago."


She did look up at that, and her stony face flared with a brief but real smile as she saw the amusement in McKeon's eyes. Then the smile faded, and she bent back to her maneuvering display.


"We'll be going in pursuit of Sirius, Mr. McKeon. It's imperative that we stop her from leaving the system. What's her current heading?"


"She's steadied down on two-seven-four by zero-niner-three true from the primary, Captain," Lieutenant Brigham's crisp voice replied for the exec.


"What's out there, Mercedes?"


"At her current heading and acceleration she'll hit the hyper wall about one light-minute this side of the Tellerman wave, Captain," Brigham said after a moment, and Honor swallowed a silent curse. She'd been afraid of something like that.


"Impellers in three minutes, Ma'am," McKeon reported.


"Mr. Webster!"


"Yes, Ma'am?"


"Stand by to record a signal to Lieutenant Venizelos at Basilisk Control for immediate relay to Fleet HQ. Fleet scramble, no encryption. Priority One."


Heads turned, and Webster's swallow was clearly audible.


"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Standing by to record."


"'Mr. Venizelos, you will commandeer the first available Junction carrier to relay the following message to Fleet HQ. Message begins: Authentication code Lima-Mike-Echo-Niner-Seven-One. Case Zulu. I say again, Zulu, Zulu, Zulu. Message ends.'" She heard McKeon suck air between his teeth at her shoulder. "That is all, Mr. Webster," she said softly. "You may transmit at will." Webster said absolutely nothing for an instant, but when he replied, his voice was unnaturally steady.


"Aye, aye, Captain. Transmitting Case Zulu." There was another brief pause, then, "Case Zulu transmitted, Ma'am."


"Thank you." Honor wanted to lean back and draw a deep breath, but there was no time. The message she'd just ordered Webster to send and Venizelos to relay to Manticore was never sent in drills, not even in the most intense or realistic Fleet maneuvers. Case Zulu had one meaning, and one only: "Invasion Imminent."


"Captain, are you sure—?" McKeon began, but her raised hand stopped him.


"Time to impellers, Exec?"


"Forty-three seconds."


"Thank you." She punched in the new estimate, a corner of her mind noting that Dominica Santos was shaving whole seconds off her original numbers. The time-to-execution display flickered to a new value, then resumed its steady downward march. "Chief Killian?"


"Aye, Captain?" The coxswain's shoulders were tight, but his voice was calm.


"Come to three-five-seven by one-seven-one, Chief Killian. On my command, I want three hundred gravities acceleration on that heading for ten seconds. Then come directly to two-seven-four by zero-niner-three true and go to maximum military power."


Stunned silence gripped the entire bridge, deeper even than that provoked by her Code Zulu, and then Chief Killian looked over his shoulder at her.


"Captain, that course—"


"I know precisely where that course will take us, Chief Killian," Honor said crisply.


"Captain—" it was Brigham this time, her voice very formal "—regulations require me to point out that you will be violating planetary traffic patterns on that course."


"Noted. Chief Braun—" Honor didn't even look up at the quartermaster, and her voice was almost absent "—please log the Sailing Master's warning and note that I assume full responsibility."


"Aye, aye, Ma'am." Braun's voice was absolutely toneless, but his expression was wary, as if he expected her to begin gibbering at any moment.


"Impeller wedge up and nominal, Ma'am," McKeon rasped, and Honor kept her eyes glued to her maneuvering display, watching the time display tick downward.


"Is that course laid in, Chief?"


"Ah, yes, Ma'am. Three-five-seven one-seven-one. Acceleration three-zero-zero gravities for one-zero seconds. Course change to two-seven-four zero-niner-three true also laid in, Captain."


"Thank you." Honor felt McKeon's tension at her shoulder, but there was no time to deal with that. "Courier boat time to impeller readiness?" she snapped.


"Thirty-six seconds, Ma'am," Lieutenant Cardones said in a small voice.


"Very well." She paused for just a beat, and then the timer hit zero. "Execute, Chief Killian!"


"Executing," the coxswain said in an almost prayerful voice, and HMS Fearless leapt instantly forward and "down" at an acceleration of just over twenty-nine hundred MPS2.


Honor's hands tightened on her chair's arms, but she didn't even blink as her eighty-eight-thousand-ton command screamed down into the very heart of Medusa's orbital traffic. She'd laid in that vector by eye, without the careful calculations and double-checking The Book required, but there was no time for that, and her mind was still in that odd overdrive. She knew it was correct, with an absolute certainty that admitted no doubt, and Fearless rode the invisible rail she'd nailed down in space as her speed mounted by almost three kilometers per second with every second that passed.


The Havenite courier boat loomed directly ahead of her on Honor's visual display, impeller nodes beginning to glow as they started to come up, but they weren't on line yet. Vapor spewed from the boat's emergency maneuvering thrusters as her skipper tried frantically to avoid Fearless's mad charge, yet those thrusters were far too weak to move the boat more than a few meters in the time they had, and the light cruiser stooped upon the eggshell courier like a vengeful falcon.


Breath hissed as her officers tensed for the inevitable, suicidal impact, but Honor's face was carved stone as the edge of Fearless's drive field slashed past the courier at less than two kilometers, far inside its drive safety perimeter. Vaporized alloy burst from the smaller vessel's stern as the cruiser's vastly more powerful impeller wedge blew her after nodes to incandescent gas; then Fearless was past, and the starscape slewed crazily in the visual display as she shot up and away from the planet in a mad skew turn and went instantly to full emergency power, accelerating at five hundred and twenty gravities.


"My God!" someone gasped as Fearless streaked past an orbiting four-million-ton freighter at a bare ten kilometers' separation. Honor didn't even turn her head. Her eyes were already reaching out for the scarlet light dot of the fleeing Sirius.


"Captain?" Webster sounded as shaken as anyone.


"Yes, Samuel?" Honor asked absently.


"Captain, I have an incoming message from that courier boat. They sound pretty upset, Ma'am."


"I imagine they do." Honor surprised herself with a grin and sensed the sudden release of her bridge crew's tension. "Put them on my screen."


"Yes, Ma'am."


Her screen lit with the image of a very young officer in the green and gray of the People's Navy. He wore a lieutenant's insignia, and his face was a curious, mottled blend of furious red and terrified white.


"Captain Harrington, I protest your reckless, illegal shiphandling!" the youngster shouted. "You almost destroyed my ship! Our entire after—"


"I'm very sorry, Captain," Honor interrupted in her most soothing tone. "I'm afraid I wasn't watching where I was going."


"Weren't watching wh—?!" The Havenite lieutenant strangled his exclamation and gritted his teeth. "I demand you heave to and assist my command in dealing with the damage you've inflicted!" he snarled instead.


"I regret that that's impossible, Captain," Honor said.


"Under the interstellar convention of—" the lieutenant began again, but she cut him off with a pleasant smile.


"I realize I'm technically in the wrong about this, Captain," she said in that same, soothing tone, "but I'm sure Her Majesty's Resident Commissioner will be able to provide any assistance you require. In the meantime, we're a little too busy to stop. Good-bye, Captain."


She switched off the com, killing the lieutenant's protest in mid splutter, and leaned back in her chair.


"My, that was a little sloppy of me, wasn't it?" she murmured.


Her crew gawked at her for just a second, and then a chorus of relieved laughter ran around the bridge. She smiled, but when she looked up at McKeon, his face was grim, and there was no humor in his eyes.


"You stopped the courier, Skipper," he said quietly, under cover of the others' laughter, "but what about the freighter?"


"I'll stop her, too," Honor said. "Any way I have to."


"But why, Ma'am? You said you understood what's going on, but I'll be damned if I do!"


"Sirius's departure was the last piece I needed." Honor spoke so softly he had to lean forward to hear her. "I know where she's going, you see."


"What?!" McKeon started, then grabbed for his self-control and looked around the bridge. A dozen pairs of eyes were locked on him and his captain, but they whipped back to their own instruments under the impact of his fiery gray glare. Then he returned his own questioning gaze to Honor.


"Somewhere out here, Alistair, probably within only a few hours' hyper flight, there's a Havenite battle squadron. Maybe even a full task force. Sirius is headed for a rendezvous with them."


McKeon's face went white, and his eyes widened.


"It's the only answer that makes sense," she said. "The drugs and guns on the planet were intended to produce a native attack on the enclaves. It was supposed to come as a complete surprise and produce a bloodbath as the Medusans slaughtered off-worlders right and left—including, as you yourself pointed out, their own merchant factors in those northern trade enclaves. In fact," she spoke more slowly, lips tightening and eyes hardening in sudden surmise, "I'll lay odds Sirius is officially assigned to one of those enclaves by the Havenite government." She nodded to herself. "That would make this just about perfect, wouldn't it?"


"How, Ma'am?" McKeon was out of his depth, and he knew it.


"They're trying a coup de main to seize the planet," Honor said flatly. "Sirius's master is 'fleeing in panic' from the native insurrection. In the course of his flight, he'll 'just happen' to encounter a Peep squadron or task force in the area on 'routine maneuvers.' Naturally, he'll spill out his story to the Havenite commander, who, horrified and overcome with a sense of urgency and the need to save off-worlder lives, will immediately proceed to Medusa with his entire force to put down the native uprising." She stared into McKeon's eyes and saw the dawning understanding.


"And once he's done that," she finished very softly, "he'll proclaim Haven's possession of the entire system on the grounds that Manticore has demonstrated its total inability to maintain order and public safety on the planet's surface."


"That's insane," McKeon whispered, but his tone was that of a man trying to convince himself, not truly a protest. "They know we'd never stand for it!"


"Do they?"


"They must! And the entire Home Fleet's only a single wormhole transit away, Skipper!"


"They may believe they can get away with it." Honor's voice was cool and dispassionate; her thoughts were neither. "There's always been a certain anti-annexation movement in Parliament. Maybe they think enough bloodshed on Medusa, coupled with their presence here, will finally give that movement the strength to succeed."


"Not in a million years," McKeon growled.


"Probably not, no. But they're looking in from the outside. They may not realize how little chance of it there is, and maybe they figure they can pull it off however Parliament's xenophobes react. If this had worked the way they planned—assuming I'm right about their intentions—we'd have had no prior reason to suspect their involvement. Under the circumstances, any ship on the picket here probably would have been too busy reacting to the dirt-side situation from a cold start to worry about Sirius's departure. We might not even have noticed it, in which case she'd have slipped away to alert their task force, or whatever, and bring it back in without anyone on our side even suspecting they were coming until they actually arrived. If that had happened, their forces would have been in Basilisk before Home Fleet could even start to react."


She paused and began punching numbers into her maneuvering systems with an unaccustomed speed and accuracy that amazed McKeon. The results flashed on her screen, and she pointed at them.


"Look. If they pop out of hyper right at the hyper limit on a reciprocal of Sirius's present course, they'll be barely twelve light-minutes out from Medusa. If they translate downward at the maximum safe velocity, they can be into planetary orbit in under three and a half hours, even at superdreadnought acceleration rates. They'll also be just over eleven-point-three light-hours from the terminus, so they can reach it in twenty-eight hours and forty-five minutes. If we didn't know they were coming until they dropped out of hyper, they'd have plenty of time to be set up right on the terminus when Home Fleet tried to make transit through it."


McKeon paled. "That would be an act of war," he protested.


"So is that." Honor jabbed a thumb in the general direction of Medusa. "But what's happening dirt-side would only be an act of war if we knew who'd done it, and they've done their level best to convince us it was Manticoran criminals who supplied the guns and drugs. By the same token, their interdiction of the terminus would only turn into an act of war if we tried to transit and they fired on us. If I'm right about their plan, they can't have their entire fleet waiting around out here. For that matter, if they did have their entire fleet out here and they were really ready to fight, they wouldn't need any pretexts. They'd just come crashing in and sit on the terminus, and that would be that. But if they've only got a battle squadron or two, then, yes, we could kick them out of the system even if they were waiting for us. Our losses would be brutal, but theirs would be virtually one hundred percent, and they have to know that."


"Then what in God's name do they think they're doing?"


"I think they're running a bluff," Honor said quietly. "They hope we won't push it and risk engaging them if they're in a position to hurt us badly enough—that we'll stop to negotiate and discover public opinion back home won't stand for heavy casualties to take back a system the anti-annexationists don't want anyway. But if it is a bluff, that's another reason to use a relatively small force. They can always disavow the actions of their commander on the spot, claim he was carried away by understandable concern for off-worlders in the wake of the Medusa Massacre but that he exceeded his authority. That leaves them a way to back out and save face, especially if no one knows they caused the massacres. But think about it, Alistair. Events on Medusa are really just a side show. A pretext. They're not after the planet; they're after control of a second Junction terminus. Even if there's only one chance in fifty that they could pull it off, wouldn't the potential prize be worth the risk from their viewpoint?"


"Yes." There was no more doubt in McKeon's voice, and his nod was grim.


"But I may be wrong about the size of their force or how willing they'll be to fight," Honor said. "After all, their fleet's bigger than ours. They can stand the loss of a couple of battle squadrons as the opening round in a war, especially if they can inflict a favorable rate of exchange in return. And it's going to be a horse race to get anything here from Manticore in time to stop them, even with our Code Zulu. Our message will take thirteen and a half hours to reach Fleet HQ, but Sirius can be into hyper in two hours and fifty minutes—call it three. Let's say they reach their rendezvous three hours after that. Assuming a Fleet acceleration of four-twenty gees, that means their units could be back here in as little as twelve hours and on the warp point in forty-one, which leaves HQ just twenty-seven and a half hours from receipt of our Code Zulu to cover the terminus. Assuming Admiral Webster reacts instantly and dispatches Home Fleet from Manticore orbit with no delay at all, that'll take them—" She punched more numbers into her maneuvering plot, but McKeon was already ahead of her.


"Call it thirty-four hours for superdreadnoughts, or thirty-point-five if they don't send anything heavier than a battlecruiser," he muttered, jaws clenched, and Honor nodded.


"So if they are prepared to fight, they'd have over three hours to deploy energy mines on the terminus and take up the most advantageous positions before Home Fleet can possibly arrive. Which means the only way to be sure we don't wind up with a major fleet engagement is to stop Sirius from reaching her rendezvous."


"How do you plan to stop her, Ma'am?"


"We're still in Manticoran space, and what's happening on Medusa certainly constitutes an 'emergency situation.' Under the circumstances, I have the authority to order any ship to heave to for examination."


"You know Haven doesn't accept that interpretation of interstellar law, Ma'am." McKeon's voice was low, and Honor nodded. For centuries, Haven had championed the legal claim that the right of examination meant no more than the right to interrogate a ship by signal unless it intended to touch or had, since its last inspection, in fact touched the territory of the star system in which the examination was demanded. Since turning expansionist, the Republic had changed its position (within its own sphere) to the one most of the rest of the galaxy accepted: that the right of examination meant the right to physically stop and search a suspect ship within the examiner's territorial space regardless of its past or intended movements. But Haven had not accepted that interpretation in other star nations' territory. In time, they would have no choice but to do so, since the double standard they claimed was so irritating to the rest of the galaxy (including the Solarian League, which had all sorts of ways to retaliate short of war), but they hadn't yet, and that meant Sirius's master might very well assert Haven's old, traditional interpretation and refuse to stop when called upon to do so.


"If he won't stop willingly, then I'll stop him by force," she said. McKeon looked at her in silence, and she returned his gaze levelly. "If Haven can disavow the actions of an admiral or vice admiral, Her Majesty can disavow those of a commander," she pointed out in that same quiet voice.


McKeon stood looking at her a moment longer, then nodded. She didn't have to mention the next logical step in the process, for he knew it as well as she did. A flag officer could survive being officially disavowed; a commander could not. If Honor fired into Sirius and provoked an interstellar incident which left Queen Elizabeth no choice but to disavow her actions, then Honor's career was over.


He started to say so, but a tiny shake of her head stopped him. He turned away and walked towards the tactical station, then stopped. He stood for a second, and then he retraced his steps to the command chair.


"Captain Harrington," he said very formally, "I concur completely in your conclusions. I'd like to log my agreement with you, if I may."


Honor looked up at him, stunned by his offer, and her brown eyes softened. He could hardly believe what he'd just said himself, for by logging his agreement he would log his official support for any actions she took in response to her conclusions. He would share her responsibility for them—and any disgrace that came of them. But that seemed strangely unimportant as he looked into her eyes, because for the first time since she'd come aboard Fearless, Alistair McKeon saw total, unqualified approval of himself in those dark depths.


But then she shook her head gently.


"No, Mr. McKeon. Fearless is my responsibility—and so are my actions. But thank you. Thank you very much for the offer."


She held out her hand, and he took it.


 


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