She'd never had to do that with her facial nerves. There, it had been a simple matter of learning to interpret new passive data and match it with old information files. And even with her eye, there'd been relatively few new control functions to learn, for the muscles of her eye socket had been untouched by the damage to the eye itself. They'd moved the new eye precisely as they had the old, and focusing and automatic adjustment for natural light conditions had been built into the software. All she'd really had to learn was a pattern of specific muscle contractions which activated or deactivated any of the special functions she wanted to use.
   But it wouldn't work that way for the arm, and she was honest enough to admit that she felt a certain dread whenever she thought of what this therapy was going to be like. And the fact that she'd spent so many years training in coup de vitesse was only going to make it still worse, because she'd spent so much time programming muscle-memory responses into herself, and every one of them would have to be deleted and reprogrammed. She would probably be able to retrain herself with the prosthetic well enough to fool most people into believing she'd fully mastered it within no more than nine or ten T-months, but it would take years of hard, unremitting work to completely reintegrate her control of it. For that matter, she never would have quite the same degree of fine motor control she'd once had.
   "Anyway," she went on, pulling herself back up out of her thoughts and returning her attention to her mother, "given the time we're going to be down for the arm anyway, Daddy and Doctor Brewster don't see any reason to rush Nimitz. Nor did he and Sam when I discussed it with them. They've done some preliminary work on his midlimb and straightened the ribs, but they've stayed away from the pelvis itself so far, which is why he still can't walk on that hand-foot properly. He's still got some constant, low-grade pain, too, and I know he'd like to be able to get around better, but he and Sam agree with Daddy that there's no point in risking more damage to his `transmitter site' until Daddy and Brewster feel confident about what they're dealing with." She chuckled suddenly. "Both Nimitz and Sam, and a couple of dozen of other 'cats, as well, are helping out with the study, and we're making pretty rapid progress, now that we know what we're looking for. The 'cats actually seem to enjoy it, like the tests are some sort of game. Something certainly appears to have them more fired up than usual, because they're responding much more successfully to Brewster's tests than they ever did to anyone else's."
   "Oh, come now, Honor!" her mother chided. "Don't try to fool me, dear. I've always suspected, just as I'm sure you have, that the 'cats were deliberately blowing off half the intelligence tests they were given!" Honor's eyes narrowed, and Allison chuckled. "I never blamed them for it, just as you didn't. Heavens, Honor! If I were as small as they are and some huge, hairy bunch of high-tech aliens moved in on my world, I'd certainly want to appear as small and innocent and lovably furry as I could! And it helps a lot that they are small and lovably furry," she added in judiciously. "Even if anyone who'd ever seen what they can do to a celery patch — or to any human they decide needs to be put firmly into his place — would know they aren't exactly `innocent.' "
   "Well... yes," Honor admitted. "I've always suspected something like that myself. I don't know why, exactly. I just had a feeling that they wanted to be left alone. Not poked and prodded at, or dragged out of their own chosen way of living, I suppose." She shrugged. "I never knew exactly why they felt that way, though I imagine you've probably put your finger on how it started. But it didn't really matter to me, either. If that was the way they wanted it, I didn't see any reason to insist they change."
   "Of course you didn't. And I doubt very much that Nimitz, or any other treecat, would be drawn to adopt a human who would try to change them. It may be because I wasn't born in the Star Kingdom and didn't grow up `knowing' how intelligent 'cats were — or weren't, as the case may be — but I've always believed that native Manticorans and Gryphons, even most Sphinxians, tend to underestimate the 'cats largely out of a sense of familiarity. And the people who get themselves adopted, like you and the Forestry Service rangers back home, do their dead level best to divert any inquiry that would intrude on them or violate their own wishes."
   "You're right," Honor agreed. "We do, and I suppose that if I'm honest about it, a part of me wishes we could go right on doing just that. I guess it's sort of like a parent feels when she sees her children growing up. She's proud of them, and she wants them to stand on their own and fly as high as they can, but she can't help feeling nostalgic when she remembers them as little kids, all bright and shiny and new and dependent on her." She smiled crookedly. "Oh, I never thought of Nimitz as dependent on me, of course! But you know what I mean. And I think I may feel even a bit more bittersweet over it because, in a way, they never really were quite as `young' as we all thought they were."
   "Not you," Allison corrected gently, and waved down Honor's protest before she could utter it. "I saw you with Nimitz from the day you met, Honor. You thought he was a wonderful new discovery, but you never thought he was a toy, or a pet, or anything but another person who just happened to be shaped a bit differently from you. I think you were surprised by his capabilities, but you adjusted to them without feeling as if you somehow had to assert your seniority in the partnership. And let's face it. However intelligent they may be, they really do need human guides if they're going to survive among other humans, and in that sense, Nimitz truly was dependent on you. Still is, in some ways — not least when someone else's emotions get him all jangled and upset. Do you think I haven't seen the way you calm him down at times like that? Or the way he calms you down when you start beating yourself up inside?" She shook her head. "It's a partnership, Honor. That's what it always has been, and like any partnership that lasts, each of you takes turns being there for the other one. Sort of like a mother and her adult daughter," she added with a gentle smile.
   "I suppose that's true," Honor said after a moment, and chuckled. "You're really rather perceptive for an antiquated old fogy of a parent, did you know that?"
   "The thought had crossed my mind. As has the sad conclusion that I didn't beat you often enough as a child. Which was probably Nimitz's fault, now that I think about it. It would have been more than my life was worth to try!"
   "Oh, no. There were a couple of times when you or Daddy were chewing me out as a kid that Nimitz would cheerfully have helped you beat me! Fortunately, there was no way he could tell you that."
   "Ah?" Allison cocked her head, and something about her tone made Honor look at her sharply. "Odd you should mention that," her mother went on, "but convenient. It provides a neat bridge to where I was headed when this conversation started."
   "I beg your pardon?" Honor blinked at her, and she snorted.
   "Have another cookie and listen carefully, dear," she advised. Honor regarded her with a certain suspicion, but then she picked up another cookie and settled back obediently.
   "Ah, if you'd only been that biddable as a child!" Allison sighed. Then she sat completely upright and looked at her daughter much more seriously.
   "You and I have never discussed this, mainly because there was no need to," she began, "but as I say, I've watched you and Nimitz together from the very first day. And because I have, I realized years ago that your relationship had begun changing. I've seen enough other bonded pairs to know your link was always a bit different, and I went back and looked over the Harrington medical records very carefully when you were just a little girl. On the basis of my study, I think there's a specific reason so many Harringtons have been adopted over the years."
   "You do?" Honor had forgotten the cookie in her hand, and her good eye was very intent as she gazed into her mother's face.
   "I do. I started out by looking at precisely what was involved in the Meyerdahl genetic mods. Most people don't realize it, but there were actually four different modification sets within the single project. By this time they've intermingled enough to lose some of their original differentiation, but like a lot of other `locked' mods, they've managed to stay remarkably stable and dominant over the generations.
   "You and your father are direct descendants of the Meyerdahl Beta mod. I won't go into all the specifics, which wouldn't mean a great deal to you, anyway, but most of what it gave you is exactly what all the Meyerdahl recipients got: more efficient muscles, enhanced reaction speed, stronger bones, tougher cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and so on. But the Meyerdahl Betas also got what they used to call an `IQ enhancer.' We've learned enough more about human intelligence since then that reputable geneticists refuse to tinker with it except under extraordinary conditions. For the most part, you can only enhance one aspect of the entire complex of attributes we think of as `intelligence' at the expense of other aspects. That isn't an absolute, but it works as a rule of thumb, and it's one reason I never mentioned my research to you or your dad. There was no reason to — and the... less successful efforts at engineered intelligence were one reason Old Earth's Final War was as bad as it was. And one reason humanity in general turned so strongly against the entire concept of engineering human genes at all."
   "I take it," Honor said very carefully, "that your research didn't indicate that we were one of those `less successful efforts'?"
   "Oh, heavens, no! In fact, the Meyerdahl Betas and the Wintons have quite a lot in common. I don't have as complete a degree of access to the Winton records, of course, but even from the incomplete data in the public files, it's obvious that whoever designed the Winton modification for Roger Winton's parents was remarkably successful. As was the team that put together the Meyerdahl Beta package. I'd like to say they succeeded because they were so good at their jobs, but I rather doubt that was the case, particularly in light of their relatively primitive understanding of just what they were tinkering with. I think that, as we geneticists like to put it when discussing the vast evolutionary sweep of upward human development, they lucked out.
   "The really unsuccessful efforts, on the other hand, tended to show very high levels of aggressiveness, like the `super soldiers' on Old Earth, and weed themselves out of the genotype. As a matter of fact, that aggressiveness was the most common nasty side effect of intelligence modification projects. Some of the recipients verged uncomfortably closely on sociopathic personalities, without the sort of moral governors people need in a healthy society. And when you coupled that with an awareness that they were designed to be (and usually were) quite a lot `smarter,' at least in certain, specific ways, than the normals around them, they started acting like a pride of hexapumas quarreling over who should boss all those inferior normals about until they got around to picking out lunch."
   She shrugged and ran the fingers of both hands through her hair, combing the long strands the sea breeze had begun to whip back from her face.
   "Then too, a lot of the IQ enhancements, in particular, simply tended to fade into the general background of the unmodified without showing any special advantages," she went on. "As I said, it usually worked out that the designers wound up enhancing one aspect of intelligence at the expense of one or more others, and what happened most often was that those who succeeded simply learned to use their enhanced abilities to compensate for the areas in which they'd taken a loss in ability.
   "In the case of the Meyerdahl Betas, however, the effort actually worked, by and large. One thing you should remember, Honor, is that evolution always wins in the end, but it does it by conserving the designs that happen to be able to survive, not by going out and deliberately creating leaps forward. In fact, I've always disliked using the word `forward' in terms of evolution at all. We assign an arbitrary valuation to the changes we consider positive and call those `leaps forward,' but nature doesn't care about that, except in the statistical sense that more individuals with Mutation A survive than those with Mutation B or C. In many circumstances, however, the enhanced aggressiveness we see as a destructive side effect could be a positive survival trait. In a high-tech society, with high-tech weaponry, and surrounded by vast numbers of people who didn't share that aggressiveness — and who were seen as inferior by many who did — it had... negative implications, let us say. Under other circumstances, like a colony on a world with serious external threats against which it could be focused, it might mean the difference between survival and extinction.
   "But even assuming we can all agree on what does constitute a natural `leap forward,' those sorts of things happen only very occasionally. And we only know about the instances in which it happened and was conserved... which is approximately what happened in the case of your ancestors.
   "I ran the Harrington intelligence test results against the base norms for their populations, both here and back on Meyerdahl, and the evidence is very clear. So far, I've found only three Harringtons who placed below the ninety-fifth percentile in general intelligence, and well over eighty-five percent of those I've been able to check placed in the ninety-nine-plus percentile. You tend to be very smart people, and if I hadn't wound up in the same select company according to my own test scores, I'd probably come all over inferior feeling or something of the sort."
   "Sure you would," Honor said dryly, but her eye was still wide as she considered what her mother had just told her. And especially what she'd said about "undesirable levels of aggressiveness."
   "At any rate," Allison went on briskly, "I've come to suspect that an unintended consequence of the IQ enhancer effort, both in the Harrington line and, quite possibly, in the Winton line, was something that makes you more attractive, as a group, to treecats. Given that we know the 'cats are empaths, I'm inclined to think that the confluence of the IQ package as a whole makes you... call it `brighter' or `tastier' to the 'cats. As if your `emotional aura' were stronger or more pronounced. Possibly more stable." She shrugged. "I can't explain it any better than that, because I'm shooting blind. This is one area in which there is absolutely no existing body of data, to the best of my knowledge, and we don't even begin to have the tools to define or explain it. As a matter of fact, I feel like a woman trying to describe how a sound smells or a color feels.
   "But I've also come to suspect, over the last few years, that the changes in your link to Nimitz are also linked to the Meyerdahl Beta mods. Whatever it is that seems to make all Harringtons so much tastier to the 'cats is even more pronounced in you, and it may be that there are some unique aspects to Nimitz's abilities, as well. At any rate, for the first time in human-'cat history, you two have actually managed to establish a genuine, two-way bond. Or I think it's for the first time. Even if it is the result of the Meyerdahl Beta mods, the possibility has to exist that at least one or two totally unmodified humans could have developed the same ability. But it definitely exists for you and Nimitz," she said softly, "and, God, but I envy you that."
   The eyes hidden behind her sunglasses stared off into depths of time and space and imagination that only she could see, and then she shook herself.
   "I envy you," she repeated more naturally, "but tell me this: am I also right in believing that your link to Nimitz hasn't been impaired by whatever keeps him from making Samantha `hear' him?"
   "I think you are," Honor said cautiously.
   "And is it only emotions you feel?" Allison asked intently. "What I mean is, can you two communicate more than feelings or broad impressions?"
   "Yes, we can," Honor said quietly. "Whatever's happening, it's still in a state of change, and we seem to get bigger changes in moments of extreme stress." She smiled without humor. "If stress is a factor in its development, I suppose it's not surprising that there've been changes over the last ten or twelve years!"
   "I'd say that was probably at least a two or three thousand percent understatement," her mother said wryly.
   "At least," Honor agreed. "But what I meant to say was that it started out as simple, raw emotion, but we seem to have learned how to use the emotion as a carrier for more complex things since. We're still a long, long way from the sort of things two 'cats can communicate to one another. I know we are, because I can just feel the edges of it when Nimitz and another 'cat `talk' to each other. Or I could," she added bitterly, "before that bastard crippled him."
   She paused and drew a deep breath, then squared her shoulders and returned resolutely to her mother's question.
   "What we seem to be able to communicate most clearly, after emotions, are mental pictures. We're still working on that, and getting better at it. We can't seem to get actual words across the interface, but visual images are something else, and we've gotten a lot better at reading what the other one wanted to get across from the images."
   "Ah! That's exactly what I hoped to hear — I think!" Allison announced, and wrinkled her nose as Honor cocked her head once more. "Sorry. I didn't mean to sound cryptic. It's just that I think I may have come up with a way for Nimitz to be able to communicate more than just emotions to Samantha."
   "You have?" It was Honor's turn to sit fully upright. She turned to face her mother squarely, and it was hard to keep her inner tumult out of her own expression. She could taste Allison's concern over how she might react. She knew Allison would never have broached the subject if she hadn't genuinely believed she might have an answer, but she also knew Allison was fully aware of how terribly it would hurt if she raised Honor's hopes and then was unable to carry through to success.
   "I have. Back before we learned to correct things like deafness and myopia on a routine out-patient basis — for that matter, it was before we ever even got off Old Earth — there was something called the sign language of the deaf. There was more than one version of it, and I'm still researching it. That was one reason I wanted to come home to the Star Kingdom, to take a look in the archives here. Even if I can manage to find a complete dictionary for it, we'd have to modify it a good deal, I suppose, given that 'cats have one less finger on each true-hand than we do. But I don't see any reason we couldn't work out a system that would work for Nimitz and Sam."
   "But—" Honor began, and then bit her lip as the precursor of bitter disappointment flowed through her.
   "But no one has ever succeeded in teaching a 'cat to read," Allison finished for her, and chuckled. "We've just finished discussing the fact that the 'cats may have been a bit less than fully forthcoming with us as to the extent of their abilities, dear! And, no, I don't think that was the only problem. I can't quite picture a race of telepaths using language among themselves the way we do, and without some form of communication which would be at least a close analog to the language we use, I'd think the concept of an organized, written version of it wouldn't make a lot of sense to them. And, unfortunately, ours is the only one we can teach them, since we're not telepaths and don't have a clue as to how to `speak' theirs.
   "On the other hand, no one's tried to teach a 'cat to read in over two hundred T-years, Honor, because everyone agrees that it's been conclusively demonstrated that you can't. That's been one of the sticking points for the minority which continues to insist that treecats aren't truly `intelligent'—in the human sense, at least.
   "But none of the people who tried earlier had your sort of link. And unless my impression is completely wrong, the 'cats' ability to understand spoken English has improved dramatically since Stephanie Harrington's day. They have to have mastered at least the rudiments of semantics, syntax, and the rules of grammar, because if they hadn't, anything we said to them would still just be mouth noises as far as they were concerned, and that clearly isn't the case, now is it?"
   "No," Honor admitted.
   "What I'm hoping is that the 'cats' increased facility in understanding spoken English indicates a fundamental improvement in their ability to understand the concepts of a spoken — or written — language... and that the unique nature of your link with Nimitz may give you an edge that will let you take those concepts that tiny bit further needed to teach him to sign."
   "I don't know, Mother," Honor said slowly. "It sounds logical... assuming your basic read on the process is accurate. But even if you're right about Nimitz and me, I'd have to be able to teach it to Sam for it to do any good."
   "No doubt. But I'd be extremely surprised if Nimitz is the only 'cat in the universe who could tap into whatever it is the two of you do. I don't mean you could get the idea across easily or completely, but neither Nimitz nor Sam is stupid, Honor. In fact, I suspect they may be brighter than even you and I would be ready to believe, even now. More to the point, they're a mated pair, and they both know you very well indeed. Success certainly isn't guaranteed, but I think you'd have a shot at it. Probably a good one, especially once the two of them figure out what you're trying to do. Even I can see how badly it hurts Sam to be unable to `hear' anything Nimitz says. If she catches on to the notion that you're trying to teach them a way to fix that, however imperfectly, compared to outright telepathy, I think you'll find she's as motivated a student as you could hope for."
   "It would be wonderful to find a way for him to actually talk to her again," Honor agreed almost wistfully, and her mother laughed.
   "Honor, you ninny!" she said as her daughter looked at her in surprise. "You're not thinking clearly," she scolded. "Of course the immediate object is to give Nimitz and Sam a way to talk to one another, but hasn't it occurred to you that if you teach them to sign, you'll have to learn how, too? And that if they can communicate with each other that way, they can also communicate with you?"
   Honor gawked at her, and Allison laughed again, eyes dancing.
   "Not only that, but they're telepaths, Honor... and there's nothing at all wrong with Sam's `transmitter.' So if you teach her, I imagine she'd have an excellent chance of teaching other 'cats. And if she does that, while you and I teach their humans..."
   Her voice trailed off. She pulled off her sunglasses, and the two of them stared at one another as Manticore-A began to slide finally and completely below the horizon.


   "Good morning, My Lord."
   "Mr. Baird." Samuel Mueller nodded to the dark-haired, dark-eyed man in his study and then waved at a chair.
   "Please be seated," he invited, with much more congeniality than he showed most people who visited him in the middle of the night. Of course, most people hadn't managed to pump nine million traceless austens into the Opposition's war chest. He had to be careful how he spread those funds around lest too much money in any one spot get questions asked, but it freed up his legitimate contributions enormously. It was too early yet to predict the full impact of the media blitz he and his fellows were planning, but so far their closely coordinating candidates were on a pace to outspend their less organized opponents by a margin of almost two to one.
   "Thank you." Baird settled into the indicated chair and crossed his legs. He seemed to have become considerably more comfortable with Mueller since their first meeting. Indeed, he hadn't even turned a hair over Sergeant Hughes' presence.
   "You said it was important we meet," Mueller noted, and Baird nodded.
   "Yes, My Lord. First, I wanted to discuss additional funding arrangements with you. My organization has just come into a small windfall — one which would allow us to contribute another three-quarters of a million austens to your campaign funds, assuming we can do so without attracting the Sword's attention."
   "Three-quarters of a million?" Mueller scratched his chin thoughtfully, managing to keep the elation from his expression. "Ummm. I think we can handle that. We have a mass rally in Coleman Steading week after next. It's an outdoor picnic, with entertainment, and we're expecting several thousand people. Most of them wouldn't be able to contribute more than a few austens under normal circumstances, but enough of them are members of our team that I think we could pass the money through them. It would have to be in cash, though. As long as it's in cash, they can always tell anyone who asks that they were keeping it at home under the mattress because they didn't trust banks, and no one can prove they weren't. Electronic trails are much harder to hide."
   "I believe we can make it in cash," Baird agreed. "Actually, we'd prefer that ourselves. As you say, breaking the transfer trail protects all of us."
   "Good!" Mueller beamed, and Baird smiled back. But then his smile faded, and he uncrossed his legs to lean forward in his chair.
   "In the meantime, My Lord, there's another point which needs to be considered. Were you aware that the Protector intends to introduce an additional bundle of reforms and associated measures before the next Conclave of Steadholders?"
   "I've heard some talk of it," Mueller said a bit cautiously. "No details, I'm afraid. The Protector's become much too good at keeping secrets for my peace of mind. Unfortunately—" he shrugged "—he and Prestwick have almost completely replaced the appointees the Keys had installed before the `Restoration.' While they remained in place, and remembered who they owed their positions and loyalty to, we still got occasional but valuable peeks inside the Protector's Council and the Sword ministries. Since then—"
   He raised one hand, palm uppermost, then made a throwing away gesture.
   "I understand, My Lord," Baird said sympathetically. "But while we never had the access the Keys originally had, we haven't lost as much of it since the `Restoration,' either. We still get fairly frequent reports, and while they're from considerably lower in the chain than the sorts of sources you and your fellow Keys might have counted on earlier, combining them gives us a reasonably accurate picture of what Benjamin plans. And what he plans this time around we find particularly disturbing."
   "Ah?" Mueller sat more upright, and Baird smiled without humor.
   "You've heard about San Martin's petition to join the Star Kingdom, My Lord?"
   "Yes," Mueller said slowly but with a hint of asperity. "Yes, of course I have. It's been in all the 'faxes for several weeks now."
   "I know it has, My Lord." Baird sounded almost apologetic. "My question was a way of introducing the topic. I didn't intend to suggest you aren't alert to such events."
   Mueller grunted and nodded for him to continue, and Baird settled back again.
   "As I'm sure you know from those 'fax accounts, My Lord, both houses of the San Martin Congress have requested admission as the Star Kingdom's fourth world. The vote in favor of seeking annexation was much higher than most outsiders would have expected, I think, especially given how strenuously the San Martinos had demanded a return to local autonomy. But when you look carefully at the exact language of their request, it becomes evident that they aren't really giving up that autonomy. As we understand the proposed arrangements, San Martin would become a member world of the Star Kingdom, with a planetary governor proposed by the Queen and approved by the San Martin Senate. The governor would head a Governor's Council, with members selected in equal numbers by the Queen and by the Planetary Assembly. The planetary president would automatically be the chairman of the council — in effect, the Prime Minister of San Martin in the Crown's name — and the citizens of San Martin would elect two sets of legislators: one to sit in the Assembly, working with the governor and his council as the local legislative body, and one to sit in the House of Commons back on Manticore. Several questions still require attention, like whether or not the Queen will create a peerage for San Martin, but essentially what they're proposing is a relationship in which the planet would be integrated into the Star Kingdom, but only with several layers of insulation designed to protect San Martin's existing domestic institutions and prevent them from simply disappearing into the Manticore's maw, as it were."
   Mueller nodded. He'd already known all of that, but he felt no impatience at being told over again. Mostly because of how impressed he was with Baird's summation. It was unusual for most of Mueller's allies, even (or perhaps especially) among the Keys, to look beyond domestic politics, since it was the threat to their traditions and way of life which had motivated them in the first place. Even those who ever got their noses out of Grayson tended to restrict themselves to matters which concerned their own world's position in and obligations to the Manticoran Alliance and the waging of the war against Haven. Very few of them had any attention to spare for matters further afield than that, and the fact that Baird, whose organization, by his own admission, was composed mainly of members of the lower classes, had analyzed the San Martin proposals in such depth came as a considerable surprise.
   "I apologize for restating things I'm certain you already knew, My Lord," Baird told him, "but there was a reason for my redundancy. You see, according to our sources, San Martin is likely to figure rather largely in the `associated measures' the Sword plans to submit to the Keys. Which is because Chancellor Prestwick and certain other members of the Protector's Council are urging the Protector to seek similar status for Grayson."
   "What?!" Mueller came half-way to his feet. He froze there, staring at Baird in complete shock, and the other man nodded soberly.
   "We have similar reports from several sources, My Lord," he said quietly. "There are minor differences between them. There always are. But the core information is the same in all of them. Apparently the Chancellor and his allies believe that if the Star Kingdom can annex San Martin under an arrangement which guarantees that the planet's local institutions will remain largely untouched, it can do the same in Grayson's case."
   "That's preposterous! Lunacy!" Mueller shook himself like an enraged bull. "The Alliance and our forced association with its members already threatens all our most sacred institutions. Surely even that idiot Prestwick has to see that any closer association would spell the death knell of our entire way of life! We would be secularized, dragged into the same sort of degenerate society and lax morals as the damned Manticorans!"
   And the Keys' power and authority would also be drastically curbed, he thought furiously. Benjamin Mayhew's "reforms" had already immensely bolstered the power of the Sword to intervene in matters which ought to be left to the control of the steadholders. Always in the name of fairness and uniform, universal application of those reforms rather than to encompass the gradual, systematic destruction of the Keys' historic autonomy, of course... not that Mueller or any of his allies were fooled. But if the accursed Manticorans were given an open invitation to poke their devil-spawned noses into domestic affairs which were none of their damned business, things would only get worse. And the forced association of Grayson's steaders, and especially Grayson's youth, with the corrupt society of Manticore, with all its material wealth and temptations, would have catastrophic effects on the stability of the planet's social order.
   "My friends and I certainly agree with you, My Lord." Baird's voice was far calmer than Mueller's. "But I think that may be the entire point. The Chancellor does know what it would mean for our traditional institutions... and that's precisely what he actually wants. All the assurances of local autonomy and the inviolability of our religion and institutions would be no more than camouflage for his true intention: to `reform' our world right into a slavish duplicate of the Star Kingdom of Manticore."
   "Damn him," Mueller hissed. "Damn his soul to Hell!"
   "Please, My Lord. I realize this has come as a shock to you, and I, too, am dismayed and angered by the potential for our way of life's destruction, but the Tester and Comforter tell us we must not lose our own souls to hate."
   Mueller glared at the other man for several tense seconds, then closed his eyes and sucked in an enormous breath. He held it for another five or ten seconds, then exhaled noisily, opened his eyes, and nodded choppily.
   "You're right, I suppose," he said, and actually managed to sound as if he meant it. "And I'll try to to remember that I ought to be able to hate the consequences of another's acts without letting that drive me into casting curses upon another child of God's immortal soul. But it won't be easy, Mr. Baird. Not this time."
   "I know, My Lord," Baird said almost gently. "And my initial reaction was much the same as yours. But we must not allow anger, however justified, to cloud our thinking. It's far more important to prevent such things than to rail at them after they've come to pass, and preventing them will require us to approach them rationally, without passion."
   "You're right," Mueller repeated, this time with true sincerity. And Baird was right. In fact, Mueller was deeply impressed by his ability to step back from the anger he must also feel and remember where his true duty lay. The steadholder was discovering yet more depths to the man, and he felt a sudden surge of gratitude that Baird's organization had approached him.
   "Since we've known about this longer than you have, My Lord, we were able to give it a great deal of thought before I asked to see you. It seems to us that the first and most important thing to do is to confirm the accuracy of our reports. Once we know for certain that the Chancellor and his allies are, in fact, suggesting that we join the Star Kingdom, we can publicly denounce the idea and begin to warn and arouse the people. But it's also remotely possible the Protector and his advisors have deliberately fed us a false rumor. That they want us to denounce their plans when, in fact, they have no intention of suggesting anything of the sort. Not openly or immediately, at any rate."
   "In order to discredit us by making us look like hysterics who see plots where there are none," Mueller murmured. "Yes. Yes, I can see the possibilities. On the other hand, I doubt Mayhew or Prestwick would make the attempt. Their efforts so far have been aimed at manipulating the common steaders into believing in and supporting their reforms, not at manipulating us into taking false public positions." The steadholder snorted harshly. "And it's been working," he admitted bitterly. "They haven't needed to manipulate us into false steps as long as they can lie to our steaders effectively and deceive them into believing the Sword truly cares what happens to them. Or their souls."
   "It would be a new strategic departure for them," Baird agreed. "And, over all, we share your analysis. But we need to be positive before we speak openly, and if we can secure any proof of how cynically they're maneuvering to bring this about, so much the better. The more specific and pointed we can make our warnings, the more difficult the Sword will find it to deflect the people's justifiable anger. What we need, My Lord, is what they used to call `a smoking gun,' proof that the Sword truly intends to betray the faith the people have placed in this so-called `Mayhew Restoration'!"
   "You're right," Mueller agreed again, and it never crossed his mind to consider how completely Baird, the man who had been supposed to be no more than a source of funds and a tool to dance to his piping, had dominated the entire conference. "But how can we confirm it?" the steadholder wondered aloud. "As I already said, Mayhew and his ministers have gotten altogether too good at keeping secrets."
   "We're working on it, My Lord. One reason my associates asked me to speak to you was in the hope you might think of some way to acquire that proof. It never hurts to put as many brains as possible to work upon any puzzle the Tester lays before us."
   "No, it doesn't." Mueller sat fully back in his chair and rubbed his lower lip. "I'll certainly put my mind to it. And I have sources of my own who might be in a position to hear anything Prestwick or his crew drop in the wrong places. In the meantime, however, I think we ought to give some thought to the best way to proceed once we find that proof. Or, for that matter, how best to deal with the situation if we can confirm Prestwick's plans but can't provide the common folk with the sort of `smoking gun' you mentioned."
   "Agreed. Agreed." Baird rose. "As always, My Lord, you raise a valid point. And with your permission, I'd like to suggest that we stay in somewhat closer contact for the immediate future. Obviously, it remains important that we be... discreet in our contacts, but this latest possible move requires all who would oppose it to pool our information and coordinate our planning more fully than before, I think. Especially with the Keys scheduled to convene in little more than five months. If they do mean to introduce such a scheme, the new session would be the time for them to do it."
   "You're right," Mueller said positively, rising and walking Baird to the study door almost as if they were social equals. "Our usual means of arranging meetings is a bit clumsy for the sort of coordination we need to achieve," he went on. "Screen my steward, Buckeridge, tomorrow afternoon. By that time I'll have been able to have Sergeant Hughes here set up a secure channel no one with Planetary Security can trace."
   "I'm not certain there is such a thing," Baird said with a thin smile, glancing sideways at Hughes as he spoke.
   "I'm not either, really," Mueller replied. "But I intend it only as a way for us to reach one another to set up face-to-face meetings. I would neither ask nor want you to say anything on a com line, however secure I thought it was, which might compromise our plans, your organization, or myself."
   "In that case, My Lord, please do set it up. I'll screen your steward sometime late tomorrow afternoon to see what arrangements have been made. And in the meantime, I'll see if our sources have been able to learn any more about the Chancellor's plans."
   "An excellent idea," Mueller said, and paused in the hall outside the study. "Thank you very much, Mr. Baird," he said, and extended his hand. The other man clasped it firmly, and the steadholder gave him a grim smile. "Our Test may be a difficult one," he told Baird, "but I believe the Tester has seen fit to bring us together for a purpose, and we must not fail Him."
   "No," Baird said softly, squeezing his hand even more firmly. "No, we mustn't. And we won't fail Him, My Lord. Not this time."


   Vice Admiral of the Green Patricia Givens checked her chrono, then looked up with a small smile as the First Space Lord stepped into the Pit.
   The Pit was known to the rest of the universe as the Central War Room of the Royal Manticoran Navy, but no one who had spent time in it ever called it by its official name. The Pit was kept permanently on the cool and dim side, the better to encourage alertness among watch standers and to enhance the visibility of their displays. Most of the time, as now, the vast chamber actually was as calm and orderly as the dim lights and chill air might suggest to the casual observer. And, truth to tell, the Pit had never been able to match the frenzy which must, for example, have gripped the Western Alliance's war room under what had once been a huge chunk of granite called Cheyenne Mountain back on Old Earth during the Final War. Then again, no enemy had ever successfully invaded the Manticore Binary System, even on a high-speed, hit-and-run basis, so no one in the Pit had ever had the doubtful pleasure of seeing a deep penetrator, two-hundred-and-fifty-megaton warhead headed directly at them.
   And, Givens thought dryly, it's to be hoped we never will, I suppose. Of course, it was also to be hoped that no one would ever hit Basilisk.
   Unless that unthinkable (but carefully considered, here in the Pit, as part of its endless contingency planning) event occurred, the Pit never would be the site of split-second decisions. The sheer scale of interstellar combat precluded that sort of thing, for the speed at which messages and fleets moved through hyper, while starkly unimaginable in absolute terms, was scarcely a crawl beside the distances they must cross. There was always time to consider decisions here in the Pit, because no matter how quickly one made a decision, days or even weeks would go by before one's orders could reach their recipients and be acted upon.
   Yet that very leisure created a different and perhaps even more corrosive tension for the Denizens of the Pit, as the watch crews termed themselves with a certain morbid pride. It was very difficult for most human beings to avoid a sense of helplessness when they reflected on their responsibilities and considered the delay built into the information loop. It was their job to collate all available data, to make the best possible analyses and, on that basis, project the enemy's options and probable intentions for the handful of men and women charged with devising the Royal Manticoran Navy's responses and strategy. Yet the information which reached them was always out of date, and they knew it. Knew that the Allied fleets and task forces whose icons burned so steadily in the Pit's huge holo tank might no longer even exist. Might not have existed, in some cases, for weeks, or even longer.
   Even worse, perhaps, they knew their information on enemy deployments, ship movements, industrial mobilizations, diplomatic initiatives, propaganda, domestic unrest, and all the billion-and-one details which underpinned their appreciations of Peep capabilities at any given moment was even more out of date than the data on their own units' positions. It had to be that way, because even the reports of their own scouting units had to first be passed back to the scouts' local HQs before they could be collected and dispatched to Manticore by courier boat. Information from other sources, ranging from those as sinister as covert ops networks maintained on Peep worlds to those as innocuous as simple listening watches on PubIn or clipping files from neutral news services, took even longer to reach them, and it was those other sources which frequently gave them their best look inside their enemies' thoughts.
   And because all that was true, they all too often felt like ground car drivers on glaze ice, knowing that however orderly things looked at any given moment, slithering chaos might burst upon them in the next. As had happened when Esther McQueen struck so deep into the Alliance's rear, for example. That event had been particularly traumatizing for the Denizens of the Pit, because they'd been so universally of the opinion that it would never happen, and had so advised their superiors.
   Superiors like Patricia Givens, who'd shared their view, and Sir Thomas Caparelli, upon whose broad shoulders rested the greatest burden of all: that of making decisions based on the data every one of them knew was out of date. Givens felt a special kind of terror whenever she thought about that burden. Not only was she, as head of the Office of Naval Intelligence, the officer specifically charged with providing the data Caparelli needed, she was also Second Space Lord. In the event that anything happened to him, it would be her job to make decisions until the civilians got around to appointing a new First Space Lord, and it was a job she hoped passionately to avoid. Permanently.