Back | Next

Chapter Forty

The harsh buzzer woke her. Nimitz complained sleepily as she sat up, and she didn't blame him. They'd just gotten to sleep, but as she always seemed to do in the morning, she'd forgotten she was missing an arm. She woke with the instant awareness—mostly—that forty years of naval service had trained into her, only to try to push herself upright with two hands, not one, and overbalance. The sheets half-wrapped around her, spilling the 'cat over onto his back, and she felt his drowsy indignation as he opened one eye. It glinted like a lost emerald in the reflected light flashing from atop the bedside com unit, and she sent him a silent apology and reached for the acceptance key. The accusing emerald blinked, and then its neighbor opened and a slightly less sleepy sense of amused forgiveness came back to her.

She found the key and pressed it, accepting the call audio-only, then ran her hand over her tousled hair.

"Yes?" Her voice came out clogged with sleep, and she cleared her throat.

"Sorry to disturb you, Admiral, but this is Commander Phillips," a soprano voice said, and Honor felt her pulse stir as she registered the tension trying to crackle in its depths. She knew Phillips was one of Benson's watch officers, but there were over five thousand ex-prisoners on Styx now. She'd been too busy with her own duties— and especially the courts-martial—to pay as much attention as she would have liked to other matters, and she wasn't certain exactly which watch slot Phillips held.

"Captain Benson instructed me to alert you," the commander went on, then paused as if to await her reaction.

"Alert me to what, precisely, Commander?" she asked a bit more testily than was her wont.

"Sorry, Ma'am," Phillips said in a chastened tone. "I didn't mean to sound obscure. I'm the XO on Captain Benson's watch, and she asked me to tell you that the sensor net's picked up a hyper footprint at roughly twenty-one light-minutes."

Honor stiffened, and Nimitz rolled over and heaved himself upright in the tangled bedclothes beside her. Her gaze dropped to him again as he reached out and touched her thigh with a wiry true-hand, and his emotions reached out to hers as well, meeting her sudden tension head-on.

"I see," she told Phillips after only the briefest pause, her voice calm. "How long ago did they arrive? And has the challenge been transmitted?"

"We picked up the footprint about five minutes, Ma'am. We don't have it on light-speed sensors yet, but our near-space gravitic arrays say it's a single impeller source. We don't have a definitive mass, but it's accelerating in-system at over three hundred and ninety gravities, so it's not using a merchant-grade compensator. And, yes, Ma'am. Captain Benson instructed me to order the recorded challenge transmitted just over three minutes ago."

"I see," Honor repeated. She wished Benson had commed her sooner, but that was only because of her perennial dislike for delegating authority, and she knew it. Harriet had done exactly what she was supposed to do by sending the "StateSec" challenge on her own initiative immediately, as the real Black Legs would have done, rather than waiting until she could get word to Honor. And given that sending the challenge had initiated at least a twenty-nine-minute com loop, there had been no logical reason for her to rush reporting anything to Honor before her tracking team had been given time to refine their initial data as far as they could.

"Current range from Hades?" Honor asked after a moment.

"They're fourteen-point-six light-minutes from a zero/zero intercept with the planet, Ma'am," Phillips replied promptly. "They made a low-speed translation—about eight hundred KPS—and their current velocity is up to just over nineteen hundred. That puts them right at a hundred and twenty-nine minutes from turnover with a decel period of a hundred and thirty-eight minutes. Call it four and a half hours from now."

"Thank you." Honor sat for a moment, considering the numbers, then nodded to herself in the darkened bedroom. "Very well, Commander. Tell Captain Benson I'll be there presently. In the meantime, she's to use her own judgment in responding to any additional com traffic. Is Commander Tremaine there?"

"He is, Admiral. And Senior Chief Harkness is on his way. I expect his arrival momentarily."

The undamaged corner of Honor's mouth quirked as the slight, prim note of disapproval in the other woman's voice brought her memory of the officer at the other end of her com suddenly into sharper focus. Commander Susan Phillips had been a computer specialist in the Sarawak System Navy. But she had also been on Hell for over forty T-years, and her training had been sadly out of date, even for Peep equipment, when her camp was liberated and she reached Styx. She'd done extremely well in the quickie refresher courses Honor had organized, but she was still rusty compared to Honor's people from Prince Adrian and Jason Alvarez—or, for that matter, most of the other Allied POWs from the current war.

Phillips knew that, and for the most part, she accepted it with a good grace. But a part of her couldn't help resenting the fact that Tremaine, who was both junior to her and young enough to be her son, had been assigned to her watch specifically to handle any creative communication or electronic warfare requirements which might arise. Honor suspected she would have minded it less if Scotty had been even a little older, although the fact that he was third-generation prolong while Phillips was only second-generation must make it seem even worse to her. The Commander might have found it easier to have Anson Lethridge ride herd on her—he was only two T-years older than Scotty, but he, too, was second-generation prolong and looked considerably older. Unfortunately, Honor needed Anson on first watch.

But the same part of Phillips that resented Tremaine really resented the fact that Harkness, a mere senior chief, had become the chief cyberneticist of Hell.

Well, Honor sympathized in many ways, although she considered the commander's belief that officers could always do things better than senior noncoms foolish. Of course, Phillips came from a very different naval tradition—that of the Sarawak Republic, one of the liberal-thinking targets the Peeps had gobbled up in the early days of the DuQuesne Plan. The SSN had relied upon a professional officer corps, but Sarawak's advanced, egalitarian social theories had inspired it (unlike the dangerous, elitist plutocracy of Manticore) to use short-service conscripts to fill its enlisted and noncommissioned ranks. The result had produced something very like the present-day People's Navy, in which the service simply hadn't had its enlisted draftees long enough to train them up to Manticoran standards. Which meant that Phillips' ingrained belief that officers ought to be better at their jobs than petty officers represented her own experience, not blind prejudice. And to be fair, she was less resentful of Harkness' status than many of Honor's other non-Manticoran officers. Not to mention the fact that she was working diligently at getting rid of the resentment she still harbored. It just seemed to come a bit hard for her.

Which was too bad, Honor thought with a crooked grin, because Harkness wasn't going away. The senior chief might not have a commission, but he'd been doing his job considerably longer than Honor had been doing hers. Besides, after the better part of seven months crawling around inside Camp Charon's computers, Harkness knew them better than anyone else on Hell—including the SS personnel Honor and her people had taken them away from. If any emergencies came up, she wanted the best person for the job—which meant Harkness—there to handle it.

"I understand, Commander," she said now, silently scolding herself for judging Phillips overly harshly. After all, they were from different navies, and it was as unrealistic for Honor to blame Phillips for having different traditions and expectations as it would have been for the commander to hold the same thing against Harkness. "I'll be there shortly. Harrington, clear."

She killed the com and reached for the bedroom light switch, and excitement burned within her.


Honor missed James MacGuiness even more than usual as she dressed. The fact that she had only one hand made things awkward at the best of times; when she tried to hurry herself, it only got worse. And what made her particularly irritated with herself was that she knew it did . . . and tried to rush herself anyway.

Nimitz chittered in amusement at the taste of her emotions, and she paused to shake a fist at him, then resumed her efforts more deliberately. She knew LaFollet, for one, thought she was foolish not to have selected another steward from among the prisoners her people had liberated, and she more than suspected that several of her senior officers agreed with him. McKeon certainly did, although Honor regarded Alistair's judgment as just a little suspect where the concept of her "pushing herself too hard" was involved. More than that, however, she knew most—not all certainly, but most—of the enlisted or noncommissioned personnel she might have chosen would have been delighted to fill the role for her.

Yet despite her frustration with things like fastening the waist of her trousers one-handed, or sealing the old-fashioned buttons the GSN had insisted on using for its uniform blouses—and which Henri Dessouix, after discussions with LaFollet, had insisted with equal stubbornness upon using in the name of "authenticity"—she simply couldn't bring herself to do it. It was foolish, and she knew it, which only made her even more stubborn about refusing. But she simply couldn't.

Rear Admiral Styles was one reason, and she grimaced even now as the thought of him flickered across her brain. He continued to feel she had improperly usurped the authority which was rightfully his. And however inept he might be as a tactician or strategist (and she was coming to suspect that her original caustic estimate of his probable capabilities in those areas had been entirely too generous), he was obviously a genius at bureaucratic infighting. He reminded her irresistibly of a plant Grayson's original colonists had, for reasons none of their descendants could imagine, brought with them from old Earth. The vine, called kudzu, made an excellent ground cover, but it was almost impossible to get rid of, grew with ferocious energy, and choked out all competing flora with ruthless arrogance. Which was a pretty fair metaphor for Styles.

She found herself compelled to cut the Admiral back to size at least once per local week or so. The fact that he possessed far more bluster than backbone helped on those occasions, and he never persisted in attempting to undercut her authority twice in the same fashion once he'd pushed her to the point of bringing the hammer down on him for it the first time. Unfortunately, he'd played what McKeon scathingly called "pissing contests" for much too long to stay crushed. He either didn't believe she really would squash him once and for all, or else he was so stupid he genuinely didn't realize how much grief he was storing up for himself. Whatever his problem, he seemed capable of learning only one lesson at a time, and he was endlessly inventive when it came to finding new ways to goad her into the sort of temper explosions she hated.

She disliked admitting it even to herself, but that was one of the more ignoble reasons she refused to select a steward. Styles obviously wished to return to the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed as an RMN flag officer, with all the perks and privileges attached thereunto. The fact that he had done absolutely nothing to earn those perks or privileges was beside the point; he had the rank for them and so he was entitled to them. Except that if Honor chose not to claim them when her missing arm gave her such a good pretext for doing so, then he could hardly insist upon them without looking utterly ridiculous, and she took a spiteful pleasure she knew was petty in denying them to him.

And he should be grateful it's the only pleasure I allow myself where he's concerned, she thought grimly as she managed to get her blouse's collar buttoned. If I did what I'd like to do to him, they'd never find the body!

Nimitz yawned, baring sharp, white canines in a lazy grin while he radiated approval of that thought. Then he concentrated hard, and Honor smothered a sudden, sharp bark of laughter as he radiated the image of a Sphinx chipmunk with an unmistakable, if very chipmunkish, caricature of Styles' face, fleeing for its wretched life. She looked down at the 'cat in astonishment, for this was the first time he'd ever attempted to send her an image which obviously was not something he'd actually seen and simply stored in memory. But her astonishment turned into a helpless, fiendish giggle as the chipmunk vanished out one "side" of his projected image . . . and a brown-eyed treecat with bared claws, an eye patch, an RMN beret, and the red-and-gold shoulder boards of a commodore went bounding past in hot pursuit.

She half-sat, half-fell back down onto the edge of the bed, laughing delightedly, and Nimitz bleeked his matching delight at having gotten her to laugh. He sat up as straight as his crippled limb permitted, curling his tail primly around his true-feet, and groomed his whiskers at her with insufferable panache.

"You," she said severely, as soon as she could master her voice once more, "are a dreadful person and no respecter at all of rank or position, aren't you?"

He nodded complacently, and she smiled and reached out to caress his ears, then bent to pull her boots on. Despite Nimitz's opinion of Styles, however, she knew he was more dangerous than she cared to admit. Not because she thought anyone but him took him seriously, but because whatever else, he was the second-ranking Allied officer on the planet. Which meant that unless she was prepared to officially remove him, she couldn't cut him out of the chain of command, and he was quite capable of doing something outstandingly stupid in a fit of pique just to show her he wasn't to be taken lightly. Which probably meant that rubbing his nose in her opinion of him, however obliquely, wasn't the smartest thing in the entire universe that she could do. Unfortunately, just this once, and despite what Machiavelli had said about doing enemies small injuries, she couldn't help it. He was such a poisonous, irritating, pompous, stupid, officious, toad-like nonentity of an incompetent that she simply had to do something about him, and the fact that this particular response was almost as petty as he was made it so appropriate it was inevitable.

Besides, she told herself, whatever pleasure she might find in denying Styles the luxuries he coveted, there were other factors, as well. One was that she would have felt pretentious . . . which was also her less spiteful reason for refusing Styles. She had little doubt that most of the liberated POWs would have considered a steward her due. But she had no intention of building any walls between her and the people under her orders. It was bad enough that she'd been forced to claim her fleet admiral's rank to keep Styles in his place without assembling the sort of personal staff which would insulate her from the people who depended upon her leadership.

And there was a final reason, she admitted as she stood and collected her necktie. MacGuiness was her steward and she was his admiral, and she refused to allow anyone else to intrude into that relationship even temporarily.

Nimitz bleeked another laugh behind her, but it came with a wave of approval. MacGuiness was his friend, too, and, like Honor, he missed the steward badly. Besides, MacGuiness knew exactly how he preferred his rabbit roasted.

Honor looked back at the 'cat with one of her crooked grins, then crossed to her bedroom door and hit the open button with her elbow. It slid quietly aside and, as she had known she would, she found Andrew LaFollet already waiting, immaculate in one of the Harrington Guard uniforms Henri Dessouix had produced for him.

You know, Honor thought, I bet that's another reason Phillips waited five minutes to com me. I'll bet Harry had her—or someone—com Andrew first.

She'd never considered it before, but now that she had, she wondered why it hadn't occurred to her much earlier. LaFollet had been willing to allow handpicked (by him) Marines from Hell's liberated POWs to spell him on guard duty when his Steadholder was asleep, but every single time something roused Honor in the middle of the night, he was always awake and waiting for her, as if he never slept at all. But he did, so the only way he could have managed to pretend he didn't was to make certain that anyone who contemplated waking her knew to wake him first. In fact, it was possible—no, knowing him it was probable—that he'd been vetting her calls and diverting any he felt someone else could handle just to ensure she got her sleep!

The thoughts flickered through her brain while the door was still opening, but she let no sign of them touch her expression. She intended to ask a few discreet questions to confirm her suspicions first. Of course, if she did find out that he'd been diverting calls, they were going to have to have one of their periodic little talks.

Not that she expected it to do a great deal of good. They never had before, after all.

I may not have Mac or Miranda along, but I'm sure both of them would approve of the way Andrew's taken over to mother-hen me for all of them, she thought wryly, and held out the tie.

"Help," was all she said, and then raised her chin so he could loop the ridiculous thing around her neck and knot it for her. I should have insisted that Henri make this thing a clip-on, whatever Andrew and Solomon had to say about it, she thought darkly, and waited patiently while LaFollet worked.

"There, My Lady," he said after a moment, and folded her collar down and buttoned it for her, as well.

"Thank you," she said, and returned to the bedroom for her tunic. She supposed there was no real reason she had to be properly uniformed in the middle of the night, but she refused to come running in half-dressed and out of breath. She'd always felt that taking the time to present the proper appearance was an important leadership function, however trivial it might seem to others. It was one way of demonstrating one's composure, a sort of subliminal statement of an officer's ability to exert control over the situation around her which her subordinates absorbed through their mental pores without really thinking about it. Or even if they did think about it and recognized it as a bit of subtle psychological warfare on their CO's part.

Of course, it was also true that she sometimes wondered how much of her belief in the importance of a proper appearance stemmed from personal vanity, she admitted with a small smile.

She collected her gold-braided Grayson cap from the top of her dresser, settled it on her head, and held out her arm to Nimitz. The 'cat still couldn't leap to it as he once would have, but he managed to walk up it to the crook of her elbow. She knew he felt her desire to pick him up like a kitten to make it easier on him, and she tasted the soft undercurrent of his gratitude when she refrained.

"Ready, Stinker?" she asked, and he nodded again, this time with an ear-flick of agreement.

"Good," she said, and headed back out the door to her waiting armsman.


"Good morning, Admiral," Harriet Benson said formally as Honor walked into the Styx command center. Honor glanced at the time and date display and grinned wryly.

"I guess it is," she agreed, and Benson chuckled.

The blond captain did a lot more of that since they'd taken Styx . . . and even more since the courts-martial, Honor thought, trying not to feel bitter about it. It was hard, sometimes, and she knew she'd made it harder by establishing from the outset that she personally would review and confirm every sentence handed down by the tribunal. It had never been easy for her to accept responsibility for death, yet confirming those verdicts was her responsibility. She could have avoided it legally, but not if she'd wanted to live with herself afterwards. Which was perverse of her, she thought mordantly. Surely she'd assumed "responsibility" for deaths enough by now! Yet it sometimes seemed to her that she would never escape that crushing weight—that her life had made her the very Angel of Death. Wherever she went, it followed, among her own people as well as the enemy, and there were times the memory of all her dead ambushed her with crushing force in her dreams.

And yet she couldn't walk away. It was the paradox of her own nature that the one thing she found even more impossible to face than the blood upon her hands was what would happen if she refused to shed it. She knew that, but she also knew it stemmed from more than a simple, stubborn inability to shove her duty off onto another or turn her back on those who depended upon her. Whatever she wanted, whatever she thought she wanted, she was a killer because she was . . . good at it. She had the gift—the tactician's eye and the strategist's mind and the talent no one could quite define. In some strange way, that gift had required her to become a killer. Duty. Honor. Loyalty. Patriotism. She might call it by any name she chose, but in the dark hours of the night she knew she had become what she was not simply because someone had to but because she did it so much better than most.

She knew her own weaknesses: the temper which had once almost ended her career, the inability to stop or relent that sometimes verged all too closely upon obsession, and the aptitude for violence that, in an even slightly different personality, would have created a monster.

She wasn't a ... safe person, and she knew it, so she had found a way to turn that dangerousness into a virtue by dedicating her life to defending the people and beliefs she held dear.

The majority of people were decent enough human beings. Not saints most of them, no, but not monsters either. If anyone in the universe knew that, she did, for her link to Nimitz gave her an insight and a sensitivity no other human had ever possessed. But she also knew that the two-legged animals who had raped and tortured and murdered here on Hell for StateSec were not unique . . . and that as someone had said long, long ago on Old Earth, all that was necessary for evil to triumph was for good men—and women—to do nothing.

Honor Harrington could not be one of those who "did nothing." That was the dreadful, simple and inexorable center of her life, the source of all the paradoxes. Someone had to resist the State Securities and Committees of Public Safety and the Pavel Youngs and William Fitzclarences, and whatever made her who and what she was forced her to be that someone. And when her dead came to her in her dreams, she could face them—not without sorrow and guilt, but without allowing those things to conquer her—because she'd had no choice but to try. And because if she'd attempted to evade her duty, tried to divert it to someone who lacked her killer's gift, she would have broken faith with the superiors who had trusted her to honor her oath as a Queen's officer and with the subordinates who'd trusted her to keep them alive ... or at least make their deaths mean something.

That was the reason she had made herself review those sentences, despite how dreadfully she'd longed to evade the task. Because it was her job. Because she was the one who'd seen no option but to order those trials held, and she would not shuffle the weight of that decision off onto Alistair McKeon or any of her other subordinates. And because she had to be certain the sentences she confirmed were justice, not mere vengeance. It was another of those things she had no choice but to do, whatever the rest of the universe might think, and so she'd done it. But the burden of still more death—and the courts-martial had hanged fifty-eight StateSec troopers over the last six months—was the reason a small corner of her mind, raw and wounded, felt bitter at Harriet Benson's laughter. The captain wasn't gloating over the destruction of her enemies; she was simply a human being who could not avoid a deep sense of satisfaction that those who had thought themselves above all laws, immunized against any day of reckoning, had discovered they were wrong.

Nimitz made a soft, scolding sound, and she blinked, then gave herself a mental shake and sent him a silent apology. It was getting up in the middle of the night, she told herself. The darkness outside the command center made her more vulnerable than usual to the other darkness brooding within her, but Nimitz's soft touch in her mind was like a bright light, chasing shadows from the corners of her soul. Unbiased he certainly was not, but he knew her far better than anyone else did. Indeed, he knew her better than she did, and his uncomplicated love echoed his verbal scold as he took her to task for being so hard on herself.

"Honor?" She looked up and saw Benson regarding her with a slightly worried frown.

"Sorry," she said, and smiled almost naturally. "Nimitz and I had just dropped off when you had Commander Phillips screen me. I'm afraid we're not quite fully awake yet, and I wandered off into a mental blind alley."

"You're not old enough to be doing that sort of thing yet, Admiral," Benson told her severely, and grinned at Honor's chuckle. "Better!" Benson approved, and laughed when Honor gave her a mock serious glare.

That laugh snuffed Honor's petty bitterness like a stiff breeze, and she was glad. It was utterly unfair of her to resent the fact that Harriet had become more relaxed, less driven and less haunted by her own demons. Besides, Honor suspected that at least as much of the change in the captain came from Fritz Montoya's activities as from the executions. The doctor had run an entire battery of tests on her and Henri Dessouix—and the others from their original camp who had been affected by eating "false-potatoes"—and managed to isolate the neurotoxin which had affected their speech centers. He'd found it in several other places in their nervous system, as well, and some of its other potential effects concerned him far more than slurred speech did. He was still figuring out exactly what it was, but he'd been able to use the SS hospital's facilities to design a special nanny to go in after it. The molycirc machines had been scavenging it out of Benson's brain for a full month now, and her speech was far clearer than it had been.

In fact, Honor thought wryly, it's at least as clear as mine is now, but I don't suppose Fritz can be expected to do a lot about destroyed nerves with such primitive facilities.

"What's our situation?" she asked, and Benson nodded to the oversized holo sphere of the system.

Honor glanced at it and cocked her head as she absorbed its contents.

The display was centered on Cerberus-B, Hell's G3 primary, rather than on Cerberus-A, the F4 primary component of the trinary system. Cerberus-B orbited its more massive companion at an average distance of six hundred and eighty light-minutes, with an orbital eccentricity of twelve percent. At the moment, it was just past apastron, which meant Cerberus-A was almost exactly ten light-hours away. Cerberus-C—a cool, barren, planetless M9—had a much more eccentric orbit, but its average orbital radius was approximately forty-eight light-hours, and it never approached within less than thirty-three and a half light-hours of Cerberus-A. Which meant, of course, that it occasionally passed considerably closer than that to Hell, although such near approaches were centuries apart. And, Honor reflected, she was just as glad that her own stay would be far too short (one way or the other) for her to get a firsthand look at the next one.

But at the moment, local astrography was less important than the bright red icon blinking in the display to indicate a hostile impeller signature, and she watched the red bead tracking down the white vector projection that intersected Hell's orbit.

"So far, everything seems to be just where it ought to be," Benson said while Honor absorbed the plot's details. "They've been in-system for twenty-one minutes now, and their arrival message crossed our challenge—we received it ... nine minutes and twenty-one seconds ago," she said, checking the time chop on a hardcopy message slip. "They should have received ours fifteen seconds after that, and they're still following straight down the least-time profile for a zero/zero intercept. Assuming they continue to do so, they'll make turnover in another hundred and thirteen minutes."

"Good," Honor murmured. She gazed at the plot a moment longer, then turned and walked over to stand behind Commander Phillips and Scotty Tremaine at the main com console. Horace Harkness sat to one side with two other electronics techs to assist him. Harkness himself was watching two displays simultaneously, and he spoke to Tremaine without looking away.

"I think we can lighten up on 'Citizen Commander Ragman's' mood in the next transmission, Sir," he said, forgetting his normal "lower deck" dialect as he concentrated.

"Sounds good to me, Chief," Tremaine replied, and Harkness grunted. He watched the display a moment later, then glanced at one of his assistants.

"See if this lousy excuse for an AI can get her to smile just a little, but don't get carried away. Throw her up on Three here for me to look at ASAP."

"I'm on it, Senior Chief," the assistant said, and Honor looked at Benson again.

"What is she?" she asked.

"According to her initial transmission, she's a StateSec heavy cruiser—the Krashnark—headed in with a fresh shipment of prisoners," Benson replied, looking down at the hardcopy. "I didn't recognize the name, but I found it in their Ship List data base. Krashnark is one of their new Mars-class CAs. From what I could find on their capabilities, they look like nasty customers."

"They are that," Honor agreed softly, remembering a deadly ambush, and the right corner of her mouth smiled slightly. She was going to enjoy getting a little of her own back from a Mars-class . . . and the fact that this ship belonged to the SS would only make it sweeter.

But slowly, she reminded herself. Let's not get cocky and blow this, Honor'.

"Commander Phillips, has Krashnark ever visited Hell before?" she asked.

"No, Ma'am," Phillips answered promptly. "I ran a data search as soon as we had the name. Neither she, nor her captain—a Citizen Captain Pangborn—nor her com officer have ever been to Cerberus before this visit. I can't vouch for her other officers, but everyone who's been identified in their com traffic is a first-timer."

"Excellent," Honor murmured. "And very promptly done. Thank you, Commander."

"You're welcome, Admiral," Phillips replied without a trace of her earlier resentment, and Honor smiled down at her before she looked back at Benson.

"If they're all newcomers, we don't need 'Commander Ragman's' familiar face, so let's get Harkness' artificial person out of there and replace it with a live human being," she said. "Who do we have who sounds like a Peep?"

"You've got me, Dame Honor," another voice said quietly, and Honor turned towards it in surprise. Warner Caslet smiled crookedly and walked towards her from where he'd stood unobtrusively against one wall.

"Are you sure about that, Warner?" She spoke even more quietly than he had and felt a dozen other people fighting the urge to turn and look at the two of them.

"Yes, Ma'am." He met her single working eye levelly, and she and Nimitz tasted the sincerity and certainty at his core. He was hardly what she would call calm, but for the first time since their arrival on Hell, she felt no doubt at all in him, and the 'cat sat straighter in the bend of her elbow to consider the Citizen Commander with bright green eyes.

"May I ask why?" she inquired gently, and he smiled again, more crookedly than ever.

"Admiral Parnell is right, Ma'am," he said simply. "I can't go home because the butchers running my country won't let me. Which means the only thing I can do for the Republic is fight it from the outside. Didn't someone once say that we always hurt the one we love?"

The tone was humorous; the emotions behind it were not, and Honor wanted to weep for him.

"And if the Committee and State Security are overthrown?" she asked. "You're starting down a dangerous slope, Warner. Even if the 'butchers' are thrown out of office, the people who replace them will probably never trust you again. Might even consider you a traitor."

"I've thought about that," he agreed. "And you're right. If I cross the line to active collaboration with you, I'll never be able to go home. But if I don't cross it, all that's left for me would be to stand around doing nothing, and I've discovered I can't do that." Honor felt a stab of surprise as he echoed her own thoughts of only moments before, but he didn't seem to notice.

"That's the downside of the freedom of choice Admiral Parnell was talking about," he went on. "Once you've got it, you can't live with yourself very comfortably if you refuse to exercise it." He drew a deep breath, and his smile turned almost natural. "Besides, I've heard a lot about Captain Yu from Admiral Parnell in the last few weeks. If he could have the guts to not only take service with the Allies but actually go back to Grayson to do it, then so can I, by God! If you'll let me, of course."

Honor gazed at him for several seconds while silence hovered in the control room. She felt the emotions of the watch personnel beating in on her, and at least a third of them were convinced she'd have to be out of her mind even to contemplate trusting him so deeply. But Benson, Tremaine, and Harkness—the three people present, besides Honor, who knew Caslet best—were almost completely calm about the possibility. And Honor herself hesitated not because she distrusted Caslet in any way, but because she sensed at least a little of what this decision would cost him.

But he had the right to make up his own mind about the price his conscience required him to pay, she thought sadly, and nodded.

"Fine, Warner," she said, and looked at Harkness. "Can you put Cit—" She paused. "Can your little box of tricks put Commander Caslet in SS uniform for Krashnark's edification, Senior Chief?"

"In a skinny minute, Ma'am," Harkness confirmed with a grin.

"Then sit down, Warner." She pointed to the chair in front of the main com console. "You know the script."


Back | Next