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Hyper space's rippling energy fluxes and flurries of charged particles hashed any sensor beyond a twenty-light-minute radius, but the convoy's clustered light codes were clear and sharp and gratifyingly tight on Honor's maneuvering display as it approached the hyper limit of Yeltsin's Star at a comfortable third of light-speed.

The translation from n-space to hyper was speed critical—at anything above .3 C, dimensional shear would tear a ship apart—but the reverse wasn't true. Which didn't make high-speed downward translations pleasant. The energy bleed as the convoy crossed each hyper wall would slow them to a crawl long before they reached the alpha bands, and shear wasn't a factor as far as hardware was concerned, but the effect on humans was something else again. Naval crews were trained for crash translations, yet there was a limit to what training could do to offset the physical distress and violent nausea, and there was no point in putting anyone—especially her merchant crews—through that.

"Ready to begin translation in forty-one seconds, Ma'am," Lieutenant Commander DuMorne reported from Astrogation.

"Very well, Mr. DuMorne. The con is yours."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. I have the con. Helm, prepare for initial translation on my mark."

"Ready for translation, aye," Chief Killian replied, and the helmsman's hand hovered over the manual override, just in case the astrogator's computers dropped the ball, while Honor leaned back to watch.

"Mark!" DuMorne said crisply, and the normally inaudible hum of Fearless's hyper generator became a basso growl.

Honor swallowed against a sudden ripple of nausea as the visual display altered abruptly. The endlessly shifting patterns of hyper space were no longer slow; they flickered, jumping about like poorly executed animation, and her readouts flashed steadily downward as the entire convoy plummeted "down" the hyper space gradient.

Fearless hit the gamma wall, and her Warshawski sails bled transit energy like an azure forest fire. Her velocity dropped almost instantly from .3 C to a mere nine percent of light-speed, and Honor's stomach heaved as her inner ear rebelled against a speed loss the rest of her senses couldn't even detect. DuMorne's calculations had allowed for the energy bleed, and their translation gradient steepened even further as their velocity fell. They hit the beta wall four minutes later, and Honor winced again—less violently this time—as their velocity bled down to less than two percent of light-speed. The visual display was a fierce chaos of heaving light as the convoy fell straight "down" across a "distance" which had no physical existence, and then they hit the alpha bands and flashed across them to the n-space wall like a comet.

Her readouts stopped blinking. The visual display was suddenly still, filled once more with the unwinking pinpricks of normal-space stars, the sense of nausea faded almost as quickly as it had come, and HMS Fearless's velocity had dropped in less than ten minutes from ninety thousand kilometers per second to a bare hundred and forty.

Honor drew a deep breath and suppressed the automatic urge to shake her head in relief. One or two people around the bridge were doing just that, but the old hands were as purposely blasé about it as she herself. It was silly, of course, but there were appearances to maintain.

Her lips twitched at the familiar thought, and she glanced at her astrogation repeater. Stephen had done his usual bang-up job, and Fearless and her charges floated twenty-four light-minutes from Yeltsin's Star, just outside the F6's hyper limit. Even the best hyper log was subject to some error, and the nature of hyper space precluded any observations to correct, but the voyage had been relatively short and DuMorne had shaved his safety margin with an expert touch.

She pressed a com stud on her chair arm while he took normal-space fixes to refine their position, and the voice of her chief engineer answered.

"Engineering, Commander Higgins."

"Reconfigure to impeller drive, please, Mr. Higgins."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Reconfiguring now," Higgins acknowledged, and Fearless folded her Warshawski sails into her impeller wedge.

There was no internal sign of the change, but Honor's engineering readouts and visual display told the tale. Unlike Warshawski sails, which were invisible in normal space except for the brief moment in which they radiated the energy bleed of a translation, the stressed gravity bands of an impeller drive were almost painfully obvious. Now they sprang into existence above and below Fearless, angled towards one another in a wedge open both ahead and astern, and stars red-shifted as a gravity differential of a hundred thousand MPS2 grabbed at their photons. The cruiser floated within her wedge, like a surfer poised in the curl of a wave which hadn't yet begun to move, and Honor watched her communications officer.

Lieutenant Metzinger pressed the fingers of her right hand gently against her earbug, then looked up.

"All ships report reconfigured to impeller, Ma'am."

"Thank you, Joyce." Honor's eyes moved to the blue-green light code of the planet Grayson, ten and a half light-minutes further in-system, and then to DuMorne. "May I assume, Mr. DuMorne, that, with your usual efficiency, you now have a course worked out for Grayson?"

"You, may, Ma'am." DuMorne returned her smile. "Course is one-one-five by—" he double-checked his position and tapped a minute correction into his computers "—zero-zero-four-point-zero-niner. Acceleration is two-zero-zero gravities with turnover in approximately two-point-seven hours."

"Lay it in, Chief Killian."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Coming to one-one-five, zero-zero-four-point-zero-niner."

"Thank you. Com, pass our course to all ships, please."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am." Metzinger dumped figures from DuMorne's computers to the rest of the convoy. "Course acknowledged and validated by all units," she reported a moment later. "Convoy ready to proceed."

"Very good. Are we ready, Helm?"

"Yes, Ma'am. Standing by for two-zero-zero gravities."

"Then let's be on our way, Chief."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Underway."

There was no discernible sense of movement as Fearless gathered speed at just under two kilometers per second per second, for her inertial compensator allowed her to cheat Newton shamelessly.

Two hundred gravities was a leisurely lope for Fearless, less than half of what she could have turned out even at the eighty percent "max" power settings the Manticoran Navy normally used, but it was the highest safe acceleration for Honor's freighters. Merchantmen were far larger yet had much weaker impeller drives than warships, with proportionately less powerful compensators.

She looked back at Metzinger.

"Hail Grayson Traffic Control, please, Joyce."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Transmitting now."

"Thank you." Honor leaned back in her command chair, propped her elbows on its arms, and steepled her fingers under her pointed chin. It would take her hail over ten minutes to reach Grayson, and as she watched the distant, gleaming marble swell with infinitesimal speed in the visual display, she wondered how much of a problem her gender would actually be.

* * *

High Admiral Bernard Yanakov looked up from his reader as his aide rapped gently on the frame of the open door.

"Yes, Jason?"

"Tracking just picked up a hyper footprint right on the limit, Sir. We don't have impeller confirmation yet, but I thought you'd want to know."

"You thought correctly." Yanakov switched off the reader and rose, twitched his blue tunic straight, and picked up his peaked cap. Lieutenant Andrews moved out of his way, then fell in beside and slightly behind him as he strode briskly towards Command Central.

The chatter of voices and old-fashioned impact printers met them as they stepped through the soundproofed door, and Yanakov hid a grimace, for the clattering printers were even more primitive than those the original colonists had brought from Old Earth. They did the job, but they were one more indication of how far Grayson's technology had backslid. It wasn't something that usually bothered the Admiral, but today wasn't usual. That footprint almost had to be the Manticoran convoy, and his planet's backwardness would be embarrassingly apparent to their visitors.

Crimson status lights caught his eye, and he nodded in satisfaction. Until they knew for certain that that footprint was the convoy, the Grayson Navy would assume it was a Masadan attack force. The unscheduled drill would do all hands good . . . and given the current levels of tension, Yanakov had no intention of taking any chances with his home world's security.

Commodore Brentworth looked up as Yanakov crossed to him.

"Passive sensors just registered incoming impeller drives, Admiral," he said briskly, and a light glowed on the master system display behind him. Tiny letters and numerals beside it detailed numbers and accelerations, and Yanakov grunted softly as he studied them.

"Numbers and formation match the Manticoran convoy, Sir. Of course, we only have them on gravitics now, not light-speed sensors. We won't hear anything from the com for another eight minutes or so."

"Understood, Walt." Yanakov watched the board a moment longer, then glanced at his aide. "Alert my cutter for immediate liftoff, Jason, and inform Grayson I'll be arriving aboard shortly."

"Yes, Sir." Andrews vanished, and Yanakov turned back to the board. Austin Grayson would be small and antiquated beside the Star Knight cruiser heading the Manticoran escort, but she was still the flagship of the Grayson Navy, and he would greet their guests from his flag deck, where he belonged.

* * *

Grayson looked oddly patchy in the visual display as Fearless and her brood settled into their parking orbit, and Honor had been amazed on the trip in-system by the scale of Grayson's spaceborne industry. For a technically backward system, Yeltsin's Star boasted an amazing number of bulk carriers and processing ships. None of them appeared hyper capable, and the largest massed barely a million tons, but they were everywhere, and some of the orbital structures circling Grayson itself were at least a third the size of Hephaestus or Vulcan back home. No doubt the scale of the orbital construction projects also explained the plethora of energy sources and drive signatures plying between Grayson and the local asteroid belt, but the sheer numbers of them still came as a shock.

Fearless cut her wedge as Chief Killian signaled "done with engines" and station-keeping thrusters took over, and Honor frowned over her displays while a corner of her mind monitored the flow of communications between the planetary authorities and Admiral Courvosier's staff on the heavy cruiser's flag bridge. Everything she saw only seemed to underscore the strange—to Manticoran eyes, at least—dichotomy between the almost incredible energy of Grayson's activities and the crudity with which they were carried out.

Old-fashioned electric arc and laser welders glared and sputtered, despite the wastefulness of such primitive, energy-intensive techniques compared to modern chem-catalyst welders. Hard-suited construction crews heaved massive frame members around, overcoming mass and momentum by brute muscle power without the tractor/counter-grav exo-suits Manticoran workers would have used as a matter of course, and it took her a while to realize (and even longer to accept) that some of them were using rivet guns. The local orbital power receptors were huge and clumsy and looked none too efficient, and her sensors said at least half the structures out there were using fission power plants! Fission plants weren't just old-fashioned; they were dangerous technical antiques, and their presence baffled her. The original Church of Humanity's colony ship had used fusion power, so why were the colonists' descendants using fission power nine hundred years later?

She shook her head and turned her attention to the nearest complete habitat. It rotated slowly about its central axis, but it obviously boasted internal grav generators, for the spin was far too slow to produce anything like a useful gravity. In fact, there was something peculiar about that leisurely, almost trickling movement. Could it be that—?

She punched a query into her tactical display, and her puzzlement grew as CIC confirmed her suspicion. That structure was spinning on its axis exactly once per local planetary day, which seemed very odd, and it glittered like a huge, faceted gem as Yeltsin's light bounced off unusually vast stretches of transparent hull. She frowned and leaned closer to her visual display, zooming in on an enormous surface dome, a blister of transparency over a kilometer across, and her eyes widened. The designers had used something like old-fashioned Venetian blinds, not the self-polarizing anti-rad armorplast Honor was used to; now the "blinds" were half-open on the nearer side of the dome as it rotated its way towards "evening," and she stared at the image for a long, disbelieving moment.

That wasn't an orbital habitat after all. Or, rather, it wasn't a habitat for people. She watched the herd of cattle graze across a knee-high meadow on what had to be one of the most expensive "farms" in the explored galaxy, then shook her head again—this time with slowly dawning comprehension. So that was why they were building so many orbital installations!

She turned back to the planet, and the peculiar splotchiness of its coloration really registered for the first time. Grayson's land surface was the life-breathing green of chlorophyll, with very few patches of desert, but most of it was a rich, blue-toned green, darker than anything Honor was used to seeing. Lighter patches, with suspiciously neat and regular boundaries, broke the darkness up, but the lighter areas were centered on what were obviously cities and towns, and all of those habitations were well inland. Grayson's seas were a deep and sparkling blue, painfully similar to those of Honor's native Sphinx, yet there were no cities along those bright, white beaches, and she nodded to herself as she realized why.

Grayson was, as Admiral Courvosier had said, a lovely planet. Its colors had a rich, jewel-like tone rare even among life-bearing worlds, and despite its thirteen and a half light-minute orbital radius, its brilliant star and minimal axial tilt gave it surface temperatures and weather patterns any resort planet might envy. But beautiful as it was, Grayson had never been intended as a home for man. It was considerably smaller than Old Earth, yet its mass was almost Earth Standard, for it was rich in heavy elements. Dangerously rich. So rich its plant life fixed arsenic and cadmium, mercury and lead, and passed those same elements on to the herbivores who ate it. So rich its seas weren't merely "salt" but a brew of naturally occurring toxins that made merely swimming in them potentially lethal. No wonder Grayson's people lived inland, and Honor hated even to think of the unremitting struggle they must face to "decontaminate" the soil that supported those lighter green patches of terrestrial food crops.

Honor's parents were doctors, and she shuddered at the potential for neural and genetic damage Grayson's environment offered. It must be like living in a chemical waste dump, and these people had lived here for nine centuries. No wonder they built farms in outer space—if she'd been they, she would have moved her entire population into orbit! The sheer beauty of their planet must make its dangers even harder to endure . . . and a still more bitter cosmic joke. Austin Grayson's followers had come five hundred and thirty light-years to escape the technology they believed polluted their birth world and racial soul only to find this poisonous jewel of a planet at journey's end.

She shuddered and turned away from that gorgeous, deadly view to concentrate on her tactical display. The local naval units which had come out to greet them had decelerated to match vectors with the convoy; now they shared Fearless's orbit, and she knew she was studying them to avoid looking at their homeworld until she could come to terms with its reality.

Most of them were light attack craft, purely sublight intrasystem vessels, the largest massing barely eleven thousand tons. The LACs were dwarfed by their light cruiser flagship, yet however large she might be beside her diminutive consorts, the cruiser was only a little over ninety thousand tons, barely two-thirds the size of Alice Truman's Apollo. She was also thirty years old, but Honor's last command had been even smaller and older, and she could only approve of the crisp deft way the Graysons had maneuvered to rendezvous with her own command. Those ships might be old and technically inferior, but their crews knew what they were doing.

She sighed and leaned back, glancing around her bridge once more. Admiral Courvosier's staff had handled all message traffic, but she'd monitored it at his invitation, and she'd been relieved by the genuine welcome in Admiral Yanakov's voice. Maybe this wasn't going to be as bad as she'd feared—and even if it was, her new insight into the environment from whence these people sprang should certainly temper her own reaction.

"Admiral Yanakov will arrive in six minutes, Skipper," Lieutenant Metzinger said suddenly, and Honor nodded. She pressed a button, and her command chair displays folded into their storage positions.

"I think it's time you and I got down to the boat bay to join the Admiral and greet our guests, Exec."

"Yes, Ma'am." Andreas Venizelos climbed out of his own chair and joined her as she headed for the bridge lift.

"Mr. DuMorne, you have the watch."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. I have the watch," DuMorne replied, and moved from his station to the command chair as the lift door slid shut behind her.

* * *

High Admiral Yanakov tasted pure, undiluted envy as HMS Fearless swelled before him. Now that was a warship, he thought, drinking in the sleek, double-ended spindle appreciatively. The big, powerful ship hung against the bottomless stars, gleaming with reflected sunlight, and she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. Her impeller wedge and defensive sidewalls were down, displaying her arrogant grace to the naked eye, and her midships section swelled smoothly between the bands of her fore and aft impeller rings, bristling with state-of-the-art radar and gravitic arrays and passive sensor systems. Her hull number—CA 286—stood out boldly against the white hull just aft of her forward impeller nodes, and weapon bays ran down her armored flank like watching eyes.

His cutter shivered as one of the cruiser's tractors locked on, and his pilot cut his thrusters as they slid into the bright cavern of Fearless's boat bay. The tractor deposited the small craft neatly in a cradle, the docking collar nestled into place, and the pressure signal buzzed, indicating a solid seal.

Lieutenant Andrews and his staff fell in behind him as the Admiral swam down the access tube, and he smiled as he saw the Manticoran rating stationed diplomatically by the scarlet-hued grab bar just short of the tube's end. The rating started to speak, but stopped himself as he saw Yanakov already reaching for the bar. The Grayson Navy used green, not scarlet, but the Admiral recognized the meaning of the color code and swung himself nimbly across the interface into the cruiser's internal gravity. He stepped out of the way, moving forward to make room for his staff, and the shrill of the bosun's pipes greeted him as he cleared the tube hatch.

The boat bay gallery was huge compared to the one he'd left behind aboard Grayson, but it seemed absolutely filled with people. The Marine honor guard snapped to attention in its green-and-black dress uniforms, naval personnel in the black and gold of the Royal Manticoran Navy saluted sharply, and Yanakov blinked in surprise.

The damned ship was crewed by children! The oldest person in sight couldn't be over thirty T-years old, and most of them looked like they were barely out of high school!

Trained reflex took his hand through an answering salute even as the thought flashed through his mind, and then he kicked himself. Of course they weren't children; he'd forgotten the prolong treatment was universally available to Manticorans. But what did he do now? He wasn't that familiar with Manticoran naval insignia, and how did he pick the senior officers out of this morass of juvenile delinquents?

Part of the problem answered itself as a small, round-faced man in civilian clothing stepped forward. Logic suggested he had to be the delegation head, and that meant he was Admiral Raoul Courvosier. At least he looked like an adult—there was even gray in his hair—but he was far less impressive than Yanakov had anticipated. He'd read every article and lecture of Courvosier's he could find, and this smiling man looked more like an elf than the brilliant, sharp-eyed strategist the admiral had anticipated, but-

"Welcome aboard, High Admiral," Courvosier said, clasping Yanakov's hand firmly, and his deep voice, unlike his face, was exactly what Yanakov had envisioned. The crisp accent sounded odd—Grayson's long isolation had produced one which was much softer and slower paced—but its very oddness was somehow right and fitting.

"Thank you, Admiral Courvosier, and allow me, in the name of my government and people, to welcome you to our system."

Yanakov returned the handclasp while his staff assembled itself behind him. Then he glanced around the crowded gallery once more and stiffened. He'd known Manticore allowed women to serve in its military, but it had been an intellectual thing. Now he realized almost half the people around him—even some of the Marines!—were female. He'd tried to prepare himself for the alien concept, but the deep, visceral shock echoing deep inside him told him he'd failed. It wasn't just alien, it was unnatural, and he tried to hide his instinctive repugnance as he dragged his eyes back to Courvosier's face.

"On behalf of my Queen, I thank you," his host said, and Yanakov managed to bow pleasantly despite the reminder that a woman ruled Manticore. "I hope my visit will bring our two nations still closer together," Courvosier continued, "and I'd like to present my staff to you. But first, permit me to introduce Fearless's captain and our escort commander."

Someone stepped up beside Courvosier, and Yanakov turned to extend his hand, then froze. He felt his smile congeal as he saw the strong, beautiful, young face under the white beret and the tight-curled fuzz of silky brown hair. Yanakov was unusually tall for a Grayson, but the officer before him was at least twelve centimeters taller than he was, and that made it irrationally worse. He fought his sense of shock as he stared into the Manticoran captain's dark, almond eyes, furious that no one had warned him, knowing he was gaping and embarrassed by his own frozen immobility—and perversely angry with himself because of his embarrassment.

"High Admiral Yanakov, allow me to present Captain Honor Harrington," Courvosier said, and Yanakov heard the hissing gasp of his staff's utter disbelief behind him.


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