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The Hard Way Home


David Weber

"Look! Look up there!"

Ranjit Hibson twisted in his seat and leaned out over the chartered air bus's aisle, bending his head sharply and trying to see out the window on the far side as his sister pointed excitedly through it. The scenery was spectacular as the pilot took them up the Olympus Valley at an altitude well below that of the towering peaks on either side, but it had been equally so out of his own window. The stupendous mountains which thrust their huge caps of blindingly bright snow high and sheer against the painfully blue winter sky of Gryphon were awe inspiring, especially for someone who'd spent the last two years aboard an orbital habitat, but Ranjit couldn't see anything over there to explain the suddenness of her excitement.

"What?" he asked. "It's just more mountains, Susan."

She turned her head to show him an expression of exasperation dusted with reproach, and he gave himself a mental shake, for his comment had come out in an older brother's deflating tone, and he hadn't meant it to. At seventeen, he was five years older than Susan, and as his mother had just finished pointing out to him a few weeks ago (in a rather painful conference), he'd gotten into the habit of ditching his kid sister whenever he and his friends had something "interesting" to do.

It had been an accurate accusation, and that had hurt, because he loved Susan and he knew he truly had been brushing her off and shooing her away as if she'd become some sort of inconvenience. And she could be an inconvenience, he admitted. But so could he, and so could anyone else, under the right—or wrong—circumstances. And the fact that Manticore Mineralogy and Mining, Ltd., which employed both their parents, had assigned them to the job of evaluating exploratory asteroid cores for the Hauptman Cartel in Manticore-B's Unicorn Belt for the past two years had only made it worse.

For all its massive resource wealth, the Unicorn could be a decidedly boring place to grow up. At least the Hibsons were assigned to Unicorn Eleven, one of the newer of the widely scattered orbital habitats Hauptman's had built to provide housing for its employees, and Unicorn Eleven had the most up to date living and recreational facilities imaginable. But most of its permanent work force tended to be very young—brand new geologists passing through for evaluation and final training before they were assigned to their own field teams, or equally young processing and R&D personnel just starting their way up those career ladders—with only a small, hard core of senior station training and management personnel. Kalindi and Liesell Hibson were two of the rare exceptions to that rule: the sort of specialist analysts who were too valuable to use in the field but who were most useful close to the actual exploration sites, where turnaround time could be minimized. For the last few years, Hauptman's teams had been working what had turned out to be an exceptionally rich portion of the Unicorn, and the need for extra hands was one reason Hauptman's had picked them up from Three-M on retainer to augment Unicorn Eleven's normal work force. As consultants from outside Hauptman's normal career tracks, they fell right in the middle of the gap in the age spread aboard the station: younger than the permanent senior personnel, but older than the transient newbies. As a result, they felt just a bit awkward whenever they tried to socialize with either, and the fact that they weren't officially part of the "Hauptman team" tended to exacerbate that problem.

What was true for them was twice as true for their kids, however. There simply weren't many children on Unicorn Eleven, and that was one area in which the invention of the prolong anti-aging treatments didn't help a lot, either. Prolong was tending to erase a lot of the age-based divisions which had always been humankind's lot, which would probably be a good thing once civilization fully adjusted to the consequences. Of course, first they'd have to have prolong long enough to figure out what all those consequences were, Ranjit supposed. It had been available in the Star Kingdom for only sixty-four years. To someone his age, that seemed like forever, but it was less than an eye-blink in terms of a culture's adjustment to so monumental a change. One immediate effect was readily apparent, however: people were waiting considerably longer, on average, to have children. His own parents had rushed things more than many of their contemporaries in that regard, because both of them loved children and they'd wanted to get started early, but that was increasingly rare. Which meant that, despite a total population on the order of eight thousand, there were less than three hundred kids on Unicorn Eleven, and those who were present tended to be the children of the senior personnel and so, on average, older themselves. At seventeen, Ranjit himself was below the median age of the children aboard the station, whereas Susan, at twelve, was actually the youngest one of all.

Worse, the station was far enough out from Gryphon, the inhabited planet of the Manticore Binary System's G2 secondary component, that the light-speed transmission lag between them was very noticeable. At the moment, it ran to just over twelve minutes each way, and it was growing steadily longer as the relative motions of Unicorn Eleven and Gryphon took them further and further apart, which made it impractical for station personnel to tie into the Gryphon planetary education net as they would normally have done. The Hauptman Cartel had set up an excellent school system within the habitat, and Ranjit rather enjoyed the novel experience of having direct, physical access to his human instructors. But the lack of any real-time link to the planetary net meant Susan had been denied even the electronic friendships with classmates she might have enjoyed under other circumstances. She'd made a couple of long-distance friends aboard Unicorn Nine and Unicorn Ten, the closest pair of Hauptman habitats to their own, but that was it, and Ranjit knew his sister had grown increasingly lonely. She hadn't needed her own big brother making it worse, but that was exactly what he'd done. Which was the reason he had assured his parents that if they allowed Susan to come along on the field trip Mr. Gastelaars, Unicorn Eleven's chief administrator, had arranged, he would keep an eye on her.

His father, especially, had been hesitant to let her go, for several reasons. For one, she would be the youngest student on the trip, and it would be the first time she had ever been allowed to make such a lengthy trip unaccompanied by at least one of her parents. For another, the Hibsons were natives of Manticore itself, and the capital planet was a warm world where skiing opportunities were rare. Susan had been only a beginner-level skier (on snow, anyway) when her parents were assigned to Unicorn Eleven, and she'd had precious little opportunity for practice since, but Kalindi Hibson had a pretty shrewd notion that his headstrong daughter would insist she was more experienced than she actually was unless someone sat on her firmly. And for yet a third, he knew that all of Ranjit's friends would also be along—including Monica Gastelaars, the chief administrator's strikingly attractive daughter, who also happened to be seventeen years old—and questioned just how much time Ranjit would truly devote to keeping an eye on Susan.

Their mother had come down on Ranjit and Susan's side, however. Liesell had insisted that Susan was old enough for the trip and pointed out that the group would be accompanied by six adults, most of whom were child care professionals and all of whom were experienced skiers. Moreover, the Athinai Resort, the largest and best known on Gryphon (which meant in the Manticore Binary System) was accustomed to this sort of field trip. That was one of the main reasons it had been chosen when the outing was planned, and the Hauptman Cartel had arranged for the resort to provide full-time instructors, all experienced with young people, to ride herd on their youthful charges on the actual slopes. It was unlikely that even their inventive daughter would be able to put much over on that many veteran kid-watchers, she'd suggested. And if Susan could, then her parents needed to find out about it now so that they could take proper precautions—like locking her in her room until she was twenty. Besides, it was past time Susan got a chance to meet some other youngsters her own age. Then Liesell had sealed the deal by unscrupulously extracting an explicit promise from Ranjit that he would not allow his own interests to distract him from maintaining a close watch on Susan. He'd given her his word, but not without a certain sinking feeling which suggested to him that he had, in fact, been planning on spending just a little less time with his sister than he'd originally tried to allow his parents (and himself) to believe he had in mind.

Which was how he came to find himself looking out Susan's window and mentally kicking himself for raining on her parade.

"I mean they look a lot like the ones on this side," he told her now, waving a hand at the peaks beyond the armorplast and making his tone an apology for his earlier dismissiveness. "They're pretty spectacular, but—"

"I didn't mean the mountains," Susan said. "Look! See the pinnaces?"


Ranjit unlatched his seat harness and crossed the aisle to kneel beside Susan's seat in order to get a better look through her window, and his eyebrows rose. She was right. Those were pinnaces up there—six of them, in fact, all in Navy markings. They were headed in the opposite direction at what appeared to be (barely) subsonic speed, with their variable geometry wings mostly swept, and their shadows raced across the snowy summits beneath them.

"What are they doing?" he wondered aloud.

"Making a drop," Susan said promptly. She didn't—quite—add "of course," but he heard her anyway and jabbed a "sure they are" sideways glance at her, then darted his eyes back to the pinnaces.

He could see more details of the sleek, hungry-looking craft now, and his pulse went just a bit faster as they scorched over the peaks. They were paralleling the valley's long axis, heading down it on a direct reciprocal of the air bus's course, but at a considerably higher altitude to clear the four and five thousand-meter summits of the valley's walls. They were also flying a nape-of-the-earth profile that was much tighter than they could have managed in pure air foil mode, because they were bouncing up and down over peaks as if they were tennis balls. Ranjit was pretty sure they had to be riding their counter-grav hard to pull off some of those maneuvers, and his stomach lurched in sympathy as he tried to imagine what it must be like for their passengers. Some of the other members of the ski group had seen them now, and he heard other voices repeating his own question about their intentions. And then, suddenly, the pinnaces turned to sweep out across the valley. Their flight path angled well astern of the air bus, but the bus pilot obviously knew they were back there and had decided to give his youthful customers a little extra treat. The vehicle turned sharply, then went into hover, offering a magnificent view down the snow-and-stone vista of the deep, narrow river valley which also kept the pinnace flight in clear sight.

No, Ranjit realized. Not just a single pinnace flight. Another half-dozen of the sleek craft must have been coming down his side of the valley at the same time without his even noticing their presence. Now they came shooting out to meet the ones Susan had spotted, and as their vectors crossed, all twelve of them slowed abruptly and distance-tiny figures spilled from them. The figures were too far away for Ranjit to tell whether or not they wore battle armor, but he felt a thrill of excitement as they plummeted towards the valley floor. Then they slowed magically as their grav canopies popped, and he watched raptly as they continued drifting downward with deceptive gentleness.

"Told you they were making a drop," Susan said with exasperating complacency, and Ranjit gave her another, sharper look. She only smiled sweetly, then batted her sea-green eyes at him, and, despite himself, he felt his own lips twitch in an answering grin.

"You were right this time," he conceded, "but I think it was a lucky guess."

"Lucky guess?" Susan repeated, then tossed her head with a snort. "If you'd been paying attention," she told him pityingly, "you'd've noticed that those were the new Mark Twenty-Six Skyhawks. Didn't you see the extra pulser under the nose and the ventral and after gun turrets? Or the extra underwing hard points?" She snorted again, harder. "I bet you didn't even notice the new chaff dispensers or the ECM pod on the vertical stabilizer!"

"Ah, no," Ranjit admitted. "I must have missed those somehow."

"Well you shouldn't have," she said severely. "Because if you'd happened to recognize what they were, you might have recalled that according to my last issue of the Royal Marine Institute Record, the Mark Twenty-Sixes've been specifically optimized for the Marine Corps' use."

"They had Navy markings, Sooze," Ranjit pointed out, but there wasn't much hope in his voice. Susan was only an average student in most of her courses, but she had a mind like a docking tractor when her interest was truly engaged, and she was seldom wrong about anything to do with one of her pet obsessions, however trivial her information might have seemed to any normal person. In fact, if he wanted to be honest about it, he couldn't actually recall the last time she had been wrong about one of them. Not that he intended to bring that up at this particular moment.

"Well of course they did," Susan said, turning to give him the full advantage of her pitying expression. "Every pinnace and shuttle in inventory belongs to the Navy . . . officially. But the Corps were the ones who really wrote the requirements for the new Skyhawks, because they wanted a better combined delivery and fire support platform for space-to-ground assaults; the Navy just paid for 'em and built 'em. Well, they provide the ships to carry them around, too, of course, but that's what chauffeurs are for." She wrinkled her nose in tolerant contempt for such useless sorts, then shrugged. "But if a bunch of pinnaces designed to double as light assault shuttles are flying around in the middle of the Attica Mountains playing NOE with mountain peaks, what do you think they're up to? Photo mapping for a new spaceport?"

"You know, you can be amazingly irritating when you put your itty-bitty mind to it," Ranjit observed, and she grinned.

"You only say that when I prove you're a doof," she shot back. "Of course, that does seem to happen a lot, doesn't it?"

"Just take your victory and go home with it while you still can, kid," he advised her, and punched her shoulder lightly.

"Ha! One of my many victories, you mean!"

Ranjit smiled again, but he also let it drop. He'd had too much experience arguing with her to do anything else.

Much as he loved his sister, he was convinced that her genetic code must have dropped a stitch somewhere. She was a slight, slender child who shared with Ranjit the dark complexion they'd both inherited from their father, but unlike her brother, she had their mother's green eyes to go with it, which made for a startling contrast even (or especially, perhaps) after so many centuries of genetic homogenization. That was what people always noticed first about her; it was only later that they realized her design schematic included nothing remotely resembling a reverse gear. Susan Hibson had a whim of steel and absolutely no idea of how to give in—gracefully or otherwise—to anyone, anywhere, over anything, and Ranjit couldn't remember the last time she'd truly set her mind on a goal and failed to achieve it.

It was, perhaps, unfortunate that she persisted in setting those goals to suit her own idiosyncratic interests. Devoting just a little of that determination (one might even say obstinacy, if one were careful to say it quietly enough that she couldn't hear one) to academic endeavors might have produced a radical improvement in her grades, for example. But that simply wasn't an area of particular concern for her. No, all of her attention was focused, for some reason no one else had ever been able to fathom, on the Royal Manticoran Marines.

It had to be something genetic, Ranjit mused. Some previously unsuspected mutation which had been nurtured by the Star Kingdom's ongoing military buildup against the People's Republic of Haven. Certainly no one else in the family had ever been especially interested in a military career, and if Susan simply had to be bitten by the military bug, why couldn't she at least have decided she hungered for the Navy? The Marines, even more than the Royal Army, were one of the areas of military service in which size and physical strength still mattered, and Susan was never going to be a big woman. Kalindi Hibson was wiry and muscular, but he also stood just under a hundred and sixty-three centimeters tall. Ranjit, who favored their mother's side of the family more than Susan did, was already over one-eighty, but Susan took very much after her father when it came to size and bulk, and he doubted she would ever break one-fifty-five. Yet where Ranjit had no particular desire to embrace the rigors of a military lifestyle—especially not if, as the alarmists insisted was likely in light of the Peeps' expansion in the Star Kingdom's direction, he might also someday get to enjoy the experience of having ill-intentioned strangers actually shooting at him—and found the very thought of boot camp revolting, Susan actually looked forward to the experience.

It was all profoundly unnatural, Ranjit thought, settling back into his own seat and fastening his harness once more. And if he were honest, it was a little frightening, too. He was young enough to have trouble truly believing in his own mortality, but the thought of having those ill-intentioned strangers shooting at his kid sister instead of at him was a chilling one. Which was probably one reason he didn't let himself consider it very much.

At least it'll be another four-plus T-years before she can legally enlist, even with parental approval, he thought now. In the meantime, I guess I'll just have to go along with Dad and hope that it's a "phase" she'll grow out of. Of course—he grimaced out his own window—I don't recall her ever having grown out of any other phases, but hey! There's always a first time, right? Yeah, sure. Right.  

He snorted to his reflection in wry amusement and returned his attention to the craggy mountain walls.


"I thought it went better than last time, Ma'am," Lieutenant Hedges said.

The young, blond-haired lieutenant smiled hopefully at HMS Broadsword's tall executive officer, but his smile faded as the Exec returned his look dispassionately. The prick-eared treecat on her shoulder cocked his head, whiskers quivering as his grass-green gaze joined his person's chocolate-brown, almond eyes in their contemplation of the heavy cruiser's boat bay officer, and Hedges fought an urge to swallow. Lieutenant Commander Harrington had been one of the Star Kingdom's first third-generation prolong recipients, and the later generations of the life-extending treatments had a pronounced tendency to stretch out the physical maturation process. As a result, she looked almost indecently young for her present rank, especially with the close-cropped hair style she favored, and she was also a quiet, soft-spoken sort. He had never heard her so much as raise her voice or use even the mildest profanity, and he supposed some unwary souls might have added that to her youthful appearance and decided she was unsure of herself.

Upon better acquaintance, however, those individuals would quickly discover that her triangular face, with its strong patrician nose and severe, sharply carved features, made an excellent mask for whatever she happened to be thinking at any given moment. It could also freeze the hardiest malefactor in his tracks without so much as a word, and if Hedges had never heard her raise her voice, he had heard that same, calm soprano sound as if it were shaving off slivers of battle steel while its owner . . . discussed some unfortunate's shortcomings. Captain Tammerlane, Broadsword's commanding officer, was a genial, almost paternal soul. No one who'd ever served under him could doubt his competence, but he was definitely considered an easy-going CO. Which was what made Harrington the perfect exec for him. She was patient, just, and fairminded, and she would go light-seconds out of her way to help or support anyone whom she was convinced was genuinely trying to do his job. But she had zero tolerance for fools or gratuitous stupidity . . . and somewhat less than that for anyone she considered a slacker. She had Broadsword running like a fine chrono, and no one would ever dare let himself become part of a problem the Exec had no choice but to bring to the Captain's attention.

Now those level brown eyes continued to consider Hedges for several short eternities, and he felt his hands try to flutter nervously, as if to check for some minor flaw in his appearance—like an open trousers fly or a large, crusty blotch of dried egg on his tunic—which he'd somehow failed to notice for himself.

"Well, yes," she said finally. "I suppose it was better. At least there were no mid-airs, were there?"

Her voice was perfectly conversational, but Hedges winced. The barely averted mid-air collision between one of Broadsword's pinnaces and two from HMS Cutlass which had been the focal point of yesterday's exercises had been almost entirely his fault, and he knew it as well as the exec did.

She let him reflect upon that for several more seconds, then smiled slightly.

"In fact, I believe every one of our birds got home without a hull scratch or even a single last-minute evasion maneuver, and Halberd and Cutlass report the same."

"Yes, Ma'am." Hedges winced again, but only inwardly this time, and her smile grew.

"Not only that, but every one of Major Stimson's squads hit within fifty meters of its exact drop point. In snow, in the Attica Mountains, in winter, no less. I wouldn't want to suggest that we're establishing any trends here, Mister Hedges, but I suppose we could call that an improvement if we really wanted to." She paused one more beat, and then her smile became something suspiciously like a grin as she added, "The Captain certainly called it that when he discussed the drop-ex with Commander Nouaya Tyumen, at any rate."

"He did?" Hedges couldn't keep himself from blurting out the question, and his face went magenta as Harrington chuckled. Her 'cat's cheerful bleek of laughter echoed her amusement, and Hedges blushed even darker before his own sense of humor came to his rescue and he grinned back.

"Yes, he did, Johnny," she said, and gave him a gentle pat on the shoulder. She didn't do that often, and he beamed at her as he savored the rare sign of approval.

"On the other hand," she added more warningly, "we've still got another week of exercises. Plenty of time for us to screw up thoroughly if we put our minds to it. So let's not do that, right?"

"Aye, aye, Ma'am!" Hedges assured her, still grinning. "I'll have those birds running as regularly as Andermani air buses, Ma'am. And my coxswains will put those Marines down anywhere you want to aim them—guaranteed!"

"Good, Johnny. Very good." She patted his shoulder again, then reached up to scratch her 'cat's chin. "But you've got a lot to do to make good on all those boasts, I imagine. So let's be about it, shall we?"


"The beginners' slope," Susan Hibson said in tones of profound disgust. " 'Kiddy Hill!' Can you believe that?"

Her breath smoked in the morning sunlight, and she kicked viciously at a bank of piled snow the maintenance remotes had swept from a walkway. A chunk of ice exploded into the air and disintegrated into a rainbow-spray, and she glowered at it angrily.

"I did warn you, you know," Ranjit said in a cautiously neutral voice, then shrugged as she glared up at him. "It's their job, Sooze."

"They could at least let me try the intermediate runs," she protested, and he shook his head.

"They're not going to let you go out and break your neck on a slope you're not ready for no matter what you say."

"I am so ready for the intermediate slopes!"

"Oh?" He cocked his head at her. "And just how well did you do in the sim this morning?"

"That's not fair! Besides, everybody knows sims aren't really like the real thing!"

"Didn't ask that," he told her. "I asked how well you did in it."

"Not well enough—obviously," she admitted through gritted teeth. She looked as if she wanted to hit something, but Ranjit's smile held too much sympathy to make him a legitimate target, so she kicked the snow again. Harder.

"It's not fair, anyway," she grumbled. "Nobody told us they'd have sims at all! Or that they'd use the stinking things this way, either."

"No, they didn't. On the other hand, I can't help wondering if maybe Ms. Berczi didn't know all about it."

"Huh!" Susan stopped kicking snow to consider that, then grunted. "I bet you're right. It's just the kind of thing she would do, isn't it?"

Her tone did not suggest that she thought well of Berczi at that particular moment, but Ranjit was sure that would pass. Csilla Berczi was the head chaperone for their trip. She was also in charge of the history curriculum for Unicorn Eleven and one of Susan's favorite teachers, which probably had something to do with the fact that she had attained the rank of major in the Marines before a training injury pushed her into early retirement. She obviously liked Susan, and she'd become a source of discreet support for the girl's military ambitions, but she was hardly the sort to put up with any nonsense where her own responsibilities were concerned.

That was why Ranjit was privately certain that she had, indeed, known all about the Athinai Resort's simulators. He'd been surprised by their sophistication himself, although he didn't intend to admit that to Susan; an older brother had a certain image to live up to, after all, and managing that with Susan for a sister was already harder than it ought to be. But it would appear Athinai's cash flow supported a much more capable installation than he'd expected, for the simulators' VR had been as good as or better than any full-sensy he'd been allowed to play around in, which put it several cuts above the plebeian, barely adequate "instruction grade" sim he'd anticipated. Indeed, the combination of late-generation sensory input, physical interaction with "skis" which had produced a totally convincing illusion of unlimited mobility in all axes, and judicious use of counter-grav and a cunning wind-tunnel effect had sucked him in completely. Within the first ten seconds, he had completely forgotten that he wasn't truly on the slopes of Mount Pericles, high above Athinai, and he grinned wryly as he recalled his own high-pitched shouts of glee and wondered what the sim operators had thought of them.

He could see where it made excellent sense to allow patrons to dust off their skiing skills (if necessary) in the safety of the simulators before letting them loose on the actual slopes, and he was grateful that such a training device would be available to him. (He also intended to ask Mr. Gastelaars if Unicorn Eleven might not be able to find the budget for one or two of them back home, as well, which was something else he didn't plan on discussing with Susan just now.) But the resort had also used it to sort out the real skill levels of its youthful charges, and his mother had been right. Susan hadn't been able to talk her examiners into passing her for the more challenging slopes.

"It's not the end of the world, kiddo," he offered after a moment. "We're here for ten days, you know, and you're a fast learner. They'll let you off the beginner slopes a lot sooner than you may think right now."

"Yeah. Right," Susan snorted, then stabbed him with a sharp-edged green gaze. "And just what skill level did they assign you?"

"Advanced-intermediate," he replied without thinking, and then swore at himself mentally as something flickered behind her expression. Susan might complain bitterly when she was held back from something she wanted to do, and she was capable of arguing her points with unendurable tenacity and earnestness, but one thing she did not do was sulk or go hunting for sympathy. Which didn't mean Ranjit hadn't learned to recognize the times when a part of her wanted to do those things. He'd seen that same flicker in her eyes before, often enough to know it for a sure sign of her refusal to whine, and he reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder.

"Hey, just because they said I could go advanced-intermediate if I wanted to doesn't mean I do want to," he told her. "I almost busted my butt twice on the sim run for that difficulty level. It wouldn't hurt me a bit to start out on the beginner slopes myself when it's for real—at least until I'm sure I've got myself sorted out. For that matter, it'd probably hurt a lot less to do it there, now that I think about it!"

"You don't have to do that just to keep me company," Susan muttered. "I'm not a baby, Ranjit."

"Didn't say you were," he said, and gave her shoulder a squeeze. "A pain in the butt, and the neck, and several other places I can think of, yeah. That you are. But a baby?" He shook his head, and her lips twitched as she fought not to grin up at him. "But you're my kid sister, too, and I'm serious about wanting to ease back into things myself, so why not kill two birds with one stone? I'll keep you company on the beginners' slopes, for the first day or so, anyway, until I'm fairly sure I won't break something I'll need later. By that time, they may've cleared you for something a little tougher on your own. And even if they haven't, you'll probably have made a bunch of new friends amongst the other 'retards,' right?"

"Do you really want to do that?" she demanded, eying him suspiciously, and he shrugged.

"Heck, no! That's why I only suggested it after you stuck a pulser in my ribs!" She laughed, and he grinned, then went on more seriously. "I'm not saying I'd want to spend the whole trip stuck there, of course. But I can spare a day or two to keep my sister company in her exile without wrecking my entire social calendar, you know. And that part of it I do want to do. Okay?"

"Okay," she said almost shyly, then dropped her gaze to the snow at her feet for a long moment. "And . . . thanks, Ranjit," she added after a moment in a gruff little voice, and gave him a fierce, rare hug before she went scampering off.


" . . . so the weather looks like it's thinkin' about bein' more than a little 'iffy,' " Commander Anthony Agursky, Fourteenth Baron of Novaya Tyumen, drawled, and let his eyes sweep around the officers in the briefing room aboard Broadsword. The commander had been pulled out of his comfortable office at the Bureau of Ships and sent out to take charge of the Skyhawk evaluation program, and the brand new heavy cruiser was the senior ship of the small squadron the Navy and Marines had assembled for that purpose. She also had the most room for extra personnel and the biggest (and most comfortable) briefing rooms . . . and visiting officer's quarters. Those qualities would have made Broadsword the inevitable choice for someone like Novaya Tyumen, even if Captain Tammerlane hadn't been the impromptu squadron's senior officer. After all, he was an Agursky of Novaya Tyumen. In fact, one might say he was the Agursky of Novaya Tyumen—a point he rarely chose to allow anyone to forget—and that made the newest and best ship available no more than his just due.

The commander was a man of average height and build, but with coal-black hair and a complexion that was intensely pale, almost pallid. He also had a particularly pronounced version of the exaggerated drawl some segments of the more recent generations of the Star Kingdom's aristocracy had begun affecting. Coupled with a certain supercilious air and a taste for dandyism when it came to the tailoring of his uniforms, that drawl had inspired many an unwary soul to mark him down as some sort of over-bred, self-absorbed, slow-witted drone who'd gotten this far solely on the basis of his prominent family's undoubted political enfluence.

Which, Honor Harrington reminded herself, could be a very unfortunate mistake for someone to make, because one thing he isn't is "slow-witted." On the other hand, she allowed herself a mental grimace, though no sign of it showed on her face, three out of four isn't all that bad. 

"Yes?" Novaya Tyumen asked now, as a hand rose.

"You said 'iffy,' Sir," Lieutenant Hedges said. "Does that mean we may drop below approved minimums?"

"If we dropped below approved minimums, then the weather would scarcely be 'iffy' any longer, now would it, Lieutenant?" Novaya Tyumen observed in that irritating drawl. "In that case, conditions would be definitely unacceptable, and the mission would be scrubbed, no?"

"Ah, yes, Sir." Hedges glanced at his own superior from the corner of one eye, but Honor simply sat there, her expression one of composed attentiveness. She and Novaya Tyumen had enjoyed two or three icy exchanges already. She liked Hedges, and she didn't intend to leave him twisting in the wind if what she expected happened, but she did intend to choose her ground with care. She might be Broadsword's executive officer, but she was also junior to Novaya Tyumen, and BuShips and BuPlan had placed him in command of the evaluation exercise. That made for a somewhat convoluted chain of command, and she'd already discovered that Novaya Tyumen was one of those officers who always pushed the outer limit of his current authority to the max.

Hedges wasn't aware of everything that was happening between her and Novaya Tyumen, but he'd obviously figured out there was something more than showed on the surface. Now he glanced at her again, as if seeking some sort of sign, then cleared his throat.

"What I meant to inquire, Sir, was whether or not we should plan for the possibility that we might have to scrub if weather conditions do worsen even further."

"I see." Novaya Tyumen tipped back in his chair and regarded the lieutenant for several seconds, then swiveled his eyes to Honor. She gazed back at him calmly, but the treecat perched on the back of her chair lashed the very tip of his tail back and forth.

Hedges doubted Novaya Tyumen could see that tail from where he sat, yet there was something ominous about his outwardly neutral expression as he gazed at Hedges' immediate superior. Some sort of unspoken hostility seemed to lie between him and Harrington, like dark, black swamp water over a bog of quicksand. As far as Hedges could tell, it came primarily from Novaya Tyumen's side, although it was hard to be sure. The very qualities of self-possession and poise which served Harrington so well in other ways made her emotions damnably hard to read when she chose to conceal them.

"I should hope, Lieutenant," the baron said after a moment, projecting his voice to the entire briefing room yet never taking his eyes from Honor's face, "that every officer in this compartment always plans for the possibility of havin' a mission scrubbed. Or revised. Or any one of the other thousand-and-one things that can change between a final briefin' and an operation's actual execution. Is there some special reason you or your ship might find this a little more difficult than the rest of us?"

Hedges inhaled sharply, and the temperature in the compartment seemed to drop several degrees. He felt other officers stiffen in their chairs at the unexpected, contemptuous bite in the commander's drawl, and fought down a sudden, dangerous desire to tell this aristocratic ass just what he truly thought of him. But Novaya Tyumen was not only his superior officer; he was also the son of one of the clique of nobles who ran the Conservative Association in the House of Lords. Someday he would pass his barony on to his own heir and replace it with his father's earldom, and everyone in the compartment knew it. Worse, the baron struck Hedges as precisely the sort of person who would delight in using the enormous political pull his birth gave him to swat an irritating junior, and his tone suggested that any answer to his question would be the wrong one.

Hedges started to answer it anyway, if with rather more circumspection than he truly wanted to exert, but another voice spoke before he could.

"I believe that what Lieutenant Hedges intended, Sir," Honor said coolly, her crisp Sphinx accent cutting across Novaya Tyumen's drawl like a chill alpine wind, "was to ask you, as the primary mission coordinator, to share your own contingency planning with us all. Since you've had the weather information longer than any of the rest of us, your thoughts on the subject are undoubtedly more . . . complete than our own." She smiled slightly, but her eyes were dangerous and she heard a soft popping sound as Nimitz's extended claws penetrated the fabric of her chair back. "I'm sure we'd all find them a most useful starting point for our own thinking," she added.

There was nothing overtly challenging in her tone or choice of words, but no one missed the implication, and Hedges suddenly found himself wishing he had never opened his mouth. Novaya Tyumen's dark eyes flashed angrily in his pale face, his lips tightened, and his right hand—the only one visible, since the left was in his lap—clenched into a fist on the briefing room conference table as those eyes locked with Harrington's.

"I see," he said after a moment, and his drawl was in total (if transitory) abeyance. Then he twitched his shoulders and smiled. It wasn't a very convincing smile, more of a grimace that bared his teeth at Honor, but his voice sounded closer to normal when he spoke again. "In that case, Commander Harrington, I suggest we continue with the briefin'. Perhaps his questions will be answered in passin'. And if they aren't, there should be plenty of time to discuss them afterward, don't you agree?"

"I feel confident of it, Sir," Honor replied. Her level soprano was unruffled, but once again Hedges seemed to sense the clash of bared steel between his superiors, and he wondered just what the devil he had stumbled into the middle of.

"Very good. In that case, I'll ask Ensign Haverty to give us the full weather brief," Novaya Tyumen said, "and we'll follow that up with the mission parameters. Ensign Haverty?"

He nodded to the ensign, then leaned back in his chair, his expression outwardly affable, but his hard, dark eyes never wavered from Honor Harrington's face.


Huge clouds swirled across the surface of the planet Gryphon. From orbit, an observer could clearly see the storm front's ominous cloud wrack flowing up the long, deep trough of the Olympus Valley like some dangerous river, probing for openings in the mighty rampart of the Attica Mountains, and Ensign Yolanda Haverty, RMN Bureau of Ships, watched it with wary respect. Gryphon's axial tilt of almost twenty-seven degrees always made for . . . interesting weather patterns, but this one promised to be unusually lively even for Gryphon, and it was Haverty's job to keep an eye on it for Commander Novaya Tyumen.

She grimaced at the thought, for she didn't much care for the baron. She would far rather have served under someone like Lieutenant Commander Harrington, although, to be fair, Harrington was daunting enough in her own way. She didn't seem the sort to indulge in the sort of sharp-tongued goading which appeared to amuse Novaya Tyumen, but she clearly demanded the very best of her people, and there was something detached about her. Not as if she didn't care about her people, for she obviously did, but more of a sense of . . . watchfulness. An impression that there was something poised and cat-like behind her eyes, observing every single thing that happened but reserving judgment and eternally considering options and alternatives and responsibilities.

But how much of that is real and how much of it comes from the fact that I know she's got a treecat? Haverty mused. The six-limbed, empathic 'cats were very rare off their native planet of Sphinx. Indeed, Harrington was the only person Haverty had ever actually met who had been adopted by one of them, and the ensign wondered if the 'cat's presence had somehow shaped her own perception of the lieutenant commander's personality.

I don't think so, though, she reflected after a moment. And even if the 'cat does make me see her a bit differently, it doesn't change the fact that she leads her people instead of kicking them from behind! 

Standards. That was the word for it. Harrington set the standards which she required of herself at levels which were considerably higher than anyone else would have demanded of her . . . then went right ahead and met them. That was what made her daunting. Not because she would jump down someone's throat for failing to hold themselves to the same rigorous measure, but because she challenged them to meet it without fanfare or goading, and that made it unthinkable to disappoint her in the first place.

Novaya Tyumen wasn't like that, unfortunately. His attitudes might seem almost perfunctory to the casual observer, especially covered by the drawling pretense of boredom which he projected so well, but the truth was very different. He, too, watched everyone about him, but he was more spider than cat. Rather than challenge people to meet the standards he demanded of himself, he watched and waited until someone failed to meet the standards he demanded of them and then turned himself into the worst nightmare that person had ever had. That languid, aristocratic accent could cut like a razor, and he used it with the precision of a surgeon's scalpel. It wasn't so much the words he chose as it was the ineffable contempt with which he infused them, his obvious belief that only an imbecile could possibly have misunderstood any instructions that he gave, and that any failure in executing them could only be the consequence of abject stupidity or willful negligence. Worse, he obviously relished the opportunity to slice and dice anyone unfortunate enough to give him the chance. He enjoyed slamming people who couldn't slam back, and he would never have dreamed of risking the ire of one of his own superiors to defend or protect one of his juniors the way Harrington had deflected him from Hedges.

That clearly apparent contempt for anyone he considered his inferior was the worse of the only two real failings Ensign Haverty had so far detected in him. (Professional failings, that was; the list of things she detested in him on a personal level grew longer with each passing day.) The other was a tendency to ignore the unlikely in his planning and depend on his natural intelligence and ability—both of which were considerable, she admitted—to wiggle out of trouble if it persisted in happening anyway. He wouldn't tolerate that sort of approach in anyone else, and Haverty was a recent enough product of the Academy to feel outraged by his willingness to adopt it for himself, but she had to admit that so far it seemed to have always worked for him.

And however much she might dislike that trait, it was far less disruptive and demoralizing than the contemptuous (and public) verbal flayings he was in the habit of handing out. Like the way he'd started in on Lieutenant Hedges. It wasn't that Novaya Tyumen wasn't good at his job, for in many ways he performed at a high level of competence. Indeed, Haverty had already realized that there were very few officers who could have taught her more about the inner workings of their joint BuShips specialization than he could. It was just that he could be so . . . so nasty about the lessons he chose to impart and how he taught them.

The ensign grimaced wryly at the weather front, then frowned. It was already a rough night down there, and from the look of things, it was going to get rougher. She really ought to bring it to Novaya Tyumen's attention, but she hated the very thought of that. He was undoubtedly sound asleep at the moment, which meant he would start out by tearing a strip off of her for disturbing him. And it would be even worse if he thought the fact that the weather was, indeed, headed for the wrong side of "iffy" might make him seem less than on top of things after the morning's discussion. He would undoubtedly take that out on her, as well, and after that, he'd make everyone else on his field test staff totally miserable by dragging them all in and demanding that they produce the contingency plans (which, Haverty knew, didn't actually exist, whatever he might have implied) for canceling or modifying the drop. And they'd have to put them all together within the next five or six hours so that he could casually (and triumphantly) produce them for people like Harrington and Hedges.

She checked the readouts again. Still within parameters so far, she noted, comparing them to the notes Novaya Tyumen had jotted down for her. Of course, it's going to come an awful lot closer to exceeding them before the night is over, but I don't think it's actually going to bust the outside limit he set. Even if it does, he specifically told me not to bother him until conditions did just that. He'll probably say something really ugly if I bug him early and then they don't exceed the mission parameters after all, and if they do. . . . 

She frowned again. Maybe if her boss had been Harrington instead of Novaya Tyumen she would have gone ahead and made the call now. But she didn't work for Harrington. She worked for Novaya Tyumen, and she was covered by his logged instructions not to wake him until the storm did reach unacceptable levels. And if executing his own orders makes him look bad, well, that's hardly my fault, now is it? the ensign thought. She hesitated for one more moment, then smiled a remarkably nasty smile for someone of her tender years and meticulously logged the wind velocities and snowfall, noted that both were still within acceptable bounds as stipulated in her orders, and went on about her other duties.

HMS Broadsword swung in her orbit around Gryphon, tranquil and still in the peaceful vacuum of space, while far, far below her, the late-season blizzard howled up the Olympus Valley and hurled itself upon the Athinai Resort with seventy-five-kilometer winds.


"Ohhh, look at it!" Susan Hibson exulted as she and Ranjit joined the flow of people towards the grav lifts that served the slopes. "Isn't it gorgeous?"

Ranjit laughed out loud, and she looked up at him with dancing eyes. Susan rarely gushed, but she'd found the storm which had moaned and howled about the resort last night exciting. Well, Ranjit had, too, he supposed. A belter habitat didn't offer its inhabitants any genuine weather at all, much less a shrieking blizzard, and he'd felt the wild power of the wind singing in his own blood.

He'd tried not to let it show, but Susan hadn't shared his own determination to avoid looking like some bumpkin kid from the back of beyond. She'd roamed around the main lodge, staring out the double-paned windows at the wind-tortured snow in wide-eyed delight and chattering to anyone unwary enough to pause within her range. Some of that still simmered within her, and made her even more appreciative of a winterscape unlike anything she had ever seen on warmer, sunnier Manticore, far less Unicorn Eleven. The tracks and paths which had marred the snow around the resort's buildings had disappeared magically, swept away by over a meter of fresh white. Huge drifts of even deeper white had been piled wherever an obstruction broke the wind, and the resort staff had told them that the slopes had been given an average of better than eighty centimeters of fresh powder. Although Ranjit fully intended to spend the next day or so with Susan on the beginners' slopes, he was looking forward to what all that fresh snow meant for the more difficult runs, as well. Yet right this moment, all of that was secondary to the sheer beauty of the crystal clear morning and the almost painful perfection of the white mantle which covered everything in sight.

"Well it is gorgeous!" Susan told him firmly as he chuckled, and he nodded.

"Yes, it is," he agreed, and draped his left arm around her while he balanced two sets of skis on his right shoulder. "This should be fun," he added, and she nodded eagerly.


High above the Olympus Valley's floor, uncountable of tons of fresh snow lay smooth and white under the brilliant sun, and the only sound was the faint sigh of the wind that swept swirling snow devils across the pristine peaks. The snow pack was always deep in the Atticas, but it was deeper than usual this year, although the sun had been unseasonably warm for the last few weeks. The overburden of fresh snow lay on a base which had been weakened and softened ever so slightly by that warmth, and no one knew it at all.


Honor settled into the copilot's couch aboard Broadsword's Number Three Pinnace and checked her safety harness. She really ought to be staying aboard, but Captain Tammerlane had only smiled indulgently when she told him she intended to accompany the drop. She was certain the Captain thought it was just her way of sneaking off to get in a few extra flight hours—he and Admiral Courvosier, Honor's old Academy mentor, were friends, and Tammerlane had let drop his awareness of her reputation as a hot pilot—but that wasn't her real motive at all.

She grimaced as she admitted that to herself, and a soft almost-scold sounded gently in her ear. She turned her head, and her normal dispassionate on-duty expression softened into an urchin-like grin as Nimitz cocked his head at her from the back of her couch. The treecat waited until he was certain he had her attention, then reached out one deceptively delicate-looking true-hand and brushed it lightly over her cheek.

"It's all right, Stinker," she told him. They were alone on the flight deck for the moment while they awaited the pinnace's assigned coxswain, and she raised her hand to return the caress.

The 'cat made a chittering sound and shook his head in an unmistakable gesture of disagreement with her statement, and her grin turned wry. She never had been able to fool Nimitz. The two of them had been together for over twenty T-years, and she relied upon the empathic 'cat's reactions to others as a barometer and evaluation system most people never even realized she had, but there were times when their adoption bond could be a drawback. Or, no, not a drawback. Never that! But there were times when it could have . . . inconvenient consequences, and this was one of them, for Nimitz knew precisely how she felt about Anthony Agursky. Unfortunately, the 'cat also knew why she felt that way . . . and why Baron Novaya Tyumen hated her, as well.

Nimitz made another sound, softer this time, with a dangerous edge of darkness. Honor had never been certain exactly how deep into her own emotions he could see. She suspected that his sensitivity went deeper than even most "'cat experts" believed, just as she felt stubbornly certain that there were times when she hovered on the very brink of sensing his emotions in return. She never had, of course. No human had ever been able to duplicate a treecat's empathy, not even those fortunate few who, like Honor, had been bonded to and adopted by one of them. On the other hand, some people could at least feel the existence of the empathic bond, and Honor was one of them. She had no word for the sensation—not surprisingly, she supposed, since it used none of the senses humans had ever assigned names to—but she could always point unerringly to wherever Nimitz was, whether she could see him or not. She might be wrong about the distance between them; she was never wrong about the bearing.

Then again, she wasn't exactly typical, even among adoptees. Childhood adoptions like hers were extremely rare, just for starters. More than that, her family's association with the 'cats went back literally to the very first adoption. Indeed, Honor's middle name memorialized the first Harrington adoptee, who had also been the first human being even to suspect the 'cats existence. Not content with that, she'd gone on to reorganize the Forestry Commission from the ground up and write (literally; Honor had seen her handwritten first draft) the Ninth Amendment to the Star Kingdom's Constitution, which recognized the treecats as Sphinx's indigenous sentient species and guaranteed their corporate claim to just over a third of Sphinx's surface in perpetuity. She'd campaigned long, hard, and victoriously to get the amendment enacted, and then spent the rest of her lengthy life enforcing it, and the extensive Harrington clan which had followed her probably boasted the highest percentage of adoptees of any single family on Sphinx.

An awful lot of those adoptees had been compulsive journal-keepers, and Honor had viewed every scrap of information any of her ancestors had ever recorded about their relationships with their 'cats. She was also an only child, and that meant she and Nimitz had been allowed an extraordinary amount of time to themselves when she was a girl. Not even her parents knew everything the two of them had gotten into, just as they didn't know that she had accompanied Nimitz home to meet the rest of his clan on more than one occasion. All of which meant that, despite her relative youth, she probably knew more about treecats, on a practical level, at least, than almost anyone else in the Star Kingdom. But for all that, she could no more have explained how the 'cats' empathy worked, or precisely how and why they bonded with humans—or why with one particular group of humans and not another, or just exactly what Nimitz did to help her cope with stress and anxiety—than she could have flown.

Yet she didn't have to be able to explain those things to understand the 'cat's hatred for Novaya Tyumen. Treecats were direct, uncomplicated souls, so she supposed she should count the fact that she'd at least convinced Nimitz not to hiss and bare his fangs at the commander as a victory, especially since she was well aware that what he really wanted to do was reduce that pale, supercilious face to slashed ruins. If she were honest about it, that was what she really wanted him to do, as well, but that was probably a little excessive of her. After all, she and Novaya Tyumen had never even met until they wound up assigned to the Skyhawk evaluation exercise.

Perhaps not, but their first, brief conversation on the day he came aboard Broadsword had been enough to tell her he was another of Pavel Young's allies. She'd run into several of them over the years, and she'd never enjoyed the experience. Young would never forgive her for beating him bloody in the Academy showers that dreadful night, just as she would never forgive him for trying to rape her in the first place. Unfortunately, Young was the eldest son and heir of the powerful Earl of North Hollow. The very thought that anyone with that much influence behind him might face any meaningful consequences for his actions had been laughable, and Honor had known it. Any effort to see him punished would only have created a scandal the Academy didn't need, and she'd told herself that the beating she'd administered had been punishment enough. Even at the time, she'd wondered if she were trying to convince herself of something which wasn't really true because she'd known she would never tell a soul what had actually happened. She hadn't known the answer to that question even then, and she hadn't come any closer to finding it since, but it was certainly true that he'd walked away with no additional punishment other than a sizable dose of humiliation. She'd expected no more, and she'd even managed to accept it—after a fashion—as one of those horrible, unfair things people simply had to put up with in an imperfect universe. But it hadn't ended there for either of them. Young's later actions had made it abundantly clear that he intended to use his own and his family's connections both within and without the Service to cripple Honor's career in any way he could . . . and he and Anthony Agursky were second cousins.

Novaya Tyumen couldn't have cared less how the bad blood between Honor and his cousin had begun. Like the Youngs, the Agurskys belonged to that fortunately minority portion of the aristocracy which used power and influence with ruthless arrogance to get whatever it wanted, regardless of the consequences for anyone else. The two families had also intermarried for generations, to the point that it was sometimes difficult for an outsider to keep who belonged to which of them straight, and Novaya Tyumen had clearly signed on to help crush the upstart commoner who had dared to frustrate his cousin's desires.

It was small, petty, and disgusting, but Honor had learned to cope with it. She shouldn't have had to, and she hadn't enjoyed her frequently painful lessons in just how low Young and his allies would stoop, but she'd had eight Manticoran years—almost fourteen T-years—in which to digest those lessons and armor herself internally against her enemies. What filled her with fury, and what she had not learned to accept, were the instances in which Young or his cronies tried to use other people to get at her. Like Novaya Tyumen's caustic response to John Hedges' perfectly appropriate question of the day before. She'd seen entirely too much of that, and she suspected that she'd see more of it before this evaluation program was over.

And that was the real reason she would be flying co-pilot for Chief Zariello today. The bad weather of the night before had put them over four hours behind schedule, and Novaya Tyumen had been like a hexapuma with a toothache over the delay. The fact that everyone in Broadsword had known he'd been caught totally unprepared for it had only made it worse, of course. His harried, furious efforts to reorganize on the fly had made him look like an imbecile after his exchange with her the day before, and knowing that had only made him even more furious.

Given his personality, Honor had no doubt at all that he was looking for anyone upon whom he might vent some of his self-inflicted spleen, nor did she doubt that that venting would be even more satisfactory to him if he could somehow use it to take a few cheap shots at her. So she intended to be right there, on the spot, throughout the day's entire ops schedule, because if a piece of aristocratic trash like Novaya Tyumen thought he could get away with victimizing her pinnace pilots, or her Marines, or any of her subordinates, as part of a quarrel with her, then he had another thought coming. She was confident Captain Tammerlane's backing would be there if she needed it, but she also planned to have every detail of today's operations at her fingertips from first-hand experience, and the first time Novaya Tyumen opened his mouth or even looked like he intended to unfairly criticize one of her people, she meant to cut him off at the knees.

And I'll enjoy it, too, she admitted unrepentantly, and heard Nimitz's soft bleek of agreement in her ear.


Ranjit eased the skis on his shoulder and pushed back his new souvenir knit cap, with the resort's Old Earth owl logo, to wipe his forehead. It was late in the ski season, and the crowds was unusually dense, even for a resort with Athinai's reputation. That meant long lines and slow movement, especially at the access points for the lift towers, and the early morning had gotten away while he and Susan shuffled their way slowly along the lengthy line. Despite all the fresh snow, the current outdoor temperature had actually risen above freezing as the sun shone down from the cloudless sky, and it was downright hot here in the covered concourse at the base of the lift. His one-piece ski suit's thermo-reactive fabric maintained most of his body at a comfortable twenty-two degrees, but it didn't keep the bright sun shining through the crystoplast roof from making the top of his head hot.

The lift tower rose above them like a squat, massive cylinder of bright alloy. He was a little surprised that the resort's owners hadn't gone for something more "traditional" looking, in keeping with the high-peaked roofs of the chalet architecture they'd favored for the rest of its buildings. Maybe they'd simply decided there was no way to make a forty-meter wide sphere set atop a cylinder sixty meters tall and fifteen in diameter look like anything but an old pre-space water tank and decided to spare themselves the effort, he thought with a grin. Or maybe they'd deliberately chosen to go for the sharpest contrast they could get.

Either way, the lift—one of four serving the Athinai Resort's slopes—was the focal point of several converging lines of skiers, each proceeding down its own crystoplast-roofed concourse. The lift cars settled atop the tower two at a time, then each pair slid down the guides to the tower's base, accepted their own loads of passengers, and lifted effortlessly into the sky once more to deliver them to the designated slopes. The drifting bubbles of alloy and crystoplast glittered and glistened like magic jewels as they caught the sun, and he wondered if that, too, was deliberate. It certainly turned them into eye-catching attractions, and their stately movement—like the measures of some huge, elaborate dance—probably helped distract people from how long they had to wait in line for them during peak demand periods.

He watched the most recent pair of cars lift away, following the invisible aerial pathways the ground based counter-grav/presser plates within the lift tower laid down for them, and then tugged his cap back down. The first car of the next pair was scheduled for the beginner-level slopes, and he and Susan should make it aboard easily.

"You're sure you don't need me to tag along?"

He glanced over his shoulder, and Csilla Berczi smiled and quirked an eyebrow at him. The history teacher was a tallish, slender woman with short-cut auburn hair and gray eyes, and he'd never gotten used to how quietly she moved. Especially since he knew she was one of the people regen didn't work for and that one of her legs—the right, he thought, but he wasn't certain—had been replaced with a prosthetic after the accident that retired her from the Marines. It wasn't that she was sneaky or anything; she just moved like a hunting cat all the time. But that didn't keep him from liking her a lot, and he shook his head as he gave her an answering smile.

"Sooze and I'll be just fine, Ma'am," he assured her. "I promise we'll report in to the instructor as soon as we get up top."

"I wasn't thinking about you, young man," Ms. Berczi informed him with a twinkle. "Or not directly, at any rate. I was wondering whether or not Susan might like me to come along to help ride herd on you!"

"Oh, I think I can manage him," Susan said. "He's actually pretty easily led, once you figure out the right buttons to push."

"Oh, thank you!" Ranjit muttered, and she giggled.

"In that case, I think I really will leave the two of you to your own devices," Ms. Berczi said much more seriously. "Mr. Fleurieu drew the Krepson twins and Donny Tergesen in his group." She rolled her eyes. "Even with Monica to help out, he's going to need all the zoo-keepers he can get with that crowd. You two have fun—and be careful!"

She waved a finger at them with a sternness only slightly marred by the gleam in her eyes, then turned and marched away, and Ranjit and Susan exchanged eloquent looks. The Krepson twins all by themselves would have been enough to keep three adults fully occupied, and Donny Tergesen's classmates had voted him the boy most likely to validate Darwin by opening an airlock without checking his helmet seal. Ranjit didn't envy Mr. Fleurieu or Ms. Berczi one little bit, and he was moderately flattered by the implicit compliment Ms. Berczi had just paid him—and his sister—by deciding to trust them on their own.

Which, now that he thought about it, was actually a pretty sneaky way of making sure that they were trustworthy. It was much harder to disappoint someone who expected good things out of you than it was to confirm the expectations of someone who figured you'd screw up anyway.

He chuckled at the thought, and then stepped forward eagerly as the lift car settled and the doors slid open.

* * *

"Bravo Leader, this is Broadsword Control. You are cleared to begin insertion."

"Broadsword Control, Bravo Leader copies cleared for insertion. I am beginning my run now."

Honor listened to the crisp voices in her earbug and gave a mental nod of approval. Hedges was back aboard Broadsword, coordinating the shuttles from all three cruisers for the troop insertion while Novaya Tyumen watched over his shoulder. Officially, that was to free the baron from detail concerns while he watched and evaluated the exercise. Actually, she suspected, it was because Novaya Tyumen preferred not to get up off his lazy backside and exert himself when it could be avoided . . . not to mention the pleasure he undoubtedly took from looming ominously over Hedges' shoulder. On the other hand, she knew her intense dislike for the man could be affecting her judgment. Despite his irritating mannerisms and current foul temper, he did have a reputation as an officer who got things done, and there was a limit to how much the Service would allow even someone with his exalted connections to get away with depending on his subordinates to carry the load for him.

But whatever Novaya Tyumen was thinking, Hedges seemed to have things well in hand. He'd waited a few minutes longer than Honor would have to release the pinnaces for their runs, but that was a pure judgment call, and at the moment, he had access to much better tracking data on the other ships' pinnaces than she did. Now she watched her heads-up display, hands resting loosely on her chair arms but poised to go for the controls in an instant if Chief Zariello needed her. Lieutenant Freemantle, flying Bravo Leader for the exercise, led the ship's pinnaces, slashing down into atmosphere at the head of the drop force, and Honor looked up past her HUD as the Attica Mountains and the axe-sharp cleft of the Olympus Valley swelled rapidly through the cockpit canopy.


High on the southern face of the rift humans had named the Olympus Valley, a runnel of snowmelt, trickling down from the wet, heavy blanket of new snow as the sun probed at it, washed away a small lump of clay. In and of itself, it was a negligible lump, little more than a couple of centimeters across, which simply collapsed as its core of pebbles and tiny stones separated from one another. But that small lump was the keystone of an entire bed of pebbles and gravel which, in turn, helped shore up a field of loose stone . . . and that loose stone was under almost intolerable pressure as the massive weight of snow crushed down upon it. When the lump of clay disappeared, it allowed two of its neighbors to shift, and they, in turn, let still more bits and pieces of rock and mud wiggle and squirm.

By itself, it probably wouldn't have mattered very much. But it wasn't by itself, for the Athinai Resort lay on the flank of Mount Pericles, and an unsuspected branch of the Olympus Fault ran along the foot of the mountain. No one had ever realized it was there, and it was only a very minor fault. Yet it was enough. The tremor which ran through it that morning was scarcely enough to register, but the field of stone was already in slow, dreamy motion when the vibration hit. For just an instant, it seemed not to have had any effect at all . . . but then the first real boulder moved grindingly in its bed and nudged another rock aside. It was all quite invisible under the concealment of the innocent-looking white snowpack, and even if a single human in the Olympus Valley had had the slightest clue of what was happening, it was already far too late to do a thing about it.


Ranjit Hibson hid a smile as Susan unwrapped a second stick of gum and shoved it into her mouth. He didn't know where she'd picked up that particular habit—certainly their parents had done all they could to discourage it!—but it was a pretty reliable barometer of her mood. When she started shoving in extra sticks, she was apprehensive, excited, angry, or some combination of all three. At the moment, he figured it was probably ninety percent excitement and ten percent apprehension, for they were three-quarters of the way up to the beginners' slope landing.

For all her vocal disgust at being restricted to "Kiddy Hill," Susan had to be as aware of her inexperience as anyone else could possibly be. She was also aware that there was a world of difference between any simulator, however realistic, and the reality of a fast downhill run on real skis. So however much she might resent the restrictions she faced, she knew it was still—

He could never remember, later, what interrupted his train of thought. Not the first thing, at any rate. There had to have been something, some tiny clue his conscious mind didn't grasp at the time and never managed to get its hands on later, but he had absolutely no idea what it had been. One moment his thoughts were sliding along in their normal channels, and the next they simply stopped. Just like that. As if someone had thrown a switch in his brain that jerked his eyes away from his sister and to the sheer wall of snow-ribbed black rock sliding past just beyond the lift car's windows.

It was rough, that wall, with icicle-anchoring cracks and crevices which had caught and held shallow dustings of snow. He'd been fascinated when he first saw the striations across the rock face, but he'd also become quickly accustomed to them. Yet there was something different about them now, and his brow furrowed as he tried to figure out what it was. Then he had it. Fine sprays of snow and ice crystals—almost like snow devils, but not quite—had begun to swirl above the pockets of snow.

But there's not any wind, he thought in puzzlement. Or not that much, at least. And what's that sound? It's almost like— 

He looked up through the crystoplast roof of the car, and his heart seemed to stop.


Csilla Berczi's head jerked up as the first dull rumble vibrated through her ears and the soles of her feet. She didn't recognize the sound, but something about it rang warning signals in the primitive, cavewoman side of her brain. Her eyes snapped around the horizon, sweeping it for threats, and then she sucked in as if someone had just punched her in the stomach.

The entire mountainside above the Athinai Resort seemed to heave and shudder. It was a dropping motion, at first, a slow-motion movement at the very peak of Mount Pericles that seemed to have nothing at all to do with the buildings and people at the mountain's foot. But that changed with terrifying speed. The slow-motion quickened, sliding faster and faster, and as it quickened, it spread. More and more of the mountain seemed to crumble, curling over like the top of some monstrous ocean wave while a spume of snow blew high above it. Boulders and rock outcrops and the dense dark green of evergreen trees vanished into the accelerating maw of the avalanche, and Csilla Berczi heard herself crying out in horrified denial as a lethal wall of rock and snow and splintered trees—and human beings—engulfed the lift towers and exploded across the resort.


Like all modern ski resorts, especially on Gryphon, the Athinai had the very latest in seismic monitoring equipment. Gryphon's weather was frequently violent and always difficult to predict very far in advance, and the mountainous planet was also the most tectonically active of the Star Kingdom's three inhabited worlds. That combination was enough to create avalanche hazards often, particularly in late winter or spring, when sharp temperature changes were common, and Athinai's management had no intention of allowing itself to be caught by surprise if it happened to them. Remote listening stations and temperature monitors reported back to the resort's central data processing station on a real-time basis. That data also went out to the Gryphon Mountain Data Interface, which had begun as a private venture over two T-centuries before, where it was joined by satellite imagery which allowed GMDI to track accumulations and search for even the tiniest signs of instability on a planet-wide basis. In the last fifty years, the planetary government had gotten involved—Gryphon's resort attractions accounted for almost twenty percent of its foreign exchange, and the local government reasoned that allowing paying guests to be squashed would do unfortunate things to the tourist trade—and GMDI routinely spotted avalanche conditions even as they formed.

Whenever that happened, steps were taken either to relieve the conditions or to evacuate all of the threatened resorts' guests until the danger had passed. Given the capabilities of modern counter-grav, tractors, and pressers, it was usually possible to deal with the threat before it materialized, and perhaps that was part of the reason for what happened. Perhaps the human beings behind those monitors and all the sophisticated technology for intervening and forbidding avalanches had become too confident, too certain of their own ability to control the raw fury of nature. Or perhaps it was even simpler than that, for the sensor density in the critical area was lower than it ought to have been. No one had known the minor fault line geologists would later name the Athinai Switch even existed, and the detection net's designers had skimped just a bit on what everyone "knew" was a stable area and chosen to devote more of their resources to known fault areas. What they had installed around Mount Pericles met the seismologists' specs—barely—but it was spread thin, and no one would ever know if the fault had given any previous signs of its existence that better instrumentation might have detected.

And what someone might or might not have known was utterly irrelevant anyway as the entire side of the Mount Pericles snowpack broke loose and went thundering downward like the icy white breath of Hell.


"Oh my God!"

Honor didn't recognize the voice on the net. She knew it wasn't one of her people—or she thought it wasn't, anyway, she corrected herself almost instantly, for she really wasn't sure. The shock and horror which suffused the words could have disguised anyone's voice.

She exchanged a sharp glance with Chief Zariello, and then automatically ran her eyes over the icons in her HUD, making certain all of her pinnaces were where they were supposed to be. But the check was pure reflex. Some part of her already knew whatever was happening had nothing to do with the drop exercise.

"Look!" someone else gasped. "Holy Mithra, look at the valley!"

Honor's head snapped up and around, and Chief Zariello automatically rolled the pinnace to give her a better look through the roof of the armorplast canopy. Her eyes swept out, looking for whatever had prompted that horrified exclamation. Then she saw it, and her face went blank with horror of her own as she watched the tidal wave of snow, stone, rock, and earth come smashing down the valley like the Apocalypse itself.


Athinai's sensors might not have seen it coming far enough ahead of time for an evacuation, but the resort's designers had allowed to the best of their ability for that possibility. Alarms began to wail throughout the compound, and massively reinforced panels of alloy snapped up to cover the huge expanses of crystoplast built into the viewing galleries and restaurants and shops. Lift towers locked down and threw up barrier panels of their own, and immensely powerful presser beams snarled to life. No one could have built an effective wall of pressers all around the resort, but the designers had stationed the generators at strategic points. They didn't try to build a wall; instead, they projected a series of angled pressers, like baffles or coffer dams that strove to divide the flowing megatons of snow and stone like the prows of ships and divert them from the resort's critical points. But the engineers who designed and built those generators had expected more time to bring them on-line. That was the reason all those monitoring systems existed: to give time for remedial measures, or for evacuation, or at the very least to spin the generators fully up before they had to take the load.

Only this time there was no warning . . . or not enough, anyway. Almost all of the barrier panels slammed into position, and most of the pressers came up before the avalanche hit them, but they were still spinning up to full power. Those intended to protect the slopes themselves were closer to the threat. They had less time to reach full power, and most of them failed completely under the sudden, enormous load, while many of those meant to protect the resort facilities themselves were only partially successful at their designed function.

The lift towers for the advanced and intermediate slopes survived undamaged, as did three-quarters of the resort's other buildings and promenades. But almost seven hundred morning skiers found themselves squarely in the path of thundering death with no more than a few minutes warning. Some were lucky; they were on the fringes of the avalanche and managed to get clear of its outriders. Others had brought individual counter-grav belts with them as a means to avoid the lines at the lifts, and most of those managed to activate their belts and lift out of the way in time. Still others turned and skied as they never had before, racing madly to outrun destruction, and some of those managed to get clear, too. But over four hundred people were unable to escape, and the churning wall of snow and boulders smashed over them mercilessly.

Those in position to see it watched in horror as one tiny cluster of figures after another was overtaken, overwhelmed, and pounded under, and still the avalanche thundered onward. It hit the first of the inner perimeter of baffles, and spouts of snow spumed upward. Impossible concentrations of moving mass rammed the beam generators back on their reinforced foundations like pile drivers, but somehow they held, and the horrified spectators felt a tiny surge of hope. If one baffle had held, perhaps all of them would.

But all of them didn't, and the avalanche seemed to have a malevolent life of its own, a sort of bestial sentience which sought out the chinks in the resort's armor like a hexapuma stalking a wounded Sphinx tri-horn. And when it found those chinks, it sent torrents of destruction lunging brutally through them, smashing and crushing everything in their path.

Just like the torrent that crashed over the beginners' slopes, and the lift tower serving them, in a wave of snow-white death.


"My God."

Honor didn't realize for almost a second that the whisper had been her own. The scanner tech riding in the pinnace's tac section had gotten the on-board sensors reconfigured from navigational to tactical analysis mode without orders, and Honor stared in numb horror at the holo projections before her. The lethal tide of destruction had slammed deep into the perimeter of the resort below her. At least a half dozen structures had been completely buried, and her stomach tightened as she wondered how many people had been on the slopes when that monster hit. Honor Harrington was from Sphinx, and Sphinx was the coldest of the Star Kingdom's three habitable planets. She knew all about what an avalanche could do, and she keyed her com.

"Bravo Leader, this is Bravo Three," she said, and at least she sounded as if she were coming back on balance, for her voice was calm and crisp once more. "I am assuming control of the flight."

"Three, this is Leader," the relief in Lieutenant Freemantle's voice was unmistakable. "The flight is yours, Ma'am. What do we do?"

"First, we come round to starboard," Honor told him. "We'll make a sweep down the path of the slide, from top to bottom. I want a full tac scan. Heat sources as small as people are going to be hard to spot through snow, but—"

"Bravo Flight, this is ExCom," another voice cut in angrily. "Return to profile immediately!"

Honor grimaced and made herself strangle a burst of fury as Novaya Tyumen's words rattled in her ear bug. She recognized personal anger when she felt it, and this was no time for it.

"ExCom, Three," she said instead, forcing herself to speak normally. "There are injured civilians down there. The people digging them out are going to need the best data they can get, and—"

"I didn't ask for your advice, Bravo Three!" Novaya Tyumen snapped. "It's more important that we reorganize properly before we just go chargin' in, so that we can use our resources most effectively. Now return to profile and prepare to reverse course!"

"Negative, ExCom," Honor said flatly. "I am assuming control of all Bravo assets. Bravo Flight, form on me. Bravo Three, out."

"Goddamn you, Harrington!" Novaya Tyumen shouted, his usual supercilious hauteur brushed aside by the hatred festering between the two of them. "I've had just about enough of you! Now you get your ass back into formation and the fuck back up here before I come down there and ki—"

"ExCom, this is Captain Tammerlane," a deep, coldly furious voice said suddenly, and Novaya Tyumen's tirade chopped off in mid-syllable. Tammerlane was using the squadron ops net rather than using Broadsword's internal communications to speak to Novaya Tyumen. That meant every pinnace in the exercise could hear every word he was saying, and Honor felt her lips purse in a silent whistle at the public slap in the face her skipper had just given the baron. "I am formally notifying you that the exercise has been scrubbed. Commander Harrington has my authorization to reassume command of this ship's pinnaces immediately, since it would appear that she—unlike some people—actually has a clue about what to do with them now, not three hours from now. Do you have a problem with that, ExCom?"

"Uh, no, Sir," Novaya Tyumen said quickly. "Of course not. I only wanted to avoid the sort of command confusion and, ah, impetuosity which might prevent us from makin' optimum use of our resources."

Honor glanced over at Chief Zariello. She shouldn't have, of course. It was prejudicial to authority, if nothing else. But she couldn't help herself, and she saw the same contempt flicker in the chief's eyes. Not that either of them had ever had any intention of obeying Novaya Tyumen. Bravo Three was already buffeting heavily as she sliced down into atmosphere, headed for the avalanche site at high mach numbers, and every one of Broadsword's other pinnaces followed right behind her while they listened to their coms and waited for their captain's response.

"No doubt that's a worthy ambition, ExCom," Tammerlane said, still coldly, "but the people who just got buried need help now—even if it's not the best organized rescue effort we could possibly arrange—one hell of a lot more than they need a well-organized effort after they've already died of suffocation or hypothermia. Don't you agree?"

"Yes, Sir. Of course!"

"Good. I'm delighted to hear that, ExCom. And since we're in agreement, why don't you just turn the rest of your pinnaces over to Commander Harrington until you can get 'reorganized' dirtside yourself?"

"Of course, Sir." Novaya Tyumen sounded as if he were chewing ten-centimeter iron spikes, but there really wasn't much else he could say. "Bravo Three," the commander went on after a moment, and Honor didn't need any empathy to recognize the barely contained hate smoking in that grating tone, "you are in command until ExCom can move dirtside. All other pilots, Bravo Three is in command until you hear differently from me."

"Understood, ExCom." Honor tried very hard to keep any trace of triumph out of her own voice, but she knew she'd failed, and somehow, as she listened to the acknowledgments of the other section leaders, she couldn't seem to make herself care as much as she should have.

"All pinnaces will form on Bravo Three," she continued on more crisply. "Charlie Section, I want you out on my starboard wing. Hotel, you take port. We'll start with a line abreast flight down the main path of the slide with a full tac sweep. Drive those thermal sensors hard, people. All the junk that avalanche brought down with it is going to play hob with our sonar and DIR, so the thermals are probably going to be the best we have today. Then—"

She went on, giving her orders in a clear, strong voice, yet as she looked out at the vast swath of destruction below her, she knew deep inside how very likely it was that all their efforts would be useless for anyone who had been caught in its path.


"Ranjit? Ranjit?"

Ranjit Hibson groaned as a small hand shook his shoulder. His eyes slid open and he blinked, trying to orient himself.

His head was in his sister's lap. She was hunched over him, her shadowed face peering anxiously down at him, and he managed to pat her knee with his right hand before he rolled his head to look about him. The lift car was tilted at a crazy angle, he noted muzzily, and the light was all wrong. It wasn't sunlight through crystoplast, and it was dim, little more than a murky twilight. Then his mind cleared with almost painful suddenness. No wonder the light was dim! It came from a single one of the lift car's small emergency lighting elements somewhere behind Susan.

He tried to sit up, and cried out sharply at the sudden, wrenching stab of agony. Susan's hand had locked on his shoulders the instant she realized he was trying to move, and she pushed him back down hard.

Wish she'd figured out what I was doing just a little sooner, he thought with queer detachment, even as he locked his teeth against the groan of anguish still rattling about in his throat. The grotesque discrepancy between how much he hurt and the clarity of the thought made him want to laugh, although for the life of him he couldn't see why he thought it was so funny, and he made himself pat Susan's knee again.

"All—" He stopped and coughed. "All right, Sooze. I'm . . . all right."

"No you aren't," she told him, and the mixture of terror and determination to hang onto her self-control which quivered in her voice twisted his heart. "Your legs are both trapped. And I think the right one's broken. And I don't know where we are or . . . or what to do, and—"

She made herself stop and drag in a ragged breath as she felt her hard-held discipline begin to crumble. She stared down into her brother's pain-hazed eyes in the dim shadows and bit her lip for a moment. Then she made herself go on.

"And I think all the others are . . . are dead," she got out quietly, and Ranjit's hand clenched on her knee.

He stared up at her, trying to make his mind work, and then it was his turn to swallow hard as he remembered the tidal bore of snow and rock which had leapt out from the mountainside at the lift car. He couldn't recall any details after that, only a confused impression of shock and savage motion and screams of terror from the car's passengers as the avalanche batted it out of the air like a cat batting away a pellet of paper. Perhaps it was a good thing that he couldn't remember details, he thought, still with that queer sense of detachment.

Shock? he wondered. Could be. 'Cause Sooze is sure as hell right about my right leg. Maybe my left, too, the way they feel. 

But he remembered enough to feel dull surprise that anyone in the car had survived, and a terrible sense of gratitude crushed over him as he realized that Susan must be mostly unhurt, since she'd been able to get his head into her lap in the first place.

"Help . . . help me sit up," he said after a moment.

"No! Your leg—"

"I've gotta see, Sooze," he told her through locked teeth. "Just help ease me up. I'll . . . let you lift me. Won't use my legs or stomach muscles at all. Promise."

He managed a white-faced smile. Fortunately, he had no idea how ghastly it looked in the dim emergency lighting, but Susan did. She stared at him dubiously for several seconds, remembering his breathless scream when he'd tried to move on his own, and her stomach churned at the thought of inflicting still more hurt on him. But at the same time, she knew how desperately she needed for her big brother to be in charge, to take the burden of solitary decision from her shoulders. And on the heels of that knowledge came an ugly little worm of self-contempt for wanting Ranjit to make the decisions when he was so badly hurt. Yet he was almost half again her age, and she needed him to help her decide what to do, and she was terrified, however hard she fought not to show it.

"All right," she said finally. "But you let me do all the lifting, Ranjit! You hear me?"

"Yes, Ma'am," he got out in an almost normal voice, and managed another smile.

"All right," she said again, and slid around, shifting position to get both her hands under his shoulders. He was much taller and heavier than she, but she'd signed up for the phys-ed martial arts elective taught by Csilla Berczi over a year ago, as part of her determination to pursue a career in the Marines. Now, for the first time, she drew seriously on that training, closing her eyes and concentrating on her breathing as she focused herself on her task. And then, smoothly and with a strength even she had never guessed she possessed, she raised her brother into a sitting position on the crazily tilted floor of the lift car.

Ranjit's eyes flared wide as the small hands raised him. He'd promised not to use his muscles, but he'd been privately certain he would have no choice, even though he'd known—or feared he knew—how much it would hurt when his thigh muscles tightened. He'd been wrong. Susan boosted him smoothly, if not as easily as he might have lifted her, and then she was kneeling behind him, bracing him upright while her hands moved to rest on his shoulders and hug him tightly against her.

"Thanks, Sooze," he said, and then sucked in another shocked breath as he saw the rest of the lift car at last.

It was crushed. Its structure had never been designed to endure the abuse it had suffered, and one entire side had crumpled like tissue paper. Snow had poured in through the shattered crystoplast windows, and Ranjit's mind flinched away as he saw the huge branch or tree trunk which had come from somewhere up-slope to slam into the car like a battering ram. It had smashed in one entire side of the car, and crushed and lifeless bodies marked its path. There were at least three of them, he thought, but there could have been more. There was too much blood and mutilation for him to tell for certain.

He looked around in disbelief. There had been over twenty people in the car with him and Susan. Surely someone else had to be alive!

As if his thought had summoned it, a hand moved feebly down beside the tree trunk.

"Sooze! Did—"

"I saw it," she told him before he could finish the question.

"You've gotta go check," he told her.

"But—" Susan swallowed, trying to cling to the sense of focus she had summoned to lift Ranjit's shoulders. If she moved, he would have to support himself—if he could, with the car tilted this way. That would be bad enough. But she would also have to go over there by the tree trunk. By the broken bodies, and the blood. The prospect was enough to make her want to cry out in refusal, and the thought of what she might find attached to that feeble hand—the damage she might see, the dying she might have no way to prevent or ease—screamed at her to say no. But she couldn't.

"You need me to hold you up," she said instead.

"Find something and prop me," he replied, and put his hands on the tilted floor behind him. He leaned his weight on them and looked back at her, facial muscles tight with the fresh pain even that movement sent crashing through him. "I can hold myself up for a few minutes. Find something, Sooze."

"I— All right. Don't you move, though!"

She slid herself cautiously back, watching to be sure he truly could support himself, and then started fumbling through the wreckage. Within seconds, she had found several skis, including one of her own, and she dragged them back to him. It took her only a few more seconds to figure out how to wedge them between two of the stanchions (one now badly twisted) to which standing passengers had held for balance when the car was moving, and Ranjit gave a half-sigh and half-moan of relief as he let himself slump back against the support they offered.

"Great, Sooze. This is great. Now go check."

She nodded, not trusting her voice, and crawled slowly towards the moving hand. She had to pick her way with care, for the lift car's floor was badly buckled, with rents which could easily have swallowed her up to the waist, and she could hardly even see them in the dim light. Worse, she seemed to feel the car quivering. She told herself that was just her imagination, that the car was buried immovably under an unknown depth of snow. It couldn't be moving with all that piled on top of it! Yet it didn't feel that way, and whether it was real or not, that quiver—a vibration, like the potential for movement—was one more ripple of terror to wash at her jaggedly held self-control.

She reached the tree trunk at last, trying very hard not to think about the mangled human limbs and the smell of blood as she inched her way down it. She squashed her awareness down into a hard little shell, an armored citadel where nothing could reach it, and concentrated on what she had to do because she did have to do it. Because Ranjit certainly couldn't, and that meant there was no one but her.

She made her careful way down the trunk to the hand that had moved. It was a small hand, not much larger than her own, protruding from a wash of snow, and it moved again, weakly, as she reached it. She drew a deep breath and leaned forward to touch it, and then almost screamed as it twisted around like a snake to lock upon her wrist. It clutched with desperate strength, pulling frantically, demanding rescue, and the force it exerted jerked her off-balance. Her forehead slammed into the tree trunk, and she heard herself cry out as the impact bloodied her nose. But the shock also seemed to help somehow, as if the familiarity of the pain had broken through her sense of unreality and horror, and she heaved back. She managed to yank free, and the hand flailed frantically while a muffled sound came from the snow through which it emerged.

A part of Susan wanted to stamp on the hand's fingers for frightening her that way, but it was only a tiny part, for most of her understood only too well the terror which had driven it. And so instead of striking back at it, she simply avoided it and began digging into the snow with her own hands. She'd lost her gloves somewhere, and the snow quickly numbed her fingers, but it didn't take long. She was able to make a good estimate of where the rest of the hand's body was from the angle of the arm, and she quickly excavated downward to reach the shoulder. The hand stopped its flailing, making it easier for her to work, as its owner realized someone was digging away the snow, and long, snow-matted golden hair gleamed palely in the dim light as she uncovered it. She worked her way cautiously higher, and then a head flung itself upward the moment she'd shoved enough snow aside.

"Oh God!" The ragged, gasping cry seemed to fill what remained of the lift car, and Susan stared into huge, terrified blue eyes. The girl before her was about midway between her and Ranjit in age, and probably would have been quite pretty under other conditions. But these weren't "other conditions," and she blinked and squinted up at Susan from a face twisted with fear.

And no wonder, Susan thought. The other girl must have been pinned face-down when the tree trunk crashed into the car, and only the fact that she'd managed to curl her right arm under as she hit had held her face and chest just a little clear of the car floor, forming an air space until Susan dug her out.

"What— What hap—" the blonde began, then chopped herself off rather than ask the excruciatingly obvious question. That was the first thing about her of which Susan unreservedly approved, and she smiled tightly.

"Who are you?" the blonde asked instead.

"Susan Hibson," Susan replied, and jerked her head back over her shoulder. "My brother Ranjit is back there. He can't move either. Who're you and how bad are you hurt?"

The blonde blinked at her, then craned her neck, trying to push herself up far enough to look past Susan at Ranjit. It was little more than a reflex action, and she couldn't complete it anyway with all the weight piled atop her, and she shook herself.

"Andrea," she said after a heartbeat. "I'm Andrea Manders."

"How bad're you hurt?" Susan asked again.

"I . . . don't know," Andrea said. "I don't think I'm hurt at all. I just can't move."

"That's all?" Susan pressed.

"I think so. I can feel my feet and my legs and everything. I just can't move them, and—hneeeek!"

Susan jumped at Andrea's sudden, totally unexpected squeal.

"What?" she demanded. "What?"

"Someone—someone touched me!" Andrea gasped. "There's someone else under all this stuff! Someone's holding my ankle!"

Susan flinched at the very thought and stared desperately at the massive barrier of wood and snow and crumpled alloy blocking her from whoever else might be alive underneath it all. There was no way in the world she could dig her way through all of that, and her soul cringed as she imagined someone else, trapped even more completely than Andrea or Ranjit, alone in the suffocating dark and cold while they ran out of air and warmth.

"We've got to get them out!" Andrea was saying. "We've got to—"

"I know!" Susan interrupted harshly. "I just don't know how." She bit her lip, wiping unconsciously at the blood still trickling from her mashed nose, and thought hard for several seconds. "Look," she told Andrea finally, "I've gotta go talk it over with Ranjit. Then I'll see what I can do."

"Don't go!" Andrea gasped.

"I've got to," Susan repeated.

"Please!" Andrea whispered. "Don't leave me alone!"

"You're not alone," another voice said. It was Ranjit, his words harsh-edged with his own pain and fear. "I'm here too—Andrea, was it?" he went on. "But Sooze is right. She's the only one of us who can move. She and I have to talk. But you're not alone, okay?"

"O-okay," Andrea got out after a moment, still shaky but no longer hovering on the edge of panic, and Susan bent down to pat her shoulder gently and then started climbing back up to Ranjit.

Her brother looked worse when she got back to him, but he smiled at her. He didn't mention that he thought his right leg was bleeding under the wreckage that trapped it, or that a deadly chill was creeping into the limb despite his ski suit's best efforts.

"How is she?" he asked quietly, jerking his head in the direction of the girl he couldn't actually see from his position.

"Okay, I think," Susan replied, equally quietly. "But she's scared, Ranjit—even more scared than I am!" Her lips produced a trembling smile.

"Is there any way you can dig her out? So maybe the two of you could get whoever else is under there out?" Ranjit hated to ask the question and drop the responsibility for an answer on her, but no one else could answer it. He watched her bite her lip, but she shook her head without hesitation.

"No way," she said, and he heard her self-anger in the flatness of her tone. "She's caught under a branch of that tree or whatever it is. I can't shift it to get her out, and I can't get past it to dig whoever else is under there out. Too much snow and metal and rocks and junk are all mashed up together with the tree, Ranjit. I don't see how anyone can be alive under there . . . or how they can last very long if we don't get them out quick."

"I see." Ranjit closed his eyes against his own pain and fear and sucked in deep, dragging draughts of air. Susan was right, he thought. None of them could know what conditions were like on the far side of that tree, but the lift car hadn't been all that big to begin with. The open space they knew about and the mass of stuff they could see took up at least two-thirds of its original volume, and that meant anyone trapped beyond the tree was already living on borrowed time. For that matter, so was he, if the way his leg felt was any indication. Even Andrea might be wrong about her own condition—Ranjit hadn't realized how badly he was hurt until he tried to move, after all—and they had no way to know if more than one person was trapped on the other side of the car. But Susan couldn't dig whoever it was out. And that meant. . . .

"Have you checked out this end of the car, Sooze?" he asked finally.

"This end?" she repeated, then shook her head. "I've been kinda busy," she added pointedly, and he surprised both of them with a breathless, pain-curdled chuckle.

"I guess you have," he agreed, and turned his head to meet her eyes. "But you're gonna have to check now, Sooze. This is the upper end of the car. That means it's the one closest to the surface."

"Closest to—?" Susan began, then cut herself off, and her eyes widened with a new, fresh fear as she realized what he meant.


Honor Harrington stood with her hands jammed deep in the pockets of her Navy-issue parka, and despite her total lack of expression, a fury far colder than Mount Pericles' snow blazed within her as she watched Commander Novaya Tyumen wave his hands and snap orders at the Marines and Navy ratings around him. It hadn't taken the baron long to get himself dirtside after Captain Tammerlane's brutal assessment of operational realities, and he had immediately snatched command back from Honor.

A part of her had wanted to let him have it without a struggle, for she was appalled by the scale of the destruction. The Star Kingdom hadn't seen a natural disaster like this one or such a heavy loss of civilian lives in decades, and very little in her Navy training had taught her how to cope with civilian death and devastation on such a scale. But even as that ignoble sliver of her had wanted to cringe away and let someone else decide how to deal with it, her own stubborn sense of responsibility had rebelled against Novaya Tyumen's authority. Partly, she knew, it was that she didn't trust his ability to cope with the situation, but there was more to it. Honor had been raised in the Copper Wall Mountains of Sphinx. She might never have seen a catastrophe of these dimensions, given Sphinx's sparser population, but she knew avalanches, and she'd pulled her share of the load in a couple of avalanche rescues before she left Sphinx for the Naval Academy at Saganami Island. But Novaya Tyumen was from Manticore, and she very much doubted he had ever even come close to anything as arduous and risky as something like this.

Besides, she told herself with brutal frankness, I know perfectly well that deep down inside I'm convinced I can do just about anything better than he can, now don't I? 

She snorted at the thought, and Nimitz bleeked reprovingly from her shoulder. Insalubrious as humans might find the current weather conditions, the 'cat was quite comfortable. Gryphon weather might be more fractious and changeable than that of Sphinx, but Sphinx's winters were far colder, and Nimitz was equipped with the long, silky coat to survive them. Yet if the weather didn't worry him, the empathic 'cat had been savagely battered by the emotions of the humans around him. The worst combers of panic had passed, which helped, but rescuers had already dug out and brought in over fifty injured people. The echoes of pain coming from those who had been hurt, mingled with the desperate determination of those trying frantically to find still more injured in time, remained more than sufficient to keep him off balance and edgy. Yet he was getting on top of it once more, and his bleek scolded her for the sharp edge of self-condemnation in her thoughts.

She reached up to caress his ears, but she never took her eyes from Novaya Tyumen. The baron hadn't bothered with a single word of approval for anyone since he grounded, but he'd acted with dispatch and at least an outer appearance of being in command of both the situation and himself. He'd quickly taken the scanner data Honor had gathered on her approach to the resort (and plotted on an overlay from file sensor passes made earlier in the course of the exercise), and shouted for the senior member of the Athinai staff.

He hadn't had to shout. If he'd bothered to ask Honor, she could have introduced him to the man, because the resort's manager had been standing right beside her. The two of them had already agreed upon the rough outlines of a plan to use the Navy-gathered data to guide and coordinate search and rescue operations, and they'd been working out the best way to make use of the Marines and ratings aboard the pinnaces when Novaya Tyumen intervened.

Not that the baron had cared about anything Honor might have worked out. He didn't even ask about it. He'd simply begun giving the resort manager orders, as if the man were a boot spacer on his first deployment or one of the Agursky family's lackeys back on Manticore, and Honor had seen the fury blazing even behind the manager's frantic concern for the scores of guests and employees still unaccounted for. The man had looked at her for a moment, his face stark with his desire to appeal to her, but she had shaken her head minutely. She was fairly certain Novaya Tyumen hadn't seen her gesture—not that she'd really cared particularly. But the manager had, and after an instant, he'd nodded back ever so slightly. Finding and rescuing people mattered more than who got the credit for it—to the two of them, at least—and Novaya Tyumen was clearly capable of obstructing any rescue efforts which didn't bear his own personal stamp of approval.

And so Honor had found herself shunted aside. Technically, as the second ranking naval officer present, she was Novaya Tyumen's second-in-command. In fact, he'd chosen to completely—and pointedly—ignore her. He'd cut her entirely out of the loop and made it perfectly clear that he was about as likely to cut off his own right hand as he was to give her any share of the "glory" which might flow from the operation. It sickened her that anyone could be so petty as to think about stupid personal vendettas—especially vendettas which had nothing at all to do with anything anyone had ever done to them in the first place—when innocent lives were at risk. But Novaya Tyumen clearly could be and was, and furious though she was at the calculated insult, she had no intention of fighting him over it. As Broadsword's executive officer, she supposed she might have ignored him where her own people were concerned, but only a third of the pinnaces and personnel assigned to the drop exercise had come from her ship, and he obviously assumed that everything assigned to the exercise was still his to command. Honor was fairly certain that if she'd appealed to Captain Tammerlane again, her CO would have slapped Novaya Tyumen down once more . . . but she couldn't be certain. Novaya Tyumen was the senior officer present, after all. Under the circumstances, it made a lot of sense to leave him alone as long as he got the job done, however infuriating Honor might find his treatment of her or her people. And it was also true that the Service remembered an officer who made a habit of going over a superior's head or behind her back. However justified her actions, anyone who got a name for stabbing her superiors in the back could expect to pay the price for it down the road. Not that Honor would have let that stop her. Or she didn't think she would have, anyway. It was just that she had no desire to get Tammerlane involved once more. She didn't need any glory, and she refused to hamper operations by fighting some sort of turf war at a moment like this.

Better one person in command, even if he's not the best person for the job, than two of us fighting each other and getting even less done, she thought bitterly. But— 

"Excuse me, Commander."

The voice came from behind her, and she turned quickly.

The woman who had spoken had dark auburn hair, only a little longer than Honor's, and gray eyes in a face whose high cheekbones promised more than a dash of Old Earth's Slavic inheritance. The left side of her face was a mass of bruises, the eye on that side was swollen almost shut, and she listed to port as she stood there, clearly favoring her left hip. But the unbruised side of her face was tight, almost desperate, and Honor heard Nimitz make a soft, muttery-snarly sound as the other woman's emotions hammered at him.

"Yes?" Honor replied cautiously.

"Are you Commander Harrington?" the woman asked.

"Yes. Yes, I am." Honor knew she sounded surprised by the question, because she was, but the other woman nodded as if in grim satisfaction and thrust out her right hand.

"Berczi," she said as Honor took it. "Major Csilla Berczi, late of Her Majesty's Marines."

"Ah." Honor returned her firm grip, then cocked her head to one side. "What can I do for you, Major?"

"What I'd like best would be for you to lend me a pulser and let me have three seconds alone with that pompous, arrogant, mind-fucking son-of-a-bitch," Berczi said, jerking her head contemptuously to where Novaya Tyumen stood giving his orders. The glare she turned upon the commander for a long, poisonous moment was not one Honor would have liked to see directed at herself, but then the other woman shook herself and forced a humorless grin. "Short of your assistance in culling the human genotype, however, I need your help getting around the asshole, Commander."

"My help getting around him?" Honor gazed into the other's eyes and quirked an inquiring eyebrow.

"Yes." Berczi bit the word off, then flushed, as if ashamed of herself for showing her anger, and drew a deep breath. "Frank Stimson was one of my platoon commanders when he was a brand new lieutenant, Commander," she said, pointing with her chin—much less violently, this time—to where the commander of Broadsword's Marine detachment had set up his own CP to pass on Novaya Tyumen's orders. "When I asked him if there was anyone reasonable involved in managing this cluster fuck, he told me to talk to you."

"About?" Honor asked coolly, refusing to allow herself to be drawn into agreeing (openly, at least) with Berczi's obvious opinion of Novaya Tyumen.

"The beginners' slopes," Berczi said, and this time there was a raw, urgent note in her voice. "They're back that way—" she waved a hand in the direction of the avalanche's worst devastation "—and I can't get that bastard"—fresh venom crackled in her voice as she jabbed a thumb at Novaya Tyumen—"to even authorize search parties for them!"

"What?" Honor blinked.

"He says he doesn't have the resources," Berczi said viciously. "According to him, there's no chance anyone survived over there, and he 'can't afford to divert' his efforts from areas where there may actually be someone to rescue. The resort has some people searching, but they don't have gear as good as the Navy or the Corps, and your precious Novaya Tyumen—" she made the title a mockery "—is insisting on telling them what to do, as well. As if he could find his own ass with both hands and a flashlight!"

"I see." Honor's soprano was colder than the mountain wind, and she felt Nimitz's quivering anger as he clung to her shoulder while she turned suddenly arctic eyes to sweep the area Berczi had pointed to. A part of her could follow Novaya Tyumen's argument, for they did have limited resources. But those resources would begin to grow as the emergency response teams from other resorts arrived. The three nearest ones were already here; within hours, there would be special alpine SAR units here from all over the planet. When that happened, Novaya Tyumen would probably find himself shouldered aside by the experts, and she couldn't quite help wondering if that was part of the reason for his present autocracy. Did he want to make perfectly certain that his name was firmly stamped on any credit that might emerge from the rescue operations before someone else arrived to supplant him?

But whatever he was thinking couldn't change reality, and the reality was that saving lives in a situation like this was enormously dependent on the speed with which victims could be found . . . and that Novaya Tyumen had chosen to organize his available personnel and equipment in a way Honor would never have accepted. She'd had personal experience of the incredible, improbable ways in which human beings could survive something like this. She'd seen men and women dug out of ten and even fifteen meters of snow, still alive and—somehow—breathing. But she also knew from that same experience how critical it was that such people be found and retrieved before hypothermia or exhaustion or untreated injuries killed them anyway.

But Novaya Tyumen didn't have her experience, and he had detailed the bulk of his Navy and Marine personnel into simple labor gangs, digging into areas where there were known survivors, whereas only a relatively small percentage of his strength was assigned to hunting for other victims. Now that she considered his operational patterns in the light of Berczi's savage comments, she realized things were even worse than she'd thought before. Even the pinnaces he had flying overhead were concentrated on a limited area, searching the portions of mountainside where the damage was less total and avoiding the areas of maximum devastation.

There was such a thing as refusing to throw away resources by reinforcing failure, Honor admitted, but now that Berczi's description had focused her thoughts and pulled them away from how Novaya Tyumen had shoved her aside, it was suddenly clear to her that he had completely written off those more devastated areas. If the resort employees wanted to divert their efforts, or if any of the other civilian rescue teams cared to search those areas as they arrived, that was fine with him, but he himself wasn't interested.

She tried to force herself to give him the benefit of the doubt. To remind herself that he was with BuShips—an engineering specialist more accustomed to a bureaucratic environment than finding himself at the sharp end of the stick. She even reminded herself of her own earlier thoughts about the need to avoid fragmenting command of the operation. But none of that really mattered to her any longer. Not compared to the fact that he had chosen to write off a third of the total resort area and make no effort at all to search for anyone who might be out there and alive. And not, she admitted with scathing self-honesty, now that she realized how her preoccupation with personal concerns and slights had prevented her from realizing sooner that he had.

"You mentioned the beginners' slopes, Major?" she said to Berczi.

"Yes." Berczi's eyes were locked to Honor's face. "There were six lift cars that I know of in the air on their way up the mountain when the slide hit. One of them, the one that was furthest up-slope when the slide hit, was discovered over there—" she pointed to a spot over five hundred meters from the demolished stump of lift tower still poking out of the churned snow "—almost immediately. Most of the people in it were kids. A third of them were dead." She swallowed, then drew a deep breath. "But I'm here with a field trip from the school I currently teach in, Commander, and there are at least five more lift cars out there. One of them had two of my kids and twenty or so other people aboard it." She turned to face Honor squarely. "That's bad enough, but their parents are already on board a fast transport inbound from the Unicorn Belt. I don't have an ETA yet, but it can't be more than a few hours from now, and if they get here and discover that the asshole idiot in charge refuses even to look for their children—"

She chopped herself off, staring at Honor in stark, simple appeal, and Honor nodded slowly. She understood Berczi's desperation now, and she supposed some people might have called it personal. Well, no doubt it was. But that made it no less valid, and Honor respected her no less for her determination to do something about it.

"I see, Major," she said, and her lips curled in what might have been called a smile. "I see indeed. We'll just have to see to it that they don't have to deal with that, won't we?"


"I don't know if I can, Ranjit," Susan said in a small voice. She hated herself for admitting it—more for admitting it to herself than for admitting it to him—but she couldn't help it. She knelt on the floor of the lift car, staring through the twisted opening which had once held a crystoplast window, and the hole she'd gouged out of the wall of snow beyond it with a salvaged ski pole looked back at her.

"I know it's scary, Sooze," Ranjit said, fighting to keep his growing pain and weakness out of his voice. "But it's the only way you can get out, and we don't have enough time to wait for them to find us." He managed not to add "If they find us," but from the way she turned her head to look at him, he knew she'd heard it anyway.

"I know," she said after a moment, and managed a weak smile. "I just wish I knew how stinking far down we are."

"I do too," he told her, trying to match her smile while his heart wept for the courage she clung to with both hands.

"Well, at least it's not packed as hard as it could be, I guess," she sighed. She knelt there a moment longer, then raised her voice. "Andrea?"

"Yes?" the older girl's strained voice floated up out of the shadows.

"You take good care of Ranjit while I'm gone, hear?" Susan called, trying to smile at her brother again. "He's a doof, but I kinda like him."

"I'll do my best," Andrea promised, and Ranjit blinked on tears as Susan nodded to him.

"Be back as soon as I can," she told him quietly, and climbed out through the window, taking her ski pole with her. She pushed herself up into the hole she'd already dug, and Ranjit turned his head as far as he could, watching more snow fall through the shattered window onto the lift car's floor. It fell quickly at first, then more slowly . . . and then not at all as Susan tunneled higher into the underbelly of the avalanche, burrowing her way through it, and the snow she excavated packed the tunnel behind her. He pictured her forcing her way through the cold, terrifying darkness, all alone in her tiny, moving airspace as she burrowed towards the sun like some small, blind creature, and he closed his eyes and prayed as he had never before prayed in his life.

* * *

"Don't be stupid, Commander!" Novaya Tyumen snapped. "Nothin' could possibly have survived over there!" He swept an angry arm at the area around the broken-off lift tower. "If we're goin' to find anyone alive, it'll be out there!" He jabbed an index finger at the zone in which he had concentrated his efforts.

"With all due respect, Sir, I disagree," Honor said. No one but her had to know how hard it was to keep her words level and dispassionate, but her eyes bored into Novaya Tyumen's. "We've already recovered one lift car that was in the area in question at the time the avalanche hit, and the majority of the people aboard it were still alive. On that basis, I don't believe we can ignore the possibility that others might have survived the initial disaster, as well. And—"

"You don't believe? You don't believe?!" Novaya Tyumen glared at her. "Well fortunately, Commander, it doesn't matter what you believe, because I happen to be in command here!"

"I have no desire to undermine your authority or the chain of command," Honor said. At least half of that statement is true, anyway, she reflected acidly. "My sole concern is to point out that there may be people alive in that area, and that they won't be alive for long if someone doesn't find them and dig them out."

"Which is also true out there!" Novaya Tyumen shot back, pointing once more at his chosen area of operations.

"No doubt, Sir, but you have people getting in one another's way 'out there,' " Honor said coldly, pointing in turn at two squads of Marines who were crowded tightly enough together to hamper one another's efforts as they tried to dig out around the shell of one of the buildings which had not survived. The rescuers were restricted to shovels and only light tractors and pressers, because even with the tactical sensors from the pinnaces and the Marines' skinsuits, they could only see a couple of meters into the snow with any clarity. That meant they couldn't afford to use more efficient means of excavation for fear of killing the very people they were trying to rescue. "Under the circumstances, you should be able to detail more people to search operations so that civilians now en route will at least know where to dig when they get here!"

"And just how do you propose to search that area?" Novaya Tyumen demanded contemptuously, and shook a sheaf of hardcopy in her face. "These are your own tac readouts, Commander. There's so much junk and garbage—rocks and tree trunks and pieces of buildin's and God only knows what—buried out there even deep-imagin' radar can't see shit! So you tell me just how in hell we're supposed t' find anythin' out there even if we tried!"

"We can start by trying to identify some of the garbage as such so that we can then ignore it and concentrate on the rest of the targets, Sir." Honor's voice was still controlled, but it was also ice cold, and its very control made it a slap in the face after Novaya Tyumen's choleric outburst. "Certainly there's a lot of wreckage out there to confuse the DIR, but if we can at least locate the biggest pieces, we can use snow probes to find them and get microphones down there to listen for any sounds from trapped people. Human beings spent centuries finding avalanche victims before anyone ever thought of deep-imaging radar or sonar, Sir, and if we don't start looking soon—"

"I refuse to discuss this any further, Commander," Novaya Tyumen told her with chill, sneering precision. "I've made my decision, and I'm not squanderin' resources on some stupid, glory-grabbin' officer's quixotic lunacy when there are lives to save right here! Now stand aside and let me get on my with job before I file formal charges for insubordination."

" 'Insubordination'?" Honor repeated. She didn't recognize her own voice. It was much too calm and reasonable to belong to her at that moment. She heard Nimitz's deep, sibilant hiss of disdain as the 'cat glared at Novaya Tyumen, and then she smiled a cold, dangerous smile. "You file whatever you want to file, Sir," she told him, and turned and walked away.

Novaya Tyumen glared after her, and his face went apoplectic purple as she pulled an ear bug and attached boom mike from her parka pocket, clipped it into place, and spoke briefly into the mike. She listened for a few seconds, her head cocked to one side, then said something else into the mike, turned on her heel, and strode directly to Major Stimson.

Novaya Tyumen's eyes blazed with fury as she headed for the Marine, for there could be no mistaking her purpose, whatever he might have ordered. He couldn't believe the sheer gall of her, and rage boiled within him as Stimson looked up at her approach. Ensign Haverty was saying something to the baron, but he waved the young woman aside and went stamping through the snow after Honor.

"—start right there," she was saying to the Marine when Novaya Tyumen reached them. She pointed at a corner of the crumpled lift tower. "From the tac system overlays, it looks like the main thrust of the avalanche must have been roughly in this direction," she turned, sweeping her arm to illustrate her sentence, "and that checks with where Major Berczi tells me the one recovered car was found, so we'll want to head northeast. We'll go with a half-klick DIR sweep by two of the pinnaces first, then follow up with your people's skinsuit sensors and snow probes on anything they turn up. If we get a solid hit, we'll—"

"What the hell d'you think you're doin'?" Novaya Tyumen bellowed. "Goddamn it, I ordered you—"

"Now just one minute, you—" Major Stimson's head had snapped up as Novaya Tyumen approached, and his eyes flashed as he began a furious reply, but Honor's raised hand stopped him. She watched the Marine's face for a moment, as if to be certain he had himself under control, and then turned to Novaya Tyumen with what a casual observer might have called an attentive expression. Only the small muscle twitch at the corner of her mouth gave any overt lie to that impression, but the baron flinched involuntarily under the disgust in her dark eyes.

"I believe I was speaking to Major Stimson, not to you, Sir," she told him coldly.

"And just what were you talkin' to him about?" Novaya Tyumen sneered.

"Doing our job," Honor said flatly.

"Well whatever orders you were givin' him are countermanded right now, Commander!" Novaya Tyumen told her in a low, vicious tone. "And you can just report your ass back aboard ship under arrest!"

"I'm afraid I can't do that, Sir," Honor told him. Something about her expression rang an alarm bell in his mind at last, but he was too enraged to heed it.

" 'Can't do that'?" he mimicked savagely. "Well that's too fuckin' bad! Major Stimson!" he wheeled to the Marine. "You will place this officer under close arrest and escort her immediately back to her ship!"

"I'm afraid the Major can't do that, either, Sir." Honor told him, and her smile looked like a Sphinx neo-shark rising out of deep water as she looked over Novaya Tyumen's shoulder at someone behind him. "I believe Ensign Haverty is trying to get your attention," she observed.

Novaya Tyumen glared at her, confused, despite his fury, by the apparent non sequitur. Almost despite himself, he turned and looked in the direction of her gaze, and his confusion grew greater as he saw the ensign struggling through the snow towards them.

"What the fuck d'you want?" he barked as Haverty reached him.

"I was trying to tell you, Sir," the ensign replied. "You've got a com message back at the CP." Haverty's eyes strayed towards Honor, despite her best effort to keep them locked on Novaya Tyumen's face. "It's from Captain Tammerlane, Sir. You are to report back aboard immediately."

"What?" Novaya Tyumen goggled at her. "But—but what about the operation down here?" he demanded.

"All I know is what the Captain told me, Sir," Haverty said. "When I told him you were away from the CP, he told me to find you, tell you to report back aboard Broadsword immediately, and inform you that Commander Harrington is now in command of all SAR operations."

"But I'm in command of—"

"You are in command of the Skyhawk evaluation exercise," Honor told him flatly, "and that is all you are in command of. This is no longer an evaluation exercise, and you are no longer in command of it. So get out of the way, Commander. Now."

He stared at her, his eyes sick as he realized who she had been speaking to on her earbug mike. It hadn't been Stimson after all. She'd been tied into the com aboard her pinnace, sneaking around and talking to Tammerlane behind his back, and—

"Excuse me, Sir?" He turned as if in a daze and found himself face-to-face with Chief Zariello. "Lieutenant Hedges just informed me that I'm to transport you back to Broadsword, Commander," the CPO told him. Novaya Tyumen blinked at him, and Zariello nodded respectfully to the waiting pinnace. "If you'll come this way, Sir, we'll have you aboard in no time," he said, and there was no expression in his voice at all.


Eternity crawled as Susan Hibson clawed her way upward through a shifting, icy world. Her ski suit kept her body warm, but her soul was another matter, and the darkness and closeness and fear drove a dreadful chill deep into the heart of her. She had no light, no guide but her sense of up and down, and she wanted more than she had ever wanted anything before to curl up into a ball and just huddle where she was until someone found her. But she couldn't do that. Ranjit was hurt—worse than he wanted her to believe, she knew—and Andrea Manders was trapped, and so was whoever had gripped Andrea's ankle, and that meant she couldn't stop.

She closed her eyes, feeling the ice against her cheeks as she reached forward once more in the dark, driving her gloveless fingers into the snow ahead of her and dragging herself through it like some sightless worm. She'd lost her broken ski pole, and her hands were like frozen iron claws at the ends of her arms, she could barely feel them now, but she knew they'd been abraded bloody long since. Not that there was anything she could do about it, and she tried not to think about it, just as she tried not to think about how much air she had, or whether the snow would let more air pass through. She didn't think it would, but she didn't know, and it wasn't something she could afford to worry about now anyway.

Her thrusting hands hit something hard, ramming into it with enough force to make her cry out in pain and shock. She snatched them back against her, hugging them to her chest and whimpering while she waited for the hurt in her fingers to subside. It seemed to take forever, but at last she uncurled a little and reached out once more, tentatively. It was another rock, she thought. It wasn't the first she'd encountered, but as her hands tried to explore it and find a way around it, she realized it was the largest so far. There was only one way around it, she told herself, and braced her hand against its support, then arched her back. The snow was just loose enough that she could wedge it away from her, packing it more firmly, using her own body to shape the tiny, moving open space she carried with her, and she arched her back again and again, panting through gritted teeth as she forced the all-enfolding snow to conform to her desires. At last she let herself slump back, pressing her forehead against the rough, icy surface of the rock she had never seen while she sucked in air. She was so tired. So very, very tired. But at least the space about her was big enough now, and she rose on her knees and reached over her head with aching, exhausted arms. She drove her hands into the snow directly above her and felt it shower down. It fell with frightening speed now that she was digging vertically through it, and she bit her lip, forcing herself not to sob with terror as she visualized hitting a looser patch of snow, having it lose its cohesion and come rushing down like crystalline quicksand, filling her tiny space, sealing her mouth and nose alone in the dark—

Susan Hibson moaned, fighting to shut her mind down, clinging to the memory of her brother, and made herself dig onward.


"This may be one of the lift cars here, Ma'am. According to the DIR, anyway." Major Stimson's finger jabbed at a blur of light in the holograph generated by the deep-imaging radar mounted in the shuttle hovering overhead. The DIR was intended to probe for underground bunkers and similar installations, but it should have been equally useful for work like this. Except that the avalanche had carried so much debris down with it that they could never be certain exactly what they were looking at. It could have been a lift car . . . or a boulder . . . or a section of the lift tower.

"What about sonar?" Honor asked.

"No more definitive," Stimson said unhappily. "Whatever it is, it's about thirty meters down, and resolution is crap with both systems. Thing is, if DIR is right and it is a lift car, sonar ought to be indicating a void inside it, and it isn't. Of course, thirty meters is a long reach for a skinny's sonar. We really need more of the big units the alpine SAR people use. But still—"

He shrugged unhappily, and Honor forced her face to show no expression as she nodded. She knew what he meant, of course. Even if it was a lift car, there could be at least one very simple reason why neither the DIR nor sonar had revealed any open air spaces within it.

"All right, Frank," she said after a moment. "I want a squad working on it anyway. Get one of the pinnaces over and use its tractors and belly fans to clear the first ten or fifteen meters for them, then they can go in with the hand tractors and shovels."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am." The Marine nodded and began speaking into his own boom mike, and Honor turned away to survey the snow field.

More civilian rescue personnel were arriving now, but most of them were concentrating on the ski slopes higher up the mountain. That made sense, she supposed, given that at least half the missing had been on the slopes when the avalanche hit. Others had taken over the areas in which Novaya Tyumen had concentrated his efforts, digging down into buried buildings and freeing the people trapped inside them. She couldn't really fault their priorities, and her pinnaces were busy everywhere, moving people and equipment wherever they were needed and bringing their tac sensors to bear in response to requests from rescue teams. But she herself and all of her Marines were committed to the area here around the beginners' slope lift and the neighboring intermediate slope lift. Major Berczi was with them, limping painfully around with a face like beaten iron, as they drove themselves into exhaustion trying to find the children death had snatched away from them. At least there were enough other rescue personnel present now to let them concentrate their efforts here without ignoring other needs, and she tried to feel grateful that it was so.

They'd been at it since late morning, and the shadows of early evening were stretching out across the churned snow. The winter mountain twilight wouldn't last long, and the temperature was dropping, too. By morning, all the snow softened by the sun would have frozen hard, making their task that much more difficult. But, of course, by morning anyone who was still alive underneath this wilderness of hostile white would almost certainly be dead, anyway, she thought grimly.

Nimitz made a soft sound on her shoulder, and she reached up to comfort him. He pressed against her gloved palm for a moment, but then, to her surprise, he leapt lightly down. He landed in the snow and crouched there for a long moment, whiskers quivering and ears cocked, and then he began to move slowly away from her. She stared at him, her weary mind trying to figure out what he was up to, and he looked back over his shoulder at her. He flirted his tail and bleeked up at her, and then went bounding away into the shadows.


"Ranjit? Ranjit!"

Ranjit's eyes snapped open as the sudden panic in Andrea's voice penetrated his hazy thoughts. He blinked hard, then rubbed his face weakly, trying to scrub himself back to wakefulness. It didn't work very well, and his mouth moved in a parody of a smile as he realized why. It wasn't simple fatigue or sleepiness reaching out for him; it was blood loss from his damaged leg and the cold biting into him where his ski suit must have been rent and torn.

"Yes?" he said after a moment, and noted the hoarseness of his voice with a sort of dull bemusement.

"I—" Andrea paused. "I was afraid you'd passed out," she finished after a moment, and he astounded them both with a dry, coughing burst of laughter.

Passed out? I don't think so, he thought. You were afraid I'd gone and died on you, Andrea. But I haven't. Not yet. 

"'S okay," he said finally, when the laughter had released him. "'M just tired, you know? Sleepy. G'on talkin' to me. It'll keep me awake."

"Are you sure?" The voice of the girl he couldn't remember ever having seen came back to him from the dimness, and he nodded.

"Positive," he said. The word came out sounding like a drunk he'd once heard, with a sort of exaggerated, woozy precision. He wanted to giggle some more at the thought, but he managed not to.

"All right," Andrea said. "You know, this was the first time I ever came to the Atticas for the skiing. We always went to the Black Mountains before. I don't know why. Just closer, I guess. Anyway—"

She went on talking, hearing the thin veneer of calm holding her own words together like glue against the terror quivering deep inside her. She'd never said anything so inane and pointless in her life, she thought. Yet somehow, however disjointed and pointless it might have been, it was also the most important thing she'd ever told anyone.

Because it proved she was still alive, she thought, just as the weakening grip on her ankle told her at least one other person still lived beyond the barrier which pinned her, and just as Ranjit's occasional responses to her questions proved he was still alive.

For now.


Susan's hands were more than simply abraded now. She'd been forced to work her blind, agonizing way through and around a tangle of broken limbs the avalanche had carried down from above with it, and she'd injured her right hand badly when she caught it in the angle of two of the branches. She couldn't tell how badly it was bleeding, and she was terrified of meeting another, worse tangle—one she couldn't find a way past.

She was weeping now. She couldn't stop. Every muscle and sinew ached and throbbed and burned, and she wanted so badly to make it stop. Just to make it end. But she couldn't. Ranjit depended on her, and so she drove her exhausted body upward.

How far down am I? she wondered in the small corner of her mind which had any energy to spare from the brutal task of pushing herself on. Surely I should be seeing some sign of daylight coming down from above by now, shouldn't I? Am I even still going up? Or did I get turned around somehow by those limbs? Have I started digging downward again? 

She didn't know. She only knew she couldn't stop.


"What is it, Stinker?" Honor asked. She knelt beside Nimitz in the gathering twilight, and the 'cat sat up on his rearmost limbs, reaching up to pat her chest urgently. His eyes bored into hers like augers, and she knew he was trying to tell her something, but she couldn't quite bring herself to believe the most logical explanation. Treecats had been used over the years in search and rescue efforts on Sphinx, but not as often as one might have expected, for the range at which they could sense human beings they'd never met before appeared to be limited. There had been instances of 'cats who were able to home in on total strangers at distances of up to a hundred or even two hundred meters, even under the most adverse conditions, but such cases were extremely rare—more the stuff of rumors and legends than recorded fact. More to the point, perhaps, Honor couldn't recall ever having seen any indication from Nimitz that he might be capable of such a feat. Besides, they were over three hundred meters beyond the line the alpine SAR teams had calculated as the furthest any of the lift cars might have been carried from the lift tower. The shouts and machinery sounds of the rescue effort were small and lost here, little stronger than the whine and moan of the gathering wind, and she looked around, trying to see anything that might have brought him here.

The 'cat made a sound, half-pleading and half-commanding, that dragged her attention back to him. He captured her eyes once more, and then he took his right true-hand from her chest and made an unmistakable gesture with it. A gesture that pointed straight down into the snow.

"Here?" As well as she knew him, Honor couldn't quite keep the doubt out of her voice. "You think there's someone down there?"

Nimitz bleeked loudly, then chittered at her and nodded hard. She looked around once more, back to where the stump of the lift—the better part of two kilometers from where she knelt—poked up out of the snow, tiny with distance. There was no way a lift car could have been carried this far, she told herself. Was there? Yet Nimitz seemed so positive. . . .

"All right, Stinker," she sighed. "What do we have to lose?"

The 'cat bleeked again, even louder, as she keyed her com once more. And then, as she started to speak into it, he turned and began to burrow into the snow himself. Snow tunnels were a game he and Honor had played often during her childhood on Sphinx, and it was remarkable how rapidly a six-limbed creature with centimeter-long claws could tear through snow. By the time Honor was done speaking on the com, he was two meters down and going strong.


Susan froze. For a moment, her mind was too foggy and confused to tell her why it had stopped her, and then she realized she'd heard something. It seemed impossible, after so long sealed up alone with the sound of her own breath roaring in her ears, yet she was certain she truly had heard something. She strained her ears, and then her heart gave a tremendous lurch. She had heard it! A scraping, scratching sound, like something moving through snow—something moving towards her! 

She screamed, lunging suddenly in her dark little world, thrusting towards the sound, fighting her way up out of the endless blackness. She punched and kicked and ripped at the snow, and then, suddenly, her right fist broke through some final barrier into open air and she froze once more, unable to move, paralyzed with a strange terror which dared not believe she might actually have clawed her way back into the upper world at last. She wanted to shout, to move, to cry out for help, to do something . . . and she couldn't. She couldn't move at all, and so she simply lay there.

But then something touched her hand. Strong, wiry fingers closed on her wrist, holding it, and something soft and silken pressed against her torn and bleeding palm. A half-heard, half-felt croon of comfort burned into her, and Susan Hibson went limp, sobbing in a sudden torrent of relief like agony as the reassurance of that touch filled her.


"Where do you want us, Ma'am?" Sergeant Wells panted as she and her squad slithered to a halt beside Honor. The sergeant carried a powerful hand lamp against the gathering darkness, and her people carried hand tractors and pressers and shovels. Honor ran her eyes over them once, then nodded for them to follow her.

"Over this way," she said, leading the way back towards Nimitz.

"We're a long way beyond the search line, Ma'am," Wells pointed out diffidently, and Honor nodded.

"I know. Call it a hunch."

"A hunch, Ma'am?"

"That's right, but it's not really mine. It's—"

She stopped dead, so abruptly Wells almost ran into her, but neither of them really thought about that. They were staring down into the hole burrowed into the churned white surface, to where a small, dark-skinned hand, torn and bloodied, thrust out of a wall of snow and a cream-and-gray treecat cradled it against his chest while his eyes blazed like green fire in the glow of the sergeant's lamp.


Ranjit Hibson's eyelids fluttered open.

For a long moment he simply lay there, drowsy and content and warm. For some reason it seemed wrong for him to feel that way, but he couldn't quite remem—


His eyes flew wide, and he jerked up in the bed. Susan! Where was—?!

"It's all right, Ranjit," a familiar voice said, and his head snapped around as someone touched his shoulder. "I'm fine," the voice told him, and he gasped in terrible relief as his sister sat down on the edge of his bed and smiled at him. It was her old, indomitable smile—almost . . . with just a shadow of remembered darkness behind it—and he reached out to touch her bruised face with gentle, wondering fingers.

"Sooze," he half-whispered, and her green eyes gleamed with suspicious wetness as she caught his hand and held it to her cheek. Her own hands were heavily bandaged, and his mouth tightened as he saw how carefully she touched him. But she saw his borning frown and shook her head quickly.

"It's not that bad," she reassured him. "I skinned them and cut them some and broke one finger, but the quick heal's already working on them. They'll be all better a long time before your legs will. And speaking of legs," a spark of true anger glittered in her eyes, "why didn't you tell me you were bleeding like that!"

"I didn't know for sure that I was," he replied, still drinking in her face and the fact that she was alive. "Besides, there wasn't anything you could've done except what you did do—go for help—so why should I have worried you with it? You had enough on your mind, Sooze."

"Yeah," she said after a moment, and lowered her eyes to his hand. "Yeah, I guess I did, at that."

"Indeed she did," another voice said, and Ranjit's head snapped around toward the hospital room's door. Kalindi and Liesell Hibson stood there, each with an arm around the other, and Kalindi's smile seemed to waver just a bit as he tried to keep his voice steady. "You both did. And we're proud of you both. Very proud."

"Mom—Dad—" Ranjit stared at his parents and, to his horror, heard his own hoarseness and felt the hot burn of tears. He was too old to bawl like a baby, he told himself, and it didn't do any good at all as he felt his face crumple. Horrible embarrassment engulfed him, but there was nothing he could do about it . . . and a moment later, it didn't matter, for his mother was there, with her arms around him, hugging him close while he sobbed into her shoulder. Her hands stroked his back, and he heard her murmuring the words of comfort he was much too old to need . . . and needed anyway. He raised his head, staring at her through his tears, and his father reached across her shoulder to ruffle his hair as he had when Ranjit was only a boy.

"I-I'm sorry," he got our finally. "I promised . . . promised I'd take care of Sooze, and instead—"

"Forgive me for intruding," another voice said dryly from the open door, "but I tend to doubt they expected your promise to be binding on a mountain, Ranjit."

He blinked on his tears, and Csilla Berczi smiled at him. The teacher's expression commiserated with his wounded adolescent pride, yet it also congratulated him for having the good sense to ignore it.

"May I come in?" she asked.

"It's Ranjit's room," Liesell said with a small smile, and looked at her son.

"Of course you can!" he said quickly, and Berczi chuckled and stepped into the room. She seemed unsteady on her feet, but she only grimaced at Ranjit's quick look of concern.

"Don't worry about it," she told them. "The wiring and a couple of servos in my replacement took a hit during the excitement, but it's nothing they can't adjust back on Unicorn Eleven. At the moment, though, I've brought another visitor along with me."

She grinned at her students' expressions, but she also lowered herself into a bedside chair and waved a hand at the door as yet another head poked around the frame and peeked into the room.

"Come on in, Andrea," Berczi invited, and laughed as Ranjit suddenly sat up straighter in bed. The girl in the doorway was taller than he'd somehow expected, with a lovely oval face and dark blue eyes. She moved a bit stiffly, as if she had her own share of bruises, but the smile she gave him and Susan was blinding, and Liesell and Kalindi looked at one another with wry, resigned expressions .

"Hi," she said just a bit shyly. "I, uh, told Ms. Berczi I wanted to meet you two—actually meet you, that is. Because I wouldn't be here without you, and I know it."

"Without Sooze, you mean," Ranjit corrected, feeling his face blaze scarlet as he made himself meet her gaze.

"Maybe, but I'd never've had the nerve to climb out into that stinking snow without you, Ranjit," Susan said stoutly.

"Yeah, but—" Ranjit began, only to be cut off by their teacher.

"There's plenty of credit to go around, people," she told them both. "I'm proud of you both—very proud—and so are your parents."

"Indeed we are," Kalindi agreed firmly. "We would appreciate it if both of you could see your way to giving us a little less cause for such, um, traumatic pride for the next little bit—like, oh, the next fifty or sixty years, you understand. But we've heard how you handled yourselves." He smiled, but his eyes and voice were serious. "A parent is always proud when his or her child rises to meet a challenge, but your mother and I are most pleased with you both, and the courage and resourcefulness you showed bring much honor upon you."

"And don't you forget it, either," Berczi said as Ranjit and Susan flushed with mingled pride, pleasure, and embarrassment under their father's praise. "You not only got yourselves out, but you got Andrea here and four other people from the other side of the lift car, as well. And finding your car indicated that we'd been much too conservative in our estimates of where we should have been looking in the first place, so we widened the search. Which is how we found two more cars the same night."

"I'm glad you did," Ranjit said slowly, but his eyes had darkened as he did the mental math. "But Sooze and Andrea and I make three, and you said there were only four more?" He stared at the teacher, begging her to tell him he'd misunderstood her, but she only shook her head with gentle compassion. "Only seven" he whispered.

"Only seven," she confirmed quietly, and Ranjit felt his mother's grip tighten comfortingly about him once more. "You kids were lucky—gutsy and smart as hell, too, but lucky clear through," the teacher went on. "The newsies are calling this the worst avalanche in the Star Kingdom's history, at least in terms of loss of life. So far—" She paused and drew a deep breath, then continued. "So far, we've confirmed three hundred and sixty dead, and the toll's still going up. Odds are that it'll at least double before it's all over."

"And us? The other kids?" Ranjit asked tautly.

"All in one piece, more or less," Berczi said with unfeigned gratitude. "You and Susan were the only ones we had headed for the beginners' slopes. Donny Tergesen got banged up pretty bad—he'll be in the body and fender shop longer than you will, Ranjit—but we didn't have anyone else actually out on the slopes yet, and none of the other lifts got hit anywhere near as hard as yours did."

"That's for sure," Andrea put in, and smiled crookedly as Ranjit looked her way. "My mother and sister were waiting for the lift to the advanced slopes, and they hardly even got shaken up over there," the blonde told him. "We were the ones who got walloped."

"Yes, you were," Berczi agreed. "But the three of you came through it intact, and that's the important thing for you to remember—all of you. I'm sure you'll have your share of nightmares over it. That's normal, and there's nothing anyone can do to prevent it. But don't let yourselves feel guilty somehow because you made it and other people didn't. You didn't kill anyone, and nothing that happened to anyone else was your fault. You got home the hard way, but you got there, and along the way, you managed to save some lives that would have been lost without you. That's what it's important to remember."

She looked deep into three young sets of eyes in turn, holding each of them until their owners nodded solemnly.

"Good." She leaned back in her chair and nodded at the older Hibsons. "Your parents and I have already discussed the need to schedule a few sessions with a counselor for all of you, but if you want someone else to talk to about it, come to me. And that includes you, Andrea, assuming I'm anywhere in com reach."

"I will, Ma'am," the blonde began, "and—"

"Excuse me. Is this a private party, or are drop-ins welcome?" a crisp soprano voice inquired.

Ranjit turned his head as the speaker stood in the open doorway. She was tall for a woman, with broad shoulders and short-cropped brown hair, and she wore the space-black and gold of the Royal Manticoran Navy with the cuff stripes of a lieutenant commander. All of that registered, but only at the corners of his mind, for she also had something else that reached out and seized his attention. It couldn't be what it looked like! He'd wanted to see one of them for as long as he could remember, dreamed of being adopted by one, but he'd never really expected ever to meet one of them, and especially not off Sphinx!

The fluffy-coated, six-limbed creature on the officer's shoulder turned its head to meet his own goggle-eyed stare. There was a moment of silence, and then the treecat bleeked and twitched its whiskers at him, obviously delighted by his stunned reaction to its presence.

"Commander Harrington!" Berczi said, and Ranjit's parents stiffened, as if they recognized the name. His mother released him to stand up as the teacher started to push herself awkwardly to her feet, but the woman in the doorway waved her back into her chair.

"Stay where you are, Major. I just dropped by for a word with Susan. And—" she glanced speculatively at Kalindi and Liesell "—her parents?"

"Yes. Yes, we are," Liesell said, and stepped forward to take the newcomer's hand in both of hers. "Thank you, Commander. Thank you. We can never repay you for what you've done."

"There's no need to repay me for anything, Ms. Hibson," the tall woman said gently. "It was Nimitz here who found Susan, you know, not me. If you want to thank anyone, thank him—and the people who actually dug Ranjit and Andrea out, of course. But to be perfectly honest, Susan would have done the job without me or Nimitz. She was less than five meters down when he sensed her, and there was no way five measly meters of snow were going to stop your daughter, Ma'am."

Susan blushed a bright, blazing scarlet—a hue so hot she could have used it to melt her way to rescue if it had been available at the time, Ranjit thought—and Liesell reached out and wrapped her arm tightly around her daughter's shoulders.

"I believe you're correct, Commander," she said with a wry smile. "Her father and I have noticed before that she can be just a bit on the stubborn side."

"So I've heard," Commander Harrington agreed. "Which brings me to the rather delicate matter of what I wanted to speak to her about."

"With me, Ma'am?" Susan said, and her tone was almost as big a surprise for Ranjit as the treecat's appearance. He'd become accustomed to the way his sister always spoke of the Navy—as the "chauffeurs" and "deck jockeys" whose sole job was to move important people like Marines around—but there was no sign of that now. She had addressed the tall officer in tones of profound respect, and as he heard it, Ranjit sensed that there was a great deal about their rescue that he hadn't been told yet.

"Yes." The tall woman looked consideringly down at Susan, and the 'cat on her shoulder joined her, cocking his head to peer thoughtfully at Ranjit's sister. "I thought you'd like to know what I just heard over at the CP," the woman said. "If your parents don't mind, of course."

"Mind what, Commander?" Kalindi asked.

"Well, I'm afraid it has to do with that stubbornness your wife just mentioned, Sir," Harrington said. "You see, the newsies are swarming all over the resort looking for human interest stories, and I'm afraid your daughter here is rapidly turning into the central heroine of the entire disaster. The quickie interview they did with her last night has gone out on live feeds and in all the 'faxes, and we've already heard back from Manticore about her."

"From Manticore?" Susan repeated. "About me?"

"Yes. You know, you really impressed everyone with the rescue teams. We all feel you showed a lot of nerve and determination, and you did a good job of helping us backtrack your tunnel to find Ranjit and Andrea, too."

She paused, and Ranjit watched bemusedly as Susan blushed yet again. The woman with the 'cat smiled ever so slightly, almond eyes gleaming as she enjoyed Susan's atypical tongue-tied silence. She let it stretch out for several seconds, then cleared her throat.

"It just happens," she went on, "that Major Stimson and Major Berczi are old friends, and the Major explained your, um, military ambitions to us. I believe you also said a little something about them to the newsies, didn't you?"

Susan darted an agonized look at her parents, then nodded, and Harrington shrugged. "Well, Major Stimson had already mentioned them to me, and I mentioned them to Captain Tammerlane—he's the skipper of my ship—and he passed them on up the chain in turn, and then the interview imagery hit the capital news net, and, well—"

She shrugged, grinning, and Susan turned her eyes to her brother in agonized embarrassment. She stared at him pleadingly, and he shook himself.

"And what—Ma'am?" he asked finally.

"Well, I understand that somehow your sister's plans got bucked all the way up the chain to the Commandant of the Corps," Commander Harrington told him.

"All the way—?" Ranjit's jaw dropped, and twisted back around to stare at his Susan.

"Yes, indeed. And according to the traffic over at the CP, General Ambristen was rather taken with her exploits himself. Sufficiently so, in fact, that on the recommendation of Major Berczi, Major Stimson, and myself, the Corps has already reserved a slot for her at OCS, assuming—" Harrington darted a moderately severe glance at Susan "—that she gets her grades up, of course."

"Really?" The word burst out of Susan like an explosion, and Harrington nodded with a chuckle.

"Really," she assured the girl. "But it really is contingent on your passing the academic requirements, too. May I assume that you'll be doing a little something about those grades Major Berczi mentioned to me?"

"Yes, Ma'am! I mean— Yes, of course I will!"

"Good. In that case, maybe you and I will serve together sometime."

"I'd . . . I'd like that, Ma'am," Susan said, suddenly almost painfully shy. "I'd like that a lot."

"Stranger things have happened," Harrington observed. Then she nodded to Andrea and Ranjit, shook hands once more with both of Susan's parents, sketched an abbreviated salute to Berczi, and disappeared.

Ranjit stared after her for a long, endless moment, then looked at his parents, but they weren't looking at him. They were looking at each other, with expressions that mingled resignation, pride, bittersweet laughter, and the admission that their long effort to divert Susan from the Marines had just turned into an abject failure. It was going to take them a while to deal with that and once more begin paying any attention to the rest of the world, and Susan was in even worse shape. She was simply standing there, staring off into space, and her entire face was one huge, beatific smile. There wasn't so much as a hint of intelligence in her bemused eyes, and Ranjit shuddered. She was going to be extremely difficult to live with for the next few weeks, or months—or years, he thought wryly—once she resumed interactive contact with the world about her. But that wasn't going to happen for a while, so he turned to Csilla Berczi.

"Who was that?" he demanded.

"She's the one who dug the lot of you out of the avalanche," the teacher replied. "Well, she and a squad of Marines under her command. Her treecat found Susan."

"Yeah, it was great!" Andrea chipped in. "Commander Harrington says he must've sensed her emotions or something and led them straight to her. They were wonderful about getting all the rest of us out, too. But I can hardly believe she went to the trouble of telling her captain Susan wanted to be a Marine and then actually came clear over to the hospital just to tell her!"

"Believe it, young lady," Berczi told her. "There are never enough good officers to go around. Commander Harrington knows that—which shouldn't be too surprising, since she's one of the good ones herself!—and she recognized the same things in our Susan that I've been looking at for the last couple of years. Although," she added judiciously, glancing sidelong at the younger girl's gloriously bemused expression, "we could all be excused for not seeing them just at the moment, I suppose."

"Well I'm happy for her," Andrea said firmly. "Aren't you?"

"Of course I am," Berczi agreed, "and—"

She stopped speaking as Ranjit's deep, heartfelt groan suddenly interrupted her. He, too, had been staring at his sister, but now his eyes were fixed on his parents, and Berczi cocked an eyebrow at him.

"What?" she asked. "Are your legs bothering you all of a sudden, Ranjit?"

"No, no," he shook his head, but his expression was that of someone in intense pain, and she looked a question at him. "It wasn't that," he assured her. "It wasn't that at all."

"Then what was it?" she demanded, and he looked at her mournfully.

"It's just that I really did promise to keep an eye on Susan if Mom and Dad let her come on the trip," he told her, "and I just realized. They may not be going to blame me for the avalanche, but when they come back up for air, they're gonna kill me for letting this happen!"


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