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Chapter Thirty-Two

"Your Grace, Captain Mandel is here," James MacGuiness said quietly.

Honor looked up from her console with a feeling of guilty relief. She'd gotten only a few hours of fitful sleep in the twenty-one hours since the massacre on her flag bridge, and she was still dealing with personal letters to the families of the dead. The message she'd already composed for Simon Mattingly's family had been bad enough; the one she was recording now, for Timothy Meares' parents, was far worse.

MacGuiness stood in the open hatch of the office workspace attached to her day cabin, and his expression was as haggard as she felt. Simon Mattingly had been his friend for over sixteen T-years, and Timothy Meares had been like a younger brother. Eighth Fleet's entire command structure was stunned by what had happened, but for some, Honor thought, it was far more personal than for others.

"Show the Captain in, please, Mac."

"Yes, Ma'am."

MacGuiness disappeared, and Honor saved what she'd already recorded for Timothy's parents. As she did, her eyes fell on the black glove on her left hand—the glove concealing the tattered last joint of her index finger—and she felt once again the terrible, tearing grief there'd been no time to feel then as she shot down all of the potential and youthful exuberance of the flag lieutenant who'd meant so much to her.

A throat cleared itself, and she looked up once more.

"Captain Mandel, Your Grace," the burly, broad-shouldered officer just inside the hatch, black beret tucked under his left epaulet and spine ramrod straight, said gruffly. He and the slightly taller, slender woman beside him both wore the insignia of the Office of Naval Intelligence. "And this," Mandel indicated his companion, "is Commander Simon."

"Come in, Captain, Commander." Honor pointed at the chairs in front of her desk. "Be seated."

"Thank you, Your Grace," Mandel said. Simon—Honor felt herself flinch inside as the commander's last name lacerated her sense of loss—said nothing, only smiled politely and waited a moment until Mandel had seated himself. Then she sat, as well, economically and neatly.

Honor regarded them thoughtfully, tasting their emotions. They were an interesting contrast, she decided.

Mandel's emotions were just as hard-edged as his physical appearance. He radiated bulldog toughness, but there was no sense of flexibility or give. Focused, intense, determined . . . all of those applied, yet she had the sense that he was a blunt instrument. A hammer, not a scalpel.

But Simon, now. Simon's emotions were very different from her outward appearance. She looked almost colorless—fair-haired, with a complexion almost as pale as Honor's own and curiously washed out looking blue eyes—and her body language appeared diffident, almost timid. But under that surface was a poised, 'catlike huntress. An agile mind, coupled with intense curiosity and an odd combination of a puzzlesolver's abstract concentration and a crusader's zeal.

Of the two, Honor decided, Simon was definitely the more dangerous.

"Now, Captain," she said, after a moment, folding her hands atop her blotter, "what can I do for you and the Commander?"

"Obviously, Your Grace, everyone at Admiralty House—and in the Government at large, for that matter—takes a very grave view of what's happened," Mandel said. "Admiral Givens will be personally reviewing all our reports, and I've been instructed to inform you that Her Majesty will also be receiving them."

Honor nodded silently when he paused.

"Commander Simon is attached to counterintelligence," Mandel continued. "My own specialty is CID, however, which means I'll be functioning as the lead investigator."

"Criminal Investigation Division is taking the lead?" Honor managed to keep the surprise out of her voice, but her eyes sharpened.

"Well, clearly what's happened here represents a serious security breach," Mandel replied. "The Commander has an obvious responsibility to determine how the penetration occurred. However, in a case like this, it's usually most efficient to allow an experienced criminal investigator to go over the ground first. We know what to look for, and we can often identify the points at which the perpetrator began acting abnormally." He shrugged. "With that to direct them to the point at which he was first recruited, the counterintelligence types can hit the ground running."

"Perpetrator," Honor repeated, and to her own ears her voice was oddly flattened.

"Yes, Your Grace." Mandel radiated puzzlement at her comment, and she smiled thinly.

"Lieutenant Meares," she said quietly, "was a member of my staff for almost a full T-year. He was a diligent, responsible, conscientious young man. Had he lived, he would, I feel no doubt, have attained senior rank and discharged it well. He won't do that now, because I killed him. I would greatly appreciate it, Captain, if you could find some word other than 'perpetrator' with which to describe him."

Mandel looked at her, and something clicked into place behind his eyes. She could feel it, taste his sense of "Oh, that's what it was!" as he recognized—or thought he did—what he was dealing with.

"Your Grace," he said compassionately, "it's not unusual, especially this soon after something like this, for it to be difficult to accept that someone we knew and liked, trusted, wasn't exactly what we thought he was. I'm sure you feel responsible for the death of the 'conscientious young man' you killed. But you killed him in self-defense, and the fact that you had to demonstrates that he wasn't who or what you thought he was."

Honor's eyes narrowed, and she heard Nimitz's soft, sibilant hiss.

"Captain Mandel," she said even more quietly, "did you or did you not read my own report about what happened here?"

"Of course, Your Grace. I have a copy of it here." He tapped the microcomputer cased at his belt.

"In that case, you ought to be aware that Lieutenant Meares was not responsible for his actions," she said flatly. "He wasn't the 'perpetrator' of this crime, Captain; he was its first victim."

"Your Grace," Mandel said in patient tones, "I did, indeed, read your report. It was well written, concise, and to the point. However, you're a combat officer. You command ships and lead fleets in battle, and the entire Star Kingdom knows how well you do it. But you aren't a criminal investigator. I am, and while I don't doubt a single factual observation from your report, I'm afraid your conclusion that Lieutenant Meares was under some form of compulsion simply doesn't make sense. It's just not supported by the evidence."

"I beg your pardon?" Honor asked, almost conversationally, and a slight tic began at the right corner of her mouth.

"Your Grace," Mandel probably wasn't even aware of his own sense of patient, confident superiority in his area of expertise, but Honor certainly was, "you stated in your report that Lieutenant Meares was attempting to resist some sort of compulsion the entire time he was killing people, including your own armsman. But I'm afraid that statement is in error—a conclusion I base on two main points of observation and logic.

"First, I've reviewed the flag bridge visual records of the incident, and there's absolutely no sign of hesitation on his part. Secondly, for him to have been operating under compulsion would have required major personality adjustment, were he, in fact, the person you believed him to be.

"It's not at all unusual, when something as violent and totally unexpected as this incident occurs, for someone involved in it to be mistaken in his observations. And that, I'm afraid, is even more common when the observer doesn't want—for perfectly understandable, very human reasons—to believe what's happening or why. The visual records, however, are immune to that sort of subjectivity, and they reveal nothing but purposeful, intentional, controlled, unhesitating action on Lieutenant Meares' part.

"And as far as personality adjustment is concerned, it's simply not possible. Lieutenant Meares, like all Queen's officers, had received the standard anti-drug and anti-conditioning protocols. It wouldn't have been flatly impossible for those safeguards to be broken or evaded, but it would have been difficult. And even without them, adjustment takes time, Your Grace. Quite a lot of it. And we can account for almost every instant of Lieutenant Meares' time over the past T-year. Certainly, there's no unaccounted for period long enough for him to have been involuntarily adjusted to carry out an action like this one."

The CID captain shook his head, his expression sad.

"No, Your Grace. I know you want to believe the best of an officer to whom you were so attached. But the only explanation for what happened here is that he was, and had for some time, been an agent for Peep intelligence."

"That's preposterous," Honor said flatly. Mandel's face stiffened, his feeling of professional superiority segueing into beginning anger, and Honor leaned forward in her chair. "If, in fact, Lieutenant Meares—Timothy—" she used the dead officer's first name deliberately, "had been a Havenite agent, he would have been far more valuable as a spy than as an assassin. As my flag lieutenant, he had access to virtually all of Eighth Fleet's most secure and sensitive data. He would have been a priceless intelligence asset, and they would never have thrown that away in an attempt like this.

"In addition, Captain, I didn't state in my report that I believed him to have been under compulsion; I stated that he was under compulsion. That was not interpretation. It was an observed fact."

"With all due respect, Your Grace," Mandel said stiffly, "my own analysis of the visual records doesn't support that conclusion."

"My observation," Honor stressed the noun deliberately, "didn't rely upon visual analysis."

"Feelings and instinct are a poor basis for a criminal investigation, Your Grace," Mandel said even more stiffly. "I've been doing this for almost fifty T-years. And, as I explained on the basis of that experience, it's normal for emotions to cloud one's interpretation of events like this one."

"Captain," the muscle tic at the corner of Honor's mouth was more pronounced, "you're aware of the fact that I've been adopted by a treecat?"

"Of course, Your Grace." Mandel was obviously trying to sit on his temper, but his voice came out just a bit too clipped. "Everyone is aware of that."

"And you're aware that treecats are empaths and telepaths?"

"I've read some articles to that effect," Mandel said, and Honor felt her own temper click a notch higher at the dismissiveness in his emotions. Clearly, the captain was one of those people who continued, despite the evidence, to reject the notion that 'cats were fully sentient beings.

"They are, in fact, telepathic and empathic, and also highly intelligent," she told him. "And because they are, Nimitz was able to sense what Lieutenant Meares was feeling in the last few moments of his life."

She considered—briefly—telling Mandel she'd sensed those emotions herself, personally and directly, but rejected the temptation immediately. If he was sufficiently closed-minded to reject all the recent scientific evidence of treecat intelligence and capabilities, he would undoubtedly consider any human who claimed the same empathic ability was obviously insane.

"Nimitz knows, Captain Mandel. He doesn't suspect, and he doesn't think, he knows Timothy was trying desperately not to do what he was doing. That he was horrified by his own actions but couldn't stop them. And that, I submit to you, is the exact definition of someone acting under compulsion."

Mandel looked at her, and she tasted his incredulity that anyone could possibly expect him to allow the supposed observations of an animal, be it ever so clever, to influence the direction of his investigation.

"Your Grace," he said finally, "I'm attempting to make full allowance for your obvious close emotional attachment to Lieutenant Meares, but I must disagree with your conclusions. As far as his value as an intelligence asset is concerned, I will, of course, defer to the judgment of Commander Simon's people in counterintelligence. From my own perspective, however, and given how successful Eighth Fleet's operations have been, it seems obvious you'd make a perfect target for an assassination. We know the Peeps are fond of assassination as a technique, and your death would have been a major blow to the Star Kingdom's morale. In my own judgment, it seems likely Peep intelligence felt that killing you would be even more valuable than whatever sensitive data Lieutenant Meares might have been in position to give them.

"As far as your treecat's 'observations' are concerned, I'm afraid I can't allow them to overrule my own analysis of the visual records, which aren't subject to emotional overtones or subjectivity. And those records show absolutely no sign of hesitation on Lieutenant Meares' part from the instant he seized your armsman's weapon.

"And, finally, as I've already pointed out," he concluded with dangerous, pointed patience, "there simply hasn't been an unaccounted for block of the lieutenant's time long enough for him to have been adjusted."

"Captain," Honor said, "should I conclude, from what you've just said, that you don't believe a treecat's empathic sense is a valid guide to the emotional state of humans in his presence?"

"I'm not sufficiently versed in the literature on the subject to have an opinion, Your Grace," he said, but she tasted the truth behind the meaningless qualification.

"No, you don't believe it," she said flatly, and his eyes flickered. "Nor," Honor continued, "is your mind even remotely open to the possibility that Timothy Meares was acting against his will. Which means, Captain Mandel, that you're completely useless for this investigation."

Mandel reared back in his chair, eyes wide with shock, and Honor smiled thinly.

"You're relieved of authority for this investigation, Captain," she told him softly.

"You can't do that, Your Grace!" he objected hotly. "This is an ONI investigation. It falls outside your chain of command!"

"Captain," Honor emphasized his rank coldly, "you do not want to get into a pissing contest with me. Trust me on that. I said you're relieved, and you are relieved. I will inform all Eighth Fleet personnel that you have no authority, and instruct them not to cooperate with your investigation in any way. And if you choose not to accept my decision, I will personally return to Manticore to discuss it with Admiral Givens, Admiral Caparelli, Earl White Haven, and—if necessary—with the Queen herself. Are you reading me clearly on this, Captain?"

Mandel stared at her, then seemed to deflate in his chair. He didn't say a word, and as she tasted his emotions, she knew he literally couldn't.

She held him for a moment longer with icy brown eyes, then turned her attention to Commander Simon. The commander was almost as stunned as Mandel, but she was already beginning to come to grips with it.

"Commander Simon."

"Yes, Your Grace?" Simon had a pleasant mezzosoprano much warmer than her washed out coloring, Honor noticed.

"On my authority, you'll assume lead responsibility for this investigation until and unless Admiral Givens assigns a replacement for Captain Mandel."

"Your Grace," Simon said carefully, "I'm not certain you have the authority in my chain of command to give that order."

"Then I suggest you accept it provisionally, under protest, if you must, until the situation is clarified by someone you know is in your chain of command," Honor said coldly. "Because unless you do, this investigation will go nowhere until such time as an entire new team is sent out from Manticore. I will not have Captain Mandel in charge of it. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Your Grace," Simon said quickly.

"Very well then, Commander. Let's be about it."


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