"I don't know that you should be," Elizabeth said slowly. "If I'd felt certain one way or the other, I would have told you before this. There's just... something. Ariel and I discussed it while Benjamin was changing, and he can't nail it down any better than that. Of course, we're still learning to sign, but I don't think that was the problem. According to him—" she ran one hand gently down the 'cat's spine "—Mueller has a lot on his mind right now. He's nervous and angry, and more than a little scared about something, and he doesn't care for me at all. But whatever he's angry or scared about isn't associated with me. Or, rather, it isn't directly associated with me. I'm mixed up in it somewhere, but more as an additional thing for him to be scared about than because of any threat he poses to me." She shrugged and grinned crookedly. "It's just a little humbling to discover that the 'cats aren't quite as all-knowing as some of us had imagined. Ariel can pick up a lot from other people's emotions, but he can't establish direct links between those emotions and specific individuals or thoughts unless those links are very strong... and in the forefront of the other person's mind, at that."
   She looked at Honor, and it was Honor's turn to shrug.
   "It's pretty much that way with me and Nimitz," she agreed, but she frowned as she said it. She hadn't really noticed it before, but now that she thought back, it struck her that Mueller had gone to some lengths to avoid her. It was almost as if he were deliberately staying away from her and Nimitz, and she wondered, suddenly, just how well briefed he truly was on 'cats in general... and on her and Nimitz in particular.
   "It's a bit sharper and more specific in our case, I think," she went on, and heads nodded. Everyone in this room had been cleared for the truth about her bond with Nimitz. "But you're right. Unless it's a very strong link and one the other person is thinking about at that particular moment, specific connections are hard to make."
   "Um." Benjamin sat back in his chair and rubbed his upper lip while he thought, then shrugged. "I can think of quite a few reasons Mueller would feel... uneasy in your presence, Elizabeth. Or yours, Honor. I'm not sure about this `scared' business, though. Unless it's the threat to his plans your visit has proven? You have brought down a lot of scheming and set a huge financial investment pretty much at naught in less than a week."
   "I don't know." Elizabeth sighed. "I suppose that could be it, but Ariel says he felt scared, not just uneasy or frustrated or upset."
   "Excuse me, Your Majesty," Major Rice put in diffidently, "but it may be that he's managed to piss off—" Rice stopped abruptly, glanced apologetically at Elizabeth, Honor, and Shemais, and went beet red.
   "Excuse me, please," he repeated, with a rather different emphasis, then drew a deep breath as Shemais hid a smile behind a raised hand. "What I meant to suggest," he went on doggedly, "is that we—" a wave at the uniform he wore indicated who "we" was "—have been keeping an eye on him for a lot of reasons, and it could be that certain associates are turning out to be a little nastier than he thought." He glanced at the Protector, then looked back at Elizabeth as Benjamin gave an almost imperceptible nod.
   "I'd planned to brief the Prime Minister and Colonel Shemais about this later this evening, Your Majesty, but since you've brought Mueller up, it might be better to go ahead and tell you, as well. We have several domestic concerns about Mueller, and there's an ongoing investigation into some of his activities."
   Honor's eyes widened. Unlike any of the visiting Manticorans, she knew what was involved in investigating one of Grayson's Keys. It was hardly something the Sword would undertake lightly, both because of the evidentiary standards required to initiate such a move and the risk of political damage if it became known. But if Benjamin had issued a Sword finding of the probability that a Key was guilty of high treason, the only legal basis for a "black" investigation of a steadholder, then perhaps there was a very good reason for those bleak spikes of hatred she'd felt coming from him whenever Mueller's name was mentioned.
   "One of the things we've been looking into is the huge amount of money he's spending," Rice went on. "We have strong evidence that he's funneling illegal campaign contributions to Opposition candidates in the upcoming elections. That's a serious offense, but it falls short of the Constitutional definition of treason. The Sword can preemptively remove a steadholder for treason, unless a two-thirds vote of the Keys overrides him. But for the misdemeanors and malfeasance we can actually prove, a full impeachment hearing, where it would take a two-thirds vote to remove him before he could face criminal charges, would be required. We'd like to avoid that, so we've been digging along several other lines, as well, though I feel confident we'll settle for impeachment in the end if we have to.
   "But despite the progress we've made, we still haven't been able to ID some of the people who've been passing funds to him in the first place. Obviously, they represent a large, well-funded organization of some sort, though, and I suspect the Steadholder has just discovered that he doesn't control them as completely as he'd thought. We don't have any hard evidence to that effect, and our best information channel was shut down rather permanently a few months ago, but I've felt from the beginning that they were a lot more dangerous than he thought they were. And if they're unhappy about the effect your visit is having, they may just have decided to turn the heat up on him. He might well even see them as a physical threat. I'd like to think he might, anyway. Do you think that could explain what your friend's been picking up from him?"
   Elizabeth looked down at Ariel, and the 'cat sat upright in her lap to sign briefly but energetically at her. She laughed and nodded, then looked back at Rice.
   "Ariel says, `He's scared as a treehopper on hunting day,' Major."
   "How sad," Rice murmured with a beatific smile.
   "I must say, however," Cromarty put in, fingering the unfinished lump of nickel iron in the beautifully worked cage of golden filagree which hung from his belt, "that this `memory stone' custom of yours is a lovely one, Your Grace. I wish we had one like it back home, though I suppose we're too hopelessly secular for it. Whatever else he may be up to, I'm grateful to Steadholder Mueller for introducing me to it."
   "Even Samuel Mueller has his moments I suppose," Benjamin conceded. "And you're right. It is a deeply meaningful ritual among us, and whatever I may think of Mueller, I owe him a debt for reminding me of it, as well. It's time I cast a memory of my own into the stars, I think. Especially now, when it's so fitting to remember all the people who have given their lives in this war."
   "Absolutely," Elizabeth agreed, gently touching the matching memory stone at her own belt. "Absolutely."


   Honor looked away from her heads-up display and grinned as Nimitz registered his protest. The 'cat was curled into his own, custom-designed flight couch, mounted beside hers on Jamie Candless' flight deck, and his ears were half-flat as the plaintive strains of one of her flight engineer's favorite songs wafted over the runabout's speakers.
   "Mommas, don't let you babies grow up to be spacers..."
   She listened for a moment, then sent a wave of agreement back to the treecat. Wayne Alexander had settled in quite nicely on Grayson. Better in some ways, in fact, than Honor would ever have anticipated. He seemed fascinated by the tenets of the Church of Humanity Unchained, and she suspected he might well convert to the Grayson faith in the not too distant future.
   Not that he didn't retain a goodly number of rough edges. The intractability and stubborn intellectual honesty which had gotten him sent to Hell in the first place were still very much a part of him, and he loved a vigorous debate. That much the Graysons found good, for it was a fundamental part of their natures, too, as they applied the doctrine of the Test to their lives. What drove some of his new neighbors absolutely mad, however, was his ability to argue both sides of any question, often in the same debate, with perfectly good cheer, just to keep things moving in suitably lively fashion.
   But one part of Grayson's culture which he'd adopted enthusiastically was its classical music, which was based on something from Old Earth which had once been called "Country and Western." Honor had been rather taken aback by it when she first met it, and it had taken her years to acquire any true taste for it. By now, she was actually quite fond of certain composers, but Alexander's allegiance was given to the Primitive School, and she'd never much cared for the Primitives.
   "... spacers love smokey old bar rooms and clear crystal vacuum..."
   "Sorry, Stinker," she told Nimitz under her breath, "but I did tell him he could program the entertainment banks." The 'cat gave her a pained look, and she grinned. "All right. All right! I'll talk to him about it, promise!"
   Nimitz sniffed and groomed his whiskers at her, and she chuckled, then turned back to her controls.
   The Jamie Candless had proven all she'd hoped for, though she'd had precious little time to play with her new toy. Despite her eleven thousand two hundred-ton mass, Candless was almost as maneuverable as a pinnace, and Silverman's had gotten permission from the Navy to build in a next-to-last-generation military compensator. They never would have gotten it if they'd been building the ship for anyone else, but this time Honor had decided to go right ahead and trade on who she was, and the result was a ship which could crank close to seven hundred gravities. Without one of the lightweight fission piles used in the new LACs, Candless had precious little internal volume to spare, and her maximum designed passenger load was only eight, but she was also designed with the latest system-management AIs. In an emergency, Honor could have managed the entire runabout by herself from the flight deck, but she was too experienced a spacer try it except in an emergency. Besides, Alexander would have had a fit if she'd tried to take "his" boat away from him!
   She chuckled again, then leaned back and surveyed the jewel-speckled vista of eternity through the bubble armorplast canopy. That was a feature Silverman's — and Andrew LaFollet — had argued about. Silverman's had wanted the flight deck in its "traditional" place, which meant the approxiate center of ass, because their designers were traditionalists and that was where flight decks were supposed to be. LaFollet, on the other hand, had wanted it there because the much smaller cockpit Honor had insisted upon was too small to cram in a flight chair for anyone but Honor and Nimitz. Which meant, of course, that there was no way he could watch her back when she sat at the controls.
   Honor had actually sympathized with her armsman rather more than with Silverman's, but she had been adamant. As she'd pointed out to Andrew, his presence could hardly affect anything which was likely to pose any sort of threat to her from inside her cockpit, so there was no real point in his standing guard over her while in flight. And much as she might have emphasized with him, she'd also pointed out rather sternly that a traditional flight deck would have restricted her view of the same displays which formed her work-a-day shipboard world. Candless was for her to play with, a way to get away from that same work-a-day world, and cramped as the runabout's passenger space might be, there was plenty of room for Andrew to ride along with Wayne. So she'd demanded the pinnacelike modification, and she was glad she had, even if Andrew had been on the grumpy side for days afterward.
   The roof of Candless' wedge was clearly visible, stretching above and ahead of her and extending for kilometers to either side, and she watched the stars ahead of her abruptly shift position and color as the wedge's leading edge swept across them. The focused gravity of the impeller band clawed at photons with a force of almost a hundred thousand MPS², and stars red-shifted visibly as it interposed itself between them and Honor. It was something she'd seen countless times, but it was also something she never tired of, which was why she'd insisted on building a ringside seat for it into Candless.
   She checked her instruments again. For her, the current trip was play time, a treat she'd decided to give herself because she'd earned it, but for others it was anything but a vacation, and she looked at the two golden icons on her small plot. They were only a few hundred kilometers clear of Candless, but nothing else was anywhere close to either of them, and a sphere of Shrike-B LACs held station on them, two hundred thousand klicks out, to make certain nothing else could be.
   Queen Elizabeth had announced her desire to tour the Blackbird Yard even before she left for Yeltsin's Star. There had been lots of reasons for her to make the trip out to Blackbird, most political, but some personal. Blackbird had been the site of the battle in which Honor's small squadron effectively wiped out the Masadan Navy eleven years earlier, which made it a logical place for the Queen of Manticore to visit. It was also the place where the survivors of HMS Madrigal's crew had been systematically raped and murdered by their Masadan captors, and that made it a place Elizabeth Winton the woman felt a deeply personal obligation to visit. And the yard itself was a cooperative venture, encouraged by the most-favored-nation status the Crown had extended to Grayson, between the Hauptman Cartel, Sky Domes of Grayson, and the Sword's Office of Financial Development, which made it a perfect symbol of all the Alliance had accomplished. Besides, Elizabeth had heard a great deal about the Blackbird Yard from William Alexander, and she wanted to see it for herself.
   The original plan had been for her to make the trip along with Benjamin Mayhew aboard HMS Queen Adrienne, the yacht in which she had traveled to Yeltsin's Star. That scheme had been altered, however, in light of how extremely well the ministerial-level meetings were going. Cromarty and Prestwick had corresponded often, but this was the first time they'd actually met, and they'd quickly established a congenial relationship. The Earl of Gold Peak had established an almost equally good relationship with Lawrence Hodges, Benjamin's Councilor for Interstellar Affairs, and the four of them had been closeted with their staffs virtually nonstop since the Manticorans' arrival.
   Elizabeth was glad she'd insisted Cromarty and her uncle bring along complete staffs, even if doing so had packed Queen Adrienne to capacity. The Prime Minister had argued, at first. Few people, even at the Admiralty, had counted on how rapidly and completely Eighth Fleet was going to break the Peeps' front or how deeply White Haven would cut. And even the handful of optimists who might have predicted anything of the sort had never expected the coup (or whatever it had been) which had brought Oscar Saint-Just to absolute power. Which meant none of them had counted on the number of military and foreign policy decisions the Alliance was going to have to make very, very soon. The fortuitous timing which had brought the two rulers universally regarded as the heart and soul of the Alliance into direct, face-to-face contact at such a moment could not be allowed to slip past unutilized, and that had turned Cromarty's and Gold Peak's "vacation" into an exhausting grind of meetings, conferences, and planning sessions.
   In fact, it was obvious they weren't going to get to everything that needed attention within the time constraints of Elizabeth's planned visit however hard they tried, and they, like Prestwick and Hodges, resented every distraction from their workload. Both Manticorans were scheduled to accompany Elizabeth and Benjamin to Blackbird, however, and Elizabeth was determined that they would enjoy at least a small break. Some souls might have been hardy enough to argue with her, but the Duke of Cromarty was too wise for that so a compromise had been evolved. He, Gold Peak, Prestwick, Hodges, and their staffs would make the trip aboard Queen Adrienne, which would let them confer to their hearts' content en route, then break for a few hours to tour the yard.
   That would keep everyone more or less happy. Unfortunately, it would also pack Queen Adrienne to the deckheads, so Benjamin had invited Elizabeth to make the trip as his guest aboard Grayson One, instead. The Grayson vessel was smaller than Queen Adrienne, and not quite so palatial, but she still had plenty of gold plating in the heads. And despite her smaller size, she actually had more room, since she wasn't going to be cluttered with secretaries, assistant secretaries, under-assistant secretaries, and special assistants to the assistant secretaries. Elizabeth and her Aunt Caitrin, who had accompanied her husband on the trip, had accepted the invitation. Although Duchess Winton-Henke had once been Elizabeth's regent and remained an important member of her inner circle of advisers, she no longer held official office and had been fervently grateful for the opportunity to escape the ministers' crushing workload for at least one afternoon. At this very moment, Honor felt certain, Benjamin and his guests were comfortably ensconced in one of Grayson One's luxurious salons enjoying themselves immensely. Elizabeth's cousin Calvin, alas, was not, for he was stuck aboard Queen Adrienne as his father's confidential secretary.
   Honor had also been invited aboard Grayson One, and she'd been tempted to accept. She'd known both Caitrin and Anson Winton-Henke for decades, ever since Mike Henke had invited her home from the Academy on a visit, and she hadn't seen as much of either of them as she wished. But she'd begged off in the end. She'd had Candless for less than two months, and the opportunity to make the trip aboard her had been too much to turn down. One or two members of Benjamin's staff had been a bit miffed over the "insult to the Protector," but Benjamin had only laughed and shooed her off with orders to "Go play with your toy and enjoy yourself. But don't be late for the tour of the yard!"
   She grinned now in memory. She'd done exactly as he'd told her to, like a dutiful vassal, especially the bit about enjoying herself. Candless was even more responsive than she'd hoped, with all the truly essential flight controls located on the military-style stick. Not only was that a configuration with which any Navy small craft pilot was intimately familiar, but it also allowed a woman whose left arm still disobeyed orders from time to time to fly her bird with her single natural (and reliable!) hand. It was also a configuration which simply begged any pilot to put the runabout through the same sort of maneuvers pinnaces routinely executed, and to Honor's delight, Candless came very close to matching the nimbleness of the much smaller craft. She had no doubt that the bridge crews of Queen Adrienne and Grayson One had watched her antics with amusement — and, she thought smugly, eat-your-heart-out envy —as she danced and cavorted about their base course. But they were getting close to Blackbird now. She just had time for one last tango with the stars before she had to slow back down and be good again, and she watched the gauges on the holographic HUD spin upward as she fed power to the nodes once more.
* * *
   Captain Gavin Bledsoe sat in his own command chair, watching the icons on his plot move steadily closer, and an odd, euphoric terror gripped him. He, too, saw the shell of light attack craft maintaining careful watch on Grayson One and Queen Adrienne, and he'd heard enough about the recently declassified craft to know how lethal they were. He didn't know any details about armament, power plants, or electronics; the Alliance wasn't in the habit of handing out that sort of information in the middle of a war. But he knew his ore freighter could never evade them if they came after him.
   And it was extremely likely that they would be coming after him very shortly.
   It was knowing that which waked his terror, but it was the reason they would come after him which woke his euphoria. It was not given to many men to know, absolutely and without doubt, that they were about to die in the name of God. Bledsoe and his three-man crew had that knowledge. They had consecrated themselves to God's purpose twelve years before, when their home world was conquered, the true Faith was cast down, and the Abomination of the Desolation had come to their planet and people. The Harlot of Satan had triumphed over the children of God, but now she and her apostate Grayson puppet had come within Bledsoe's reach — within God's reach — at last, and if he and his comrades must die to strike down the leaders of the alliance of corruption which had perverted all which should have been good and holy, so be it. To die in God's service, bringing down the temple upon His enemies like Samson, was a priceless gift such frail and sinful vessels could receive only of His grace, for their own acts could never have earned the right to so glorious an end to their mortal existence.
   In a way, it irritated Bledsoe that he and his fellows had been forced, even indirectly, to share this supreme moment with unbelievers, yet there'd never been much choice about that. The Manticoran oppressors of Masada had blathered away about their desire to bring their victims the "blessings" of more advanced technology. Their beguiling blandishments had deceived many into abandoning the stony resistance with which the true Faithful confronted their conquerors, and in his more charitable moments, Bledsoe had to admit that one could hardly blame those weaker souls for falling by the wayside. The Harlot's servants were patient, and careful to troll their lures before the most vulnerable. New medical science for the elderly and ill. The abomination of their "prolong" treatments to extend lives centuries beyond the natural span God had decreed for His children. New schools to teach the wonders of their soul-destroying technology... and brainwash the next generation into acceptance of their evil, secularized universe.
   They swore no one would be compelled to accept any of their "gifts," but they lied. Oh, they never marched anyone in at gun point and forced them to partake, but even the best men were weak without the rod of God's discipline. The Manticorans and their Grayson puppets knew the true way to encompass the final destruction of the Faithful lay not through force of arms, which would only create martyrs and make weak men strong in God's service, but through seduction. Through slow, gradual erosion. Good men, men who should be pillars of the Faith, could be tempted by the offer of medicines to heal a sick wife... or the promise of centuries of life for a child. But with every step any individual took along the path of sin, all of God's Faithful were weakened.
   Bledsoe and his fellows knew that. Had it been possible, they would have spat in the faces of the infidels and rejected all their evil enticements. Yet it had not been possible. Indeed, even some among the staunchest of the Faithful had been forced by circumstance and duty to God to pretend to embrace the abomination.
   The occupation of Masada had never been as all-pervasive as the occupiers no doubt wished it could have been. One simply could not land sufficient troops to garrison and patrol a planet of five or six billion people, which no doubt helped explain the occupiers' strategy of seduction. The orbital bases which gleamed in Masada's night skies, bristling with kinetic weapons and stuffed with battle-armored Marines who could be inserted directly from orbit to destroy any who came out in open opposition, were hardly the same thing as day-to-day contact with their subjugated victims. The fallen among the Faithful who willingly collaborated with their conquerors in the systematic desecration of God's ordained way of life were another matter. There were enough of them, and they knew their native world well enough, to establish an effective planet-wide police force, but they had been slow to emerge... at first, at least. By the time enough of them had sold their souls to the Harlot, the true core of the Faithful's strength had disappeared underground, where not even traitors could find it. Many of the Council of Elders' most critical records had been destroyed before the Manticorans could secure them, and men like Shackleton, who'd served the Council's intelligence services and the Office of the Inquisition well, had simply disappeared.
   Those men, like Bledsoe and his crew, were the reforged Sword of God. It was a different Sword, one which must be wielded in a more surreptitious fashion, but its edge was even keener, for the dross of the old Sword had been refined away in the holocaust of conquest. But there must be others behind the Sword, the men who supplied the sinews to make it effective, and those men had been compelled to pretend to embrace the corruption. They'd taken advantage of the new "industrial partnerships" the occupiers and their collaborationist puppet government had offered to entice the unwary. In many cases, they'd funded their own sides of the "partnerships" with tiny portions of the enormous wealth the Council of Elders had tucked away over the centuries, and none of the apostate or their foreign allies had realized their true purpose.
   Bledsoe didn't know who had originated the initial strategy. He supposed it must be the present Council of Elders. Although forced underground and compelled to conceal their identities, the Elders remained the legitimate government of Masada and the guardians of the Faithful. They also controlled the secret war chest the old Council had established, and they'd diverted those funds shrewdly, establishing true sons of the Faith in critical positions in the new Masadan industrial complex. None were in position to gain access to modern weapons. The occupiers were too smart to allow any weapons production in the Endicott System. But they were able to establish other useful contacts. Like the one with Randal Donizetti.
   Bledsoe had always disliked Donizetti. The man was an abrasive, loud-mouthed, irreverent infidel who didn't even pretend to respect the Faith. But he was also a citizen of the Solarian League and an established interstellar merchant (actually, Bledsoe was pretty certain, a smuggler) with outwardly legitimate trading interests on Masada and in the League. Despite his distaste, Bledsoe knew it was only Donizetti who'd made the final plan workable, for he was the one who'd managed to procure the Solarian hardware it required. In many ways, Bledsoe wished they could have used Manticoran or Havenite equipment, for there would have been something deeply satisfying about using the technology of the infidel powers whose confrontation had laid the Faithful low. The delays built into actually delivering the hardware to the Endicott System would have been shorter, as well, since Donizetti would have had to travel so much shorter a distance. Unfortunately, his suppliers were all in the League, and it was probably just as well. Slow it may have been, but the indirect, laborious delivery of the needed tools had evaded the scrutiny of any of the infidel and apostate intelligence services.
   And now all was ready. The occupiers' insistence on "building bridges" between Endicott and Yeltsin's Star had been enormously helpful in bringing that about. Denied any military industry, the yards in orbit around Masada had been turning out commercial designs, including the new asteroid extraction plants and freighters for both Yeltsin's Star and the nascent deep-space industry of Endicott. Bledsoe's own command was one of those freighters, a big, slow sublight ore hauler, with none of the greyhound leanness of a warship.
   But he was not unarmed.
   Gavin Bledsoe let his fingertips caress the alphanumeric keypad on his command chair's arm. His ship had been unarmed when he arrived in Grayson space... in pieces. It would have taken the sublight ship years to make the trip from Endicott to Yeltsin's Star under his own power, and so his components had been shipped in aboard hyper-capable freighters and assembled on-site. It was hardly the most economical way to go about it, but the local yards were swamped with military construction, and the entire operation had been designed as a Manticoran-subsidized ploy to encourage Masadan industrial concerns to establish working relationships with Grayson ones.
   But the Council had known the ship's parts would be subjected to intense examination, particularly in light of the yard which had built them, and so he'd been exactly what the specs called for, no more and no less. But his crew had been another matter. Hired through one of the Faithful of Grayson who, like Shackleton's partner Angus Stone, had somehow evaded the breakup of the Maccabeus network, they possessed impeccable Grayson papers. And they had been very careful to draw no attention to themselves. Bledsoe and his crew had worked hard here in Yeltsin's Star for over three T-years, until they blended perfectly into the background. They and their ship were a familiar sight, and Bledsoe himself was known by name and face to most of the GSN officers assigned to policing commercial traffic in the system.
   But none of those officers knew about the repair ship Donizetti had hired for the Faithful. It hadn't been particularly difficult to find a pretext for Bledsoe's ship to take a week or two off, nor had it been difficult for Bledsoe to quietly move beyond the reaches of the outer system of Yeltsin's Star to rendezvous with the equally surreptitious repair ship. Getting it out there had cost a fortune in fees and risk bonuses, but its Solarian technicians had done their job well, and when he returned to service, no one could possibly be blamed for not realizing he now carried two shipkiller missiles in concealed launchers just inside his outer skin plating.
   They weren't proper missiles. For one thing, it would have been impossible to conceal an all-up naval missile tube and its grav drivers. And it would have been equally impossible to disguise a military-grade fire control and sensor suite. But that had been allowed for, and the missiles actually had more in common with recon drones than with conventional missiles. They were relatively slow (though with vastly more acceleration than any manned vessel), but they were also very stealthy, and they carried extremely sensitive homing systems. Their drone-style drives also had far more endurance than the drives missiles used, which gave them a very wide attack envelope. Of course, despite their stealth features and homing systems, they would have been virtually useless against a reasonably alert ship of war underway. But they weren't intended to attack alert warships, and they should prove quite adequate for their true purpose.
   The final delay while they awaited the last piece of hardware had been infuriating, and Bledsoe suspected Donizetti had intentionally drawn it out — and exaggerated the difficulties he faced — to negotiate his fees upward, but it had been delivered at last. And Donizetti's ship had suffered an "accident" as it left Masadan orbit. Bledsoe had been a bit surprised by the Council's ruthlessness in disposing of their infidel tool so speedily, but in retrospect, it made sense. It cut off their future access to Solarian technology, but if this operation worked properly, that would scarcely matter, and eliminating the infidel middle man would greatly ease their post-operation security problems.
   The one thing which really concerned Bledsoe at the moment was the fact that the Harlot and her Prime Minister were on separate ships. No one had counted on that, and he wasn't certain what he should do. The beacons in the memory stones Shackleton and Stone had maneuvered the apostate steadholder into giving the targets were designed to transmit on frequencies no one used and at very low strength, which should keep anyone from noticing them until it was too late to matter. The signals they generated were not identical, however, and one missile had been programmed to home on each of them. The idea had been to assure redundancy, with one missile-beacon combination ready to back up the other if there should be a failure at any point in the system.
   Study of the HD clips of the presentation ceremony told Bledsoe which beacon had been given to the Harlot and which to her Prime Minister, and he was tempted to reprogram both missiles to seek the Harlot's... especially since God, in His infinite wisdom, had seen fit to put both the Harlot and the apostate Mayhew aboard a single ship. No more glorious blow could be struck for the Faithful than to eliminate both of those targets! But until he actually sent the activation code to the beacons, he couldn't even be positive both of them were going to work, and even if they did, the geometry of the yachts' approach to Blackbird might mask one or, in a worst case, both of them from the missiles' seekers at the critical moment. In the end, he'd decided to leave the original programming unchanged. It was better to have at least one chance at each of the two targets than to commit himself entirely to engaging only one which might or might not be available at the moment of launch.
   Now he gazed into his plot one last time, eyes fixed on the light codes of his prey, and nodded to his com officer.
   "Send the activation code," he said without raising his eyes from the icons.


   "That's odd."
   "What?" Lieutenant Judson Hines, GSN, swiveled his command chair towards the tactical section of GNS Intrepid's flight deck as the LAC loafed along, keeping precise station on Grayson One. The voyage out from Grayson had been a combination of boredom and intensity for Hines and his crew. Their slow pace had seemed to stretch the hours out, yet awareness of their responsibilities kept them glued to their instruments.
   "I don't know `what,' " Lieutenant (jg) Willis, his tac officer, replied reasonably. "If I knew what it was, it wouldn't be odd."
   "I see." Hines gazed at Willis steadily, and, after several seconds, sighed. "Let me put this into simple, one-syllable language, Alf. What... did... you... see?"
   "A sensor ghost, I think."
   "Right about there." Willis threw a feed from the main plot to Hines' repeater. A small icon flickered in it, flashing alternatively amber and red to indicate a possible contact, and Hines frowned. The light code was very close to a larger green arrowhead which indicated a civilian vessel, and he punched an inquiry into the plot. An instant later, a small string of characters appeared beside the green arrowhead, identifying it as one of the Blackbird ore freighters.
   "What did it look like?" he asked, his tone crisper, and Willis answered much more seriously than before.
   "It's hard to say, Skipper. It wasn't much. Just a little flicker, like an up tick on the ore boat's wedge strength. I wouldn't even have noticed if it hadn't happened twice."
   "Twice?" Hines felt one of his eyebrows arch.
   "Yes, Sir. It was like a double flash."
   "Um." Hines rubbed his chin. His was the closest unit to the ore boat, and from what Willis was saying, it was unlikely anyone else had been in a position to see whatever Intrepid's gravitics had picked up. But still...
   "It was probably only a ripple in her wedge," he said. "Lord knows they work those boats hard enough for the nodes to flip an occasional surge. But just in case, put us on a vector to close for a closer look. And while Alf does that, Bob," he turned to the com officer, "pass his report and a copy of his data to the screen commander."
* * *
   Honor Harrington frowned. Her com was tied into the screen's net, and her earbug carried Intrepid's routine message to her. She approved of Lieutenant Hines' attention to detail, although it didn't sound like his sensors had actually picked up much. Yet something about the report nagged at the back of her brain. She couldn't have said why, unless, perhaps, it was that she'd picked up only the verbal report. Her runabout wasn't tied into the screen's tac net, which meant she hadn't seen Willis' actual data.
   She grinned at her own compulsiveness, but the truth was that she would always be a tac officer at heart. Whenever she could get it, she wanted the raw data so she could draw her own conclusions about it. Well, why not? Candless was no warship, and the unarmed runabout scarcely needed fire control, but she had an excellent sensor suite. A considerably better one, in fact, than any other "civilian pleasure craft" had ever boasted, and Honor punched a command into her main console.
   Candless' central computer considered the command for a sliver of a second, and then a fresh data window blossomed in Honor's HUD as her own sensors reached out towards Intrepid's sensor ghost. Honor noted the ore freighter and nodded. No doubt Hines was right about the ripple in the ore boat's wedge, and—
   She froze, staring at the HUD as another icon blinked briefly in it. No, not one icon. There'd been two... and they were an awful lot closer than Willis' original "ghost" had been. She blinked and frowned, trying to come up with any reasonable explanation, but there wasn't one.
   She entered more commands, and her frown deepened as a vector back-plot appeared. It strobed rapidly, indicating that the computer considered it tentative, but it connected the ghosts she'd just seen with the ones Willis had reported, and her eyes narrowed as she saw the accel value the plot had assigned. If there actually was a physical object out there, then it had to be under a high acceleration to account for that great a displacement. But the accel figure was far too low for any sort of missile. Besides, at this ridiculously low range, any missile drive would have showed up like a deep-space flare! So it couldn't possibly—
   Her plot flickered again. The ghosts were no stronger than before, but they'd continued to close, and Honor Harrington sucked in a shuddering breath as the tactical intuition she'd never been able to explain to anyone else realized what she was seeing.
   Her right hand shifted on the stick, her second finger stabbing the button that accessed the screen's guard channel, and her voice rapped from every bridge speaker and com officer's earbug aboard every unit of the screen and both yachts.
   "Vampire! Vampire! Inbound missiles, bearing zero-three-zero zero-zero-two from Grayson One!"
* * *
   Gavin Bledsoe swore softly as the nearest LAC altered course. The vector projection showed the warship's new heading bringing him within a mere forty thousand klicks of the ore carrier, yet that wasn't what had drawn Bledsoe's curse. He and his crew had accepted from the beginning that the screen would figure out where the missiles had come from after the fact, and they'd never had any hope of outrunning the apostate's retribution. But a course change this soon meant the LAC must have detected the launch, and the shipkillers' low acceleration would give the screen far too long to engage them.
   Yet there was nothing he could do about it, and he closed his eyes, apologizing to God for his profanity before he offered a silent prayer of dedication... and for victory.
* * *
   Honor's warning hit the screen and the yachts' crews like a thunderbolt. Had it come from anyone else, many of the officers involved would have discounted the absurd alarm. Even knowing who'd sounded it, disbelief held them all for precious seconds. But then trained reactions shook off the paralysis, and tac officers aboard the screening LACs swung their own sensors to the indicated bearing, searching frantically while point defense systems sprang from standby to ready status.
   But they couldn't see the targets! There was nothing there... except...
   "Well, Alf?" Lieutenant Hines snapped, and the tac officer shrugged.
   "Skip, I can't find the bastards!" Willis said desperately. "I— Wait!" He stabbed a key, then swore savagely. "I thought I had it for a second, Skip, but it's too damned faint a signal — nothing but a frigging ghost! I can't get anything solid enough for a lock!"
   "Shit!" Hines glared at his plot, then looked at the helmsman. "Close the son-of-a-bitch who launched them, Allen," he grated through barred teeth.
* * *
   Honor swung Candless' nose, bringing her bow sensors to bear on the ghosts without any interfering wedge, and her strong-boned face was carved from stone as her plot refused to hold them. She'd never seen anything like it. Never imagined anything like it. Not in what was obviously an attack bird of some sort. The bogies were coming in very slowly, at little more than the acceleration to be expected from a long-endurance recon drone, and they obviously incorporated heavy stealth capabilities to conceal their low-powered wedges. Her sensors probably had a better look at them than any of the LACs in the screen, for she was only a few hundred klicks off the flank of Grayson One' s impeller wedge, and the incoming birds were obviously targeted on one or both of the yachts. But even looking straight at them, with her bow sensors against the deepest, most easily detected portion of their wedges, she still couldn't get a solid lock. Not the kind point defense needed.
   She punched more keys, routing her sensor readouts direct to the screen command ship, and her brain raced.
   They had to be some sort of specially configured drone. Nothing else was that slow and long ranged. But where had it come from? The Alliance didn't have anything like it, and neither did the Peeps, so who had built it? And what was it doing here?
   She shook her head impatiently, brushing off the extraneous questions. What mattered was what they were and how to stop them, not where they'd come from.
   Low as their acceleration rates were compared to missiles, they were still much too high for any manned vessel to keep away from. Worse, they were coming in silent, with no active targeting emissions. That meant they were homers and, presumably, that they'd been homing from the moment of launch, but how could they be doing that? They'd been launched from outside the screen, and their tracks had taken them within less than five hundred klicks of one of Intrepid's sister ships, so why hadn't their seeking systems locked onto the LAC instead of the yachts? A LAC didn't look a lot like Grayson One or Queen Adrienne, but at that close a range, its impeller signature ought to have utterly blotted out the yachts' signatures. At the very least the things should have lost lock temporarily and been forced to reacquire it, but that obviously hadn't happened.
   And the fact that they were coming in silent made stopping them exponentially more difficult. They were already far stealthier than any missile ought to be, and their lack of active sensors deprived the missile defense officers of any active emissions to track. They could see the missiles only in glimpses, no more than brief flashes before those damnably efficient ECM systems blanked them out again, and that wasn't enough. Not against a target as hard to kill as a missile or drone protected by its own wedge.
   Countermissiles streaked out, but that only complicated the problem. The fantastically over-powered countermissiles were even less effective than their mother ships'. Worse, their wedges and emissions could be picked up... and blotted out even the feeble ghost returns Honor had managed to detect.
   She started to bark an order, but the screen commander had already seen what she had, and his own order beat her to it. The countermissiles vanished from her plot as the LACs which had launched them sent the self-detonation commands, and she breathed a sigh of relief as she managed to find the missiles again.
   They were closer, and her mouth dried as the time to attack range counter spun downward on her HUD. Some of the LACs were firing their own point defense clusters, though the range was long for those weapons, and even their grasers at their best-guess positions on the missiles, but they had virtually no chance of hitting them. Grayson One and Queen Adrienne were also responding, turning away from the threat and rolling ship in an effort to interpose their wedges. Neither yacht carried any armament, but both were equipped with comprehensive EW fits, and their electronic defenses sprang to life. Yet there was little for those defenses to defend against, for the silently pursuing killers radiated no active targeting systems to be jammed, and they seemed utterly oblivious to the efforts to confuse them with decoys.