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Chapter Thirty-Three

"So we've been rethinking our previous target selection criteria and force levels," Andrea Jaruwalski said, looking around the flag briefing room.

All of Eighth Fleet's division commanders attended electronically, each with his or her own individual quadrant of the huge holo display hovering above the conference table. The squadron and task force commanders, and Scotty Tremaine as Eighth Fleet's senior COLAC, were physically present, and even now, almost three full days after the flag bridge massacre, Honor could taste the residual shock, the stunned desire to disbelieve what had happened, hovering in the compartment like smoke.

"At this point," Jaruwalski continued, seeking her own escape from personal grief in brisk professionalism, "Commander Reynolds and I are in agreement with Her Grace. The Peeps have to have begun putting in place some response to Cutworm I and Cutworm II. What that response may be, we can't predict. Obviously, we all know what we'd like it to be. However, even if we've succeeded completely in convincing them to do what the Admiralty wants, it's still a situation with a definite downside for us here in Eighth Fleet. Specifically, the targets are going to get tougher. Whether it's simply improved doctrine—more of what we saw at Chantilly—or an actual redeployment of assets, they're going to do their best to ensure that we don't have any more cakewalks.

"Bearing that in mind, we're reducing our objectives list for Cutworm III to only two star systems: Lorn and Solon. Admiral Truman will command the attack on Lorn; Her Grace will command the attack on Solon. We'll be assigning one carrier squadron to each attack, and splitting the heavy cruisers and battlecruisers just about down the middle."

She paused, looking up and sweeping the faces of her audience, corporeal and electronic, then continued.

"Even without any precautionary redeployment on the Peeps' part, both these targets would almost certainly be more heavily defended then our previous objectives. Lorn, in particular, is a relatively important secondary naval shipyard. It's not a building yard, but a satellite yard that handles a lot of refit activity, although it's really geared to working on units below the wall. Also, we know from prior intelligence that Lorn is fairly heavily involved in construction of the Peeps' new LACs. Because of that, we anticipate that the likelihood of encountering at least light and medium combatants in some numbers is relatively high.

"Solon is less directly involved in the construction or maintenance of Peep naval units. It is, however, substantially more heavily populated than any of the systems we've hit so far. According to the last census data available to us, the system population is over two billion, and its economy was one of the relatively few bright spots for the Peeps even before the Pierre Coup. This makes it particularly valuable from our perspective, since a successful attack on it is certain to generate powerful political pressure for Theisman and his staff to deploy additional heavy units for home defense. In addition, the severity of the economic damage inflicted by the destruction of this system's industrial infrastructure will be truly significant. All of which, again, suggests the system will be more heavily defended than the more lightly populated systems we've attacked so far."

She paused once again, glancing over the notes on her individual display, then looked up once more.

"That completes the overview, Your Grace. Would you care to entertain discussion of the points already raised, or would you prefer for me to begin the point-by-point operational brief?"

"I think we'll begin by seeing if anyone has anything she wants to add to what you've already said," Honor replied.

It was her turn to look around the faces, physical and electronic, and she smiled, despite her fatigue and her aching awareness of the empty spots behind her which should have been filled by Simon Mattingly and Timothy Meares.

"Who'd like to start the ball rolling?" she asked.

* * *

The intercom buzzer sounded shockingly loud in the stillness.

Honor sat up quickly, brushing her right hand across her eyes, and grimaced as she brought up the time display in her left eye. She'd been stretched out on the couch for barely fifty minutes, and the small amount of sleep she'd gotten made her feel even worse than she had before she collapsed onto it.

The intercom buzzed again, and she shoved herself to her feet and stalked across to it.

"Mac," she said, with unaccustomed ire, "I thought I told you—"

"I'm sorry, Ma'am," MacGuiness interrupted. "I know you didn't want to be disturbed before supper. But there's someone here you should see."

"Mac," she said again, without her previous atypical heat, but wearily, "unless it's some sort of an emergency, I really don't want to see anyone. Can't Mercedes handle whatever it is?"

"I'm afraid not, Ma'am," MacGuiness replied. "He's come directly from Admiralty House specifically to speak to you."


Honor made her spine straighten and inhaled deeply. There'd been just enough time for her blistering comments on Mandel to reach Admiralty House and draw a response, and the fact that they'd sent someone out to deliver that response in person suggested that Admiral Givens and the Judge Advocate General might not have been too delighted by her actions.

Well, that's just too bad, she thought grimly. I'm a full admiral, a fleet commander, a duchess, and a steadholder. This investigation is too important to be sandbagged at the outset by someone too closed minded to even consider the blindingly obvious, and this time around, the Powers That Be are damned well going to pay attention to me! 

The anger in her own thoughts surprised her, just a bit, and she wondered—not for the first time—how much of it stemmed from her own feeling of guilt. But that didn't really matter. Not when she knew she was right about whatever had been done to Timothy Meares.

"Very well, Mac," she said, after a moment, "give me two minutes, then send him in."

"Yes, Ma'am."

Honor keyed off the intercom, picked up her uniform tunic and slipped it back on, sealed it, and glanced into a bulkhead mirror. She shrugged her shoulders to settle the tunic perfectly in place, and ran her right hand lightly over her hair. That hair fell halfway to her waist when it was unbound, these days, but its tightly coiled braids hadn't slipped during her all too brief nap, and she nodded in approval. The slight tightness around her eyes might have told someone who knew her very well how weary she actually was, but there was no fault to find in her outward appearance.

She glanced at Nimitz, but the 'cat was draped over his sleeping perch, still sound asleep. She sensed him in the back of her mind, just as she knew he was always at least peripherally aware of her, even when his sleep was deepest, but she didn't wake him. He was as exhausted as she was, and he, too, was still dealing with his grief for two people who had been close personal friends.

Simon Mattingly's funeral had helped . . . some. There'd been at least a little catharsis in it, but at the same time it had only made her more aware of how far he'd come from his native world to die. She'd borrowed Brother Hendricks, the chaplain attached to one of the Grayson LAC groups assigned to Alice Truman's carrier squadron, to perform the ceremony. She'd known from agonizing personal experience that the Grayson tradition was that an armsman was buried where he fell, and Andrew LaFollet and Spencer Hawke had stood ramrod straight at her back throughout the brief military funeral ceremony. And then they, Alistair McKeon, Michelle Henke, and James MacGuiness had carried the Harrington Steading flag-draped coffin to the waiting airlock.

The two armsmen had stood rigidly at attention at her back once again as the airlock's inner hatch closed. And then Brother Hendricks had spoken quietly.

"Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the endless sea of space, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through the Intercessor, our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose coming in glorious Majesty to judge the universe, it shall give up its dead, and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in Him shall be changed, and made like unto His glorious body, according to the mighty workings whereby He is able to subdue all things unto Himself. Amen."

Honor had reached out as he spoke, and at the final word, she'd pressed the button beside the hatch that expelled Simon Mattingly's coffin. The coffin's small reaction drive had activated as soon as it was clear of the ship, turning the coffin, aligning it perfectly with the distant fusion furnace of Trevor's Star, and she'd felt her own heart go with it.

Perhaps she'd be able, in time, to find the comfort in the ancient words of farewell. And certainly, if there'd ever been a man who had met the Test of his life, that man had been Simon Mattingly. But, oh, she missed him so.

She drew a deep breath, crossed to her desk, seated herself behind it, switched on her terminal, and pretended to be studying the document upon it, then waited.

Precisely one hundred and twenty seconds from the moment she'd given him the instruction, MacGuiness opened the cabin hatch.

"Your Grace," he said, "your visitor is here."

There was something peculiar about his voice, and something even odder about his emotions, and Honor looked up sharply.

"Hello, Honor," her visitor said, and she shot up out of her chair.


She never clearly remembered stepping around her desk. She just was, and then she walked straight into his arms.

She heard a thump behind her as Samantha vaulted from Hamish's shoulder and flowed across the carpet. She tasted Nimitz's awakening and sudden delight as his mate's mind-glow reached out to him, and then Hamish's arms were about her, and hers were about him.

"Hamish," she repeated more quietly, almost wonderingly, letting her head rest on his shoulder.

"'Salamander,' indeed." Hamish's deep voice was more than a little frayed around the edges, and his arms tightened. "Damn it, woman—can't you go anywhere without somebody trying to kill you?!"

"I'm sorry," she said, never opening her eyes as she tasted his very real worry. "I'm sorry, but no one could have seen this one coming."

"I know, I know." He sighed, and his embrace loosened at last.

He put his hands on her upper arms, holding her back at arm's length, and looked deeply into her eyes. He lacked her own empathic abilities, but once again, she tasted that echo of a treecat bonding between them, and she knew she could no more conceal her innermost feelings from him than he could conceal his from her.

"Poor Honor," he said, after a moment. "Love, when we got the initial dispatches, Emily and I—" He broke off, shaking his head firmly. "Let's just say we didn't take it well. I wanted to come straight out here personally, but I was afraid of the attention I might have drawn. But then you fired Mandel, and I decided the hell with the attention I might attract. I know you, Honor. You wouldn't have brought the hammer down that hard on him unless he was a complete and utter idiot and you felt an overriding urgency to get someone competent to replace him, or unless you were really, really hurting. In either case, I needed to be here."

"I suppose it was a bit of each," she admitted, stepping back and linking her arm through his. She urged him across the cabin, and the two of them sat side by side on the couch, leaning comfortably against one another.

"I am hurting, badly," she said quietly. "Not just over Simon. Not even mostly over him, in some ways. Tim—"

She broke off, biting her lip, her vision misting, remembering how vehemently she had rejected Mercedes Brigham's suggestion that perhaps she should be thinking about filling the hole in her staff Meares death had left. But no admiral was required to have a flag lieutenant, and Honor refused to replace him. It might not be the most rational decision she'd ever made, but she had no intention of changing her mind.

"I'm hurting," she repeated. "And I will be, for a long time. But I honestly believe that it was mostly because Mandel was such a square peg in a round hole."

"From the tone of your dispatches—and, frankly, his report to Pat Givens—I sort of figured it was something like that," he said. "Although, I understand Mandel really does have a reputation as an effective investigator."

"I don't doubt he does," she said. "In fact, to be scrupulously fair, which I really don't want to, I imagine he really is very good at what he does . . . under more normal circumstances. But in this instance, he's simply not the man for the job. Maybe he's too experienced. It's like . . . like he's got some sort of tunnel vision. He knows what he knows, and he's going to focus in on that and get the job done without any distractions from amateurs who don't know their ass from their elbow about criminal investigations."

Hamish quirked one eyebrow at her language.

"You are pissed," he observed.

"Frustrated," she corrected. "Well, and maybe pissed off because he made me so frustrated. But he wouldn't believe me when I told him Tim was being compelled somehow, and he wasn't ready to believe Nimitz was smart enough to recognize what was going on—assuming a 'cat really had any sort of telempathic ability in the first place—or to tell anyone anything sensible if he could recognize it."

"Jesus, he managed to step on all your sore toes, didn't he?"

"Just about," she admitted, smiling faintly at the humor in his voice. "But he was so fixated on the notion that my sense of guilt was making me believe the best about Tim that he wasn't paying any attention to what I was telling him about what really happened. And he wasn't about to change his mind, either. I could tell."

She tapped her temple with her right forefinger, grimacing wryly, and he nodded.

"I figured that was what it was. And I imagine from what you're saying you weren't about to tell him you'd sensed what was happening?"

Honor simply snorted, and he chuckled without much humor.

"Frankly, I'm just as glad you didn't. I'd like you to go on holding that little ability in reserve for as long as you can. Let people think Nimitz is the one doing the sensing. It never hurts to be underestimated in some ways."

"I know. Not to mention the fact that I don't want people to think I'm some sort of mind-reading, privacy-invading freak."


Hamish gazed into space for a few moments, then looked back at her.

"I don't doubt a single thing you've said," he told her, "but I've got to tell you, I viewed the same footage from the bridge visuals." His face tightened. "It scared the shit out of me, too, even though I knew you hadn't been hurt before they ever showed it to me."

He shook his head, jaw muscles bunching for a second, and she slipped her arm around him and squeezed tightly.

"But the point I was going to make," he continued more normally after a couple of heartbeats, "was that watching what happened, I can see why someone who didn't realize how you can get inside somebody else's head would discount the possibility that Lieutenant Meares was trying to stop himself. He moved so fast, Honor. So smoothly. As if he'd not only planned out what he was going to do, but actually rehearsed it ahead of time. I don't know if you really realize sometimes just how fast your own reflexes are, but you killed him just fractions of a second before he would have killed you. And I don't think anyone else could have done it, trick finger or not."

Honor looked down at her gloved left hand.

"I know it was fast," she said. "If I'd had even a fraction of a second more warning—if I'd been able to do more than just shout Simon's name—we might . . ."

She stopped and made herself inhale.

"I'll always wonder if it would have been better not to shout," she said, admitting to Hamish what she wasn't certain she would have been able to admit only to herself. "Did I distract him? Did I make him look at me, in exactly the wrong direction, when he might have seen something, noticed something?" She looked into Hamish's eyes. "Did I get him killed?"

"No." Hamish shook his head firmly. "Yes, you may have distracted him, but distracted him from what? From watching a young man he'd seen literally thousands of times walk into Flag Bridge on a perfectly legitimate errand?" He shook his head again. "Not even a Grayson armsman would have expected anything like this, love."

"But he was my friend," Honor half-whispered. "I . . . loved him."

"I know."

It was Hamish's turn to squeeze her, and she leaned into his embrace.

"Nonetheless," he went on, "the fact that you had to so little warning suggests a couple of things to me."

"Such as?"

"First, there's no way he was a Peep agent. He never could've concealed that from you—or Nimitz—for this long. Second, whatever happened to him, he hadn't been personality adjusted."

"Why not? I mean, why can you be so confident of that?"

"Partly because Mandel, however pigheaded you may've found him, was right. Adjustment takes time—lots of time, even without the safeguards built into our military security protocols. And partly because someone who's been adjusted knows he has. On some level, he's aware of the fact that he's not fully in control of his own actions. In fact, I made a quick flight out to your parent's house on Sphinx with Samantha and had her consult the Bright Water memory singers about the attempted assassination of Queen Adrienne."

"You know, I'd actually forgotten about that," Honor said in a chagrined voice.

"You've been under a lot of stress," Hamish told her. "But Samantha got the memory song of the entire episode. She says the assassin knew what was happening to him from the moment he came into Dianchect's mental reach. It wasn't like . . . turning on a switch. Dianchect picked him up before he ever got into visual range of the Princess, and he knew there was something badly wrong the instant he tasted the assassin's mind-glow. That wasn't the case here."

"No, it wasn't," Honor agreed. "He was perfectly cheerful when he stepped through the hatch. Everything was normal, exactly the way it always was. And then, suddenly, he went for Simon's pulser."

"So he wasn't adjusted," Hamish said thoughtfully, "but he was programmed."

"I suppose you could say that. But how could that be done?" Honor shook her head. "That's what I keep coming back to, again and again. How in the name of God could someone program another human being that way without the human in question even being aware it had happened?"

"I don't know the answer to that one," Hamish said grimly, "but here's another one. Why did it happen now? Why not before this?"

"You're suggesting whatever was done to him was done during his last trip to Manticore?"

"It seems likely, although CID's been over his entire visit with a fine tooth comb without finding anything out of the ordinary. And leaving that point aside for the moment, why that moment, in that place? Why not in a staff meeting, or when you invited him to dinner?"

"Opportunity, maybe," Honor said thoughtfully. He looked at her, and she shrugged. "I think it was the first time he and I and a single armsman were in the same place at the same time. Or, at least, when there was a single armsman he had a legitimate reason to come within arm's length of so naturally that not even a Grayson armsman would think it was anything out of the ordinary."

"And why would that be significant?"

"Because," she said grimly, "my armsmen are the only people constantly in my presence who're armed. To kill me, he first had to have a weapon, and, secondly, he had to . . . disable my bodyguard. By taking Simon's weapon the way he did, he accomplished both."

"I see." Hamish frowned, then shrugged. "You may be onto something there. I don't know. But I do know where something like this happened before."

"Where—Oh! Colonel Hofschulte!"

"Exactly. Pat Givens has already sent a message to the Andermani requesting all their case files on Hofschulte, because it sounds like exactly the same thing. A totally trusted, totally loyal, longtime retainer who just suddenly snapped and tried to kill Prince Huang and his entire family. My understanding is that they very carefully considered the possibility of adjustment, but that Hofschulte was never out of sight long enough for that to happen. Which, again, sounds exactly like what happened here."

"But why should the Havenites have tried to kill the Andermani Crown Prince?" Honor asked in puzzlement.

"That I can't tell you," Hamish admitted. "I just know the modus operandi appears to be extremely similar. I can see some possible advantages for them, I suppose, in killing him now that they're at war with the Andies as well as us, but then?" He shook his head. "Of course, StateSec was still running their entire intelligence machine at that point. Maybe they did have some sort of motive we just can't see from here."

"That's hard to imagine," Honor said thoughtfully. "I wonder . . ."

"Wonder what?" Hamish asked after a few seconds.

"What? Oh!" Honor gave herself a shake. "I was just wondering if there's someone else out there, someone who's developed a technique that would let them do something like this, and made it available on a hire basis?"

"Possible." Hamish considered. "Quite possible, really. Because I can't think of anyone besides the Peeps who'd have both the motive and the resources to pull something like this off."

"I can't either," Honor agreed, but her expression was troubled.

Yes, assassination had always been a favorite tactic of the People's Republic, whether it was being run by InSec or StateSec. But it wasn't the sort of tactic she would have associated with Thomas Theisman. On the other hand, Eloise Pritchart had come up through the Havenite Resistance, and her Aprilists had been credited with several dozen assassinations of key Legislaturalists and InSec personnel. And however Honor wanted to look at it, she, as the commander of the Allied fleet which had done the most damage to the Republic's civilians, as well as its military, was clearly a legitimate military target.

And assassination didn't kill anyone deader than a bomb-pumped laser.

"Well," Hamish said finally, "one of the reasons I came out was to tell you that, although Pat would appreciate it if you'd go through channels next time, if you want Mandel out of the picture, he's gone. And she intimated to me that if he'd gotten out of line, instead of simply being dumb as a post, she'd see to it he was for the long drop, as well."

"No." Honor shook her head. "No, as much as the nasty side of me would like to see that happen, it really was just a matter of his being . . . unresponsive to novel hypotheses."

"My, what a diplomatic way to put it," her husband murmured. Then he grinned crookedly. "Her second question was whether or not this Commander Simon was acceptable to you?"

"She is. Just speaking to her is like prodding a wound with your finger, because of her name, but she's much more open-minded than Mandel. I don't say she agrees with me—yet, at least—but she hasn't ruled the possibility out. And she hasn't already wedded herself to some theory of her own. And she apparently does believe what the xenologists have been saying about the 'cats and their abilities for the past few years."

"Good, because in that case, I want Samantha to talk to her. I don't suppose we're lucky enough that she reads sign?"

"No, she doesn't."

"Pity. In that case, I'll just have to translate, I suppose." Hamish shrugged. "It may be an interesting conversation, especially when Samantha tells her about the memory song about Queen Adrienne. And at least I'll feel like I'm actually doing something about the bastards who tried to murder my wife."

His voice hardened on the last sentence, and she felt the fury—and fear—behind it.

"They may've tried, and they may have killed a lot of other people, but they didn't kill me, and they aren't going to," she promised him, reaching up to touch the side of his face with her right hand.

"Not with assassins, anyway," Hamish said with a slightly strained smile. "Not with both you and your furry shadow watching out for them."

Honor smiled back, then stiffened.

"That's it," she said softly.

"'It' what?" he asked when she didn't say anything else immediately.

"It's just that if there is some new assassination technology out there, something they used to get to Tim without his disappearing long enough to be adjusted, then they could do it to anyone. Which means literally anybody could be a programmed assassin, without even realizing it."

"Talk about your security nightmares," Hamish muttered, and she nodded grimly.

"But at the moment whatever the programming is kicks in, they do know someone or something else is controlling them," she said, "and no treecat could miss something like that."

"Like food tasters," Hamish said slowly. "Or canaries in coal mines back on Old Earth."

"More or less," she agreed. "It wouldn't be much warning, but at least it would be some. And if the security types guarding the intended target knew to take their cue from the 'cat, it might be enough."

"Palace Security and the Queen's Own have been paying attention to treecats for centuries now," Hamish said. "They, at least, won't have any problems with the idea."

"No, and you need to get Dr. Arif and her commission involved in this. It's exactly the sort of thing she's been looking for, and she's already in position to coordinate with all the 'cat clans to come up with volunteers. We can't put treecats everywhere—there aren't enough of them, even if they were all prepared or mentally equipped to work that closely with so many humans in such proximity—but with her help, we can probably cover most of the major ministerial targets, for example."

"An excellent notion," Hamish approved, then smiled at her in quite a different way.

"What?" she demanded as she tasted the sudden shift in his emotions and a pleasant heat deep down inside her responded to it.

"Well," he said, turning sideways on the couch to take her face between the palms of his hands, "I can now truthfully tell my fellow Lords of Admiralty that I discharged official business when I was out here. So with that out of the way, why don't we discharge a little unofficial business, Ms. Alexander-Harrington?"

And he kissed her.


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