"Howard," she said softly. He bowed deeply, but she saw his tears and tasted his joy, and she held out her hand quickly. He blinked as he took it, his grip still strong and firm despite his age, and then he drew a huge, gusty breath and shook himself.
   "Welcome home, My Lady," he said simply. "Your steading and your people have missed you."
   "I got back as soon as I could," she replied, making her tone as light as she could. "Unfortunately, our travel plans hit a couple of glitches. Nothing Chief Harkness and Carson couldn't straighten out for us, though."
   Ensign Clinkscales stepped up beside her as she spoke his name, and the Regent smiled as he enfolded his towering nephew in a huge hug. Howard Clinkscales had been a powerfully built man in his prime, for a Grayson, but he'd never matched Carson's centimeters, and he was eighty-seven pre-prolong T-years old. The two of them looked as mismatched in height as Honor knew she and Allison had, and she chuckled as she put her arm affectionately back about her mother.
   Then she paused. She hadn't noticed in the intensity of their initial embrace, but each of her parents wore a carrier much like the one in which she herself carried Nimitz, and her eyebrow quirked. Now why—?
   Then her father half-turned to make room for MacGuiness and Miranda, and Honor's eye went even wider than it had gone when the door opened. The carrier on his back wasn't like hers after all, for it wasn't for a 'cat. It was—
   "Don't stare, dear," her mother said firmly, and reached up to grasp her chin, turning her head to wipe the left side of her face. Honor obeyed the grip meekly, so surprised she was unable to do anything else, and her mother shook her head. "Really, Honor," she went on, "you'd think you'd never seen a baby before, and I happen to know you have!"
   "But... but..." Honor turned her head once more, staring into the dark eyes that gazed drowsily back at her, and then gulped and turned back to her mother, using her height to lean forward over her and look into the carrier on Allison's back. She was sure the eyes in that small face were equally dark, but they weren't drowsy. They were closed, and the tiny face wore the disapproving, sleepy frown only babies can produce.
   "Really, Honor!" her mother said again. "Your father and I are prolong recipients, you know."
   "Of course I do, but—"
   "You seem to have grown entirely too fond of that word, dear," Allison scolded, giving Honor's face one last pat before she stepped back to examine her handiwork. Then she nodded in satisfaction and tucked the damp square of fabric back into whatever hiding place it had emerged from in the first place.
   "It's all your fault, actually," she told Honor then. "You hadn't gotten around to producing an heir, so when they tried to make poor Lord Clinkscales Steadholder Harrington, he had to think of something in self-defense." She shook her head, and Clinkscales looked at her for a moment, then gave Honor a half-sheepish grin.
   "You mean—?" Honor shook herself and drew a deep, deep breath. She also made a mental resolution to personally hunt Hamish Alexander down and murder him with her bare hands. Or hand, singular, she thought as she recalled his devilish amusement and vague talk about "other arrangements" on Grayson. Given the nature of the offense, waiting until she could be fitted with a replacement for her missing arm was out of the question. If she left this afternoon aboard a courier boat and went by way of the Junction, she could stop by the Harrington to wring Judah Yanakov's neck and still be back at Trevor's Star in just four days, and then...
   She exhaled very slowly, then looked back down at her mother.
   "So I'm not an only child anymore?"
   "Goodness, you figured it out after all," Allison murmured with a devilish smile. Then she reached up and slipped the carrier straps from her shoulders. She cradled the sleeping infant, carrier and all, in her arms, and when she looked back up at Honor the deviltry had disappeared into a warm tenderness.
   "This is Faith Katherine Honor Stephanie Miranda Harrington," she said gently, and giggled at Honor's expression. "I know the name is longer than she is just now, poor darling, but that's your fault, too, you know. At the moment — which is to say until you get busy in the grandchild department — this long-named little bundle is your heir, Lady Harrington. As a matter of fact, right this second she's actually the legal `Steadholder Harrington,' at least until the Keys get around to discovering that you're back. Which means we were lucky to hold her to just five given names, all things considered. I expect the assumption, up until a few hours ago, was that she would become Honor the Second when she chose her reign name. Fortunately—" Her lips quivered for an instant, and she paused to clear her throat. "Fortunately," she repeated more firmly, "she won't have to make that decision quite as soon as we'd feared she might after all."
   "And this," Alfred said, having slipped out of his own carrier's straps, "is her slightly younger twin brother, James Andrew Benjamin Harrington. He got off with two less names, you'll note, thus duly exercising his prerogative as a natural-born male citizen of the last true patriarchy in this neck of the galaxy. Although we did, I hope you will also note, manage to butter up the local potentate by hanging his name on the poor kid."
   "So I see." Honor laughed, reaching out to stroke the baby boy's satiny cheek. She shot a sideways glance at Benjamin Mayhew and noted his happy, almost possessive smile. Obviously her parents and the Mayhews had grown even closer to one another than she'd dared hope they might, and she returned her attention to her mother.
   "They're beautiful, Mother," she said softly. "You and Daddy do do good work, even if I say so myself."
   "You think so?" Her mother cocked her head judiciously. "For myself, I could wish we'd figured out a way to skip straight from the delivery to the first day of school." She shook her head with a pensive air that fooled no one in the lounge. "I'd forgotten how much sheer work a baby is," she sighed.
   "Oh, of course, My Lady!" Miranda LaFollet laughed. Honor turned to her maid and found Miranda in the circle of her brother's arm... which would have represented a shocking dereliction of duty on the major's part under normal circumstances. Which these weren't. Miranda saw Honor's questioning expression and laughed again. "It's so much `work' she insisted on carrying them to term the natural way, despite the fact that her prolong added two and a half months to the process, My Lady," she informed Honor. "And so much work that she flatly refuses to let us provide full-time nannies for them! In fact, it's all we can do to pry her loose from them — to pry either of your parents loose, actually — long enough for them to go to the clinic! I don't think even people from our steading were quite ready for the sight of two of the best doctors on the planet making their rounds with babies on their backs, but—"
   She shrugged, and Honor chuckled.
   "Well, Mother is from Beowulf, Miranda. They're all a little crazy there, or so I've heard. And they go absolutely gooey over babies. Not," she added reflectively, gazing at the tiny shapes of her brother and sister, "that I can fault them, now that I think of it. These two have to be the most beautiful pair of babies in the explored universe, after all."
   "Do you really think so?" her mother asked.
   "I really think so," Honor assured her softly. "Of course, I may be just a tiny bit prejudiced, but I really think so."
   "Good," Allison Harrington said, "because unless my nose is mistaken, Faith Katherine Honor Stephanie Miranda here has just demonstrated the efficiency with which her well-designed internal systems operate. And just to show you how delighted I am by your opinion of her beauty, I'm going to let you change her, dear!"
   "I'd love to, Mother. Unfortunately, at the moment I only have one hand, and since that's obviously a job which requires two..." She shrugged, and her mother shook her head.
   "Some people will do anything to avoid a little work," she said, much more lightly than she felt as her eyes flicked to the stump of Honor's left arm, and Honor smiled.
   "Oh, I didn't have to do this just to get out of work," she assured Allison, smile broadening as James MacGuiness approached with Samantha. "Mac spoils me shamelessly. I'm sure he'd have been delighted to do my share of the diaper-changing even without this. Wouldn't you, Mac?"
   "I'm afraid that's one thing that isn't covered in my job description, Milady," the steward said. His voice was almost normal, but his eyes were misty and his smile seemed to tremble just a bit.
   "Really?" Honor's smile softened and warmed, and she reached out to put her arm around him. He let himself lean against her for just a moment as she hugged him hard, then held him back out at arm's length to look deep into his eyes. "Well, in that case, I guess you'll just have to settle for being `Uncle Mac'... because we all know uncles and aunts are responsible for spoiling kids rotten, not doing anything constructive."
   "What an interesting notion," Alfred Harrington observed. "And the job of big sisters is—?"
   "Depends on how much `bigger' they are, doesn't it?" Honor replied cheerfully. "In this case, I thin—"
   She broke off suddenly, so abruptly her mother looked up from Faith in quick alarm. Honor's smile had vanished as if it had never existed, and her head snapped to her left, her single working eye locking on the 'cat on MacGuiness' shoulder.
   Samantha had reared up, her ears flat to her skull, her eyes fixed on her mate. Allison whipped her head around to follow that intense stare, and her own eyes widened as she saw Nimitz recoiling as if he'd been struck. For just an instant, she had the insane thought that he'd somehow infuriated Samantha, but only for an instant. Just long enough for her to recognize something she had never, ever expected to see in Nimitz.
   Terror. A fear and a panic that drove the whimper of a frightened kitten from him.
   MacGuiness and Andrew LaFollet had looked up when Honor broke off, and both of them went white as they saw Nimitz. Unlike Allison, they had seen him that way before — once — in the admiral's quarters of GNS Terrible, when the terrible nightmares lashing his person's sleeping mind with the Furies' own whips had reduced the empathic 'cat to shivering, shuddering helplessness. Now they saw the equal of that terror ripping through him, and as one man, they stepped towards him, reaching out to their friend.
   But even before they moved, Honor Harrington had hit the quick release of the carrier straps where they crossed on her chest. She caught the straps as they opened, and, in a single, supple movement which ought to have looked awkward and clumsy for a one-armed woman, stripped the carrier from her back and brought it around in front of her. She went to her knees, hugging Nimitz, carrier and all, to her breasts, pressing her cheek against his head, and her eyes were closed as she threw every scrap of energy she had into the horror raging in her link to him.
   I should have felt it sooner, some fragment of calm told her. I should have realized the instant we saw Sam... but he didn't realize it. My God, how could we have missed it?
   She held the 'cat with the full power of her arm and her heart, and for just an instant, as the terrible storm front of his emotions spun its tornado strength through them both, he struggled madly to escape her. Whether to run and hide in his panic or in a desperate effort to reach Samantha physically Honor could not have said, probably because he couldn't have. But then the terrible panic flash eased into something less explosive... and far, far bleaker. He went limp with a shudder, pressing his face against her, and a soft, low-pitched keen flowed out of him.
   Honor's heart clenched at the desolate sound, and she kissed him between the ears while she held him close.
   The pulser butt, she thought. That damned pulser butt on Enki! My God, what did it do to him?
   She didn't know the answer to that question, but she knew the blow which had shattered his mid-pelvis had to be the cause of the dark and terrible loneliness of a full half of Nimitz's mind. Nothing else could have caused it, and the shock and terror it produced were infinitely worse than they might have been because neither he nor Honor had even realized that silence was there.
   She crooned to him, holding him tightly, eyes closed, and she felt Samantha standing high on her true-feet beside her. Nimitz's mate had exploded off of MacGuiness' shoulder, racing to Nimitz, and her true-hands and feet-hands caressed his silken fur. Honor felt her matching panic, felt her reaching out to Nimitz with every sense she had, trying desperately to hear some response from him, pleading for the reassurance her mate could no longer give her.
   Honor tasted both 'cats' emotions, and her tears dripped onto Nimitz's pelt. But at least the initial panic was passing, and she drew a deep, shuddering breath of relief as they realized, and Honor with them, that they could still feel one another's emotions... and Samantha realized Nimitz could still hear her thoughts.
   The exact way in which the telempathic treecats communicated with one another had always been a matter of debate among humans. Some had argued that the 'cats were true telepaths; others that they didn't actually "communicate" in the human sense at all, that they were simply units in a free-flow linkage of pure emotions so deep it effectively substituted for communication.
   Since her own link to Nimitz had changed and deepened, Honor had realized that, in many ways, both arguments were correct. She'd never been able to tap directly into Nimitz's "conversations" with other 'cats, but she had been able to sense the very fringes of a deep, intricate meld of interflowing thoughts and emotions when he "spoke" to another of his kind. Since he and Samantha had become mates, Honor had been able to "hear" and study their interwoven communication far more closely and discovered Nimitz and Samantha truly were so tightly connected that, in many ways, they were almost one individual, so much a part of one another that they often had no need to exchange deliberately formulated thoughts. But from observing them together and also with others of their kind, she'd also come to the conclusion that 'cats in general definitely did exchange the sort of complex, reasoned concepts which could only be described as "communication." Yet what she'd never been certain of until this dreadful moment was that they did it over more than one channel. They truly were both empaths and telepaths. She knew that now, for Samantha could still "hear" and taste Nimitz's emotions... but that was all she could hear. The rich, full-textured weaving which had bound them together had been battered and mauled, robbed of half its richness and blighted with unnatural silence, and she felt herself weeping for her beloved friends while they grappled with their sudden recognition of loss.
   How could we not have noticed it on Hell? All that time, and we never even guessed—
   But then she drew a deep breath of understanding. Of course. Her link with Nimitz operated through the 'cat's empathic sense. They'd never used the telepathic "channel" to communicate, and so Nimitz had never even suspected that it had been taken from him. Not until the moment he'd reached out to his mate... and she hadn't heard him at all.
   "Honor?" It was her mother's soft voice, and she looked up to see Allison kneeling beside her, her face anxious, her eyes dark with worry. "What is it, Honor?"
   "It's—" Honor inhaled sharply. "In the Barnett System, when Ransom announced her plans to send me to Hell, she ordered her goons to kill Nimitz, and—" She shook her head and closed her eyes again. "We didn't have anything left to lose, Mother, so—"
   "So they attacked the StateSec guards," Andrew LaFollet said softly, and Honor realized her armsman, too, was kneeling beside her. He was to her left, on her blind side, and she turned towards him. "That must have been it, My Lady," he said when his Steadholder looked at him. "When that bastard with the pulse rifle clubbed him."
   "Yes." Honor nodded, not really surprised Andrew had realized what must have happened. But she could taste the confusion of the others, even through the emotional tempest still rolling through the two treecats. She loosened her grip on Nimitz, setting the carrier on the floor, and watched as he climbed out of it. He and Samantha sat face-to-face, and he pressed his cheek into the side of her neck while her buzzing purr threatened to vibrate the bones right out of her, and her prehensile tail wrapped itself about him and her true-hands and hand-feet caressed him. Even now he sat awkwardly hunched, twisted by his poorly healed bones, and she looked back up to meet her mother's worried eyes.
   "No one's ever known if the 'cats were truly telepaths... until now," she told Allison softly. "But they are. And when that SS thug clubbed him, he must have... have broken whatever it is that makes them telepaths, because Sam can't hear him, Mother. She can't hear him at all."
   "She can't?" Honor looked up. Her father stood beside her, cradling one of the babies in either arm, and frowned as she nodded at him. "From the way he's sitting, the pulser must have caught him — what? Almost exactly on the mid-pelvis?"
   "A little behind it and from the right we think, My Lord," LaFollet said. "Most of the ribs went on that side, too. Fritz Montoya could probably give you a better answer, but it looked to me like it came down at about a seventy-degree angle. Maybe a little shallower than that, but certainly not by very much."
   The armsman's eyes were intent, as if he recognized something behind the question from his Steadholder's father, and Alfred nodded slowly.
   "That would make sense," he murmured, staring for a moment at something none of the others could see while he thought hard. Then he gave his head a little shake and looked back down at his elder daughter.
   "We've wondered for centuries why the 'cats spinal cords have those clusters of nervous tissue at each pelvis," he told her. "Some have theorized that they might be something like secondary brains. They're certainly large enough, with sufficiently complex structures, and the theory was that they might help explain how something with such a relatively low body mass could have developed sentience in the first place. Others have derided the entire idea, while a third group has argued that even though they may be secondary brains, the physical similarities — and differences — between them indicate that they must do something else, as well. Their structures have been thoroughly analyzed and mapped, but we've never been able to link them to any discernible function. But, then, no one ever had a 'cat expert quite like you available for consultation, Honor. Now I think we know what at least one of those super-ganglia do."
   "You mean you think the mid-limb site was his... well, his telepathic transmitter?"
   "I'd certainly say that's what it looks like. I noticed that you said Sam can't hear him, not that he can't hear her. Is that correct?"
   "Yes. I think so, anyway," Honor said after a moment. "It's hard to be sure just yet. When he realized she couldn't hear him, he just—"
   "Reacted very much the way I would have in his place," her father interrupted. "And not surprisingly. I've always wondered what would happen to a telempath who suddenly, for the first time in his life, found himself isolated and alone, locked up in his own little world. We still don't begin to know all we ought to about the 'cats, but one thing we do know is that they all seem to share that constant awareness, that linkage, with every other 'cat and most humans, at least to some extent, around them. It's always there, from the day they're born, and they must take it as much for granted as they do oxygen. But now—"
   Alfred shuddered and shook his head, and Honor nodded mutely, astounded by how accurately her father had described an interweaving of minds and hearts he had never been able to taste himself.
   "If I'm right about how he was injured, this can't be the first time something like this has happened to a 'cat, either. God knows they get banged up enough in the bush that at least some of them must have sustained similar injuries and lived. So they have to know it can happen to any of them, and it must be one of their most deep-seated fears. When Nimitz realized it had happened to him..."
   He shook his head again and sighed, his eyes dark with sympathy as they rested on the two 'cats and he listened to Samantha's soft, loving croon.
   "Is there anything we can do?" Honor asked, and there was an odd edge to her voice, one LaFollet didn't understand for several seconds. But then he remembered. Alfred Harrington was one of the Star Kingdom of Manticore's four or five finest neurosurgeons. This wasn't just a daughter asking her father for reassurance; it was a woman asking the man who'd rebuilt the nerves in her own face, and who'd personally implanted her own cybernetic eye, if he had one more miracle in his doctor's bag for her.
   "I don't know, honey. Not yet," he told her honestly. "I've paid more attention to the journal articles on 'cats than most other neurosurgeons, I imagine, because of how much a part of all our lives Nimitz is, but my specialty is humans. Native Sphinxian life forms have always been more of a veterinary specialization, and there are a lot of differences between their neural structures and ours. I'm positive that fixing the bone and joint damage won't be a problem, but I don't have any idea where we might be on the matter of neural repairs." The live side of Honor's face tightened, and he shook his head quickly. "That doesn't mean anything, Honor! I'm not just trying to be a doctor throwing out an anchor to windward; I truly don't know, but I certainly intend to find out. And I'll promise you — and Nimitz and Samantha — this much right now. If it can be fixed, then I will damned well find the way to do it!"
   Honor stared up at him for two more heartbeats, and then she felt her taut shoulders relax just a bit, and the worry in her face eased ever so slightly. She trusted both her parents' judgments in their medical fields. She'd seen and heard about what they'd accomplished far too often not to have learned to trust them. If her father said he thought there might be a way to correct the crippling damage Nimitz had received, then he truly believed there might be one, for one thing he did not do was tell comforting lies.
   And one other thing he did not do, she thought. Never in her entire life had he made her a promise he'd failed to keep... and she knew he would keep this one, as well.
   "Thank you, Daddy," she whispered, and felt her mother's arms go around her once again.


   "I don't fucking believe this!"
   More than one of the people seated around the conference table flinched at the venom in Secretary of War Esther McQueen's snarl. Not because they were afraid of her (although some of them were), but because no one who wasn't completely insane spoke to Rob Pierre and Oscar Saint-Just that way.
   Despite himself, Pierre felt a grin — more of a grimace, really — twitch the corners of his mouth. There were nine people at the table, including himself and Saint-Just. Among them, they represented the core membership of the most powerful group in the entire People's Republic. After better than eight T-years, the Committee of Public Safety still boasted a total membership of twenty-six, almost thirty percent of its original size. Of course, that was only another way of saying that it had been reduced by over seventy percent. And allowing for new appointments to replace those who'd disappeared in various purges, factional power struggles, and other assorted unpleasantnesses (and for the replacement of several of those replacements), the actual loss rate among the Committee's members had been well over two hundred percent. Of the original eighty-seven members, only Pierre himself, Saint-Just, and Angela Downey and Henri DuPres (both of whom were little more than well-cowed place-holders) remained. And of the current crop of twenty-six, only the nine in this room truly mattered.
   And six of them are too terrified to breathe without my permission. Mine and Oscar's, at any rate. Which was what we thought we wanted. They're certainly not going to be hatching any plans to overthrow me... but I hadn't quite counted on how useless their gutlessness would make them when it hit the fan.
   Which — fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one's viewpoint — is at least not something anyone would ever consider saying about McQueen.
   "I can understand your... unhappiness, Esther," he said aloud after a moment. "I'm not too happy myself," he added with gargantuan understatement. "Unfortunately, it seems to have happened, whether either one of us likes it or not."
   "But—" McQueen started to snap back, then made herself stop. Her mouth clicked shut, and she reined in her temper with visible, nostril-flaring effort.
   "You're right, Citizen Chairman," she said in the tone of a woman coming back on balance. "And I apologize for my reaction. However... surprising the news, it doesn't excuse such intemperate language. But I stand by my original sentiments. And while I imagine there will be time for proper recriminations later—" she glanced at one of the only two people at the table who were junior to her, and Leonard Boardman, Secretary of Public Information, wilted in his chair "—the immediate consequences are going to be catastrophic... and that's if we're lucky! If we're un lucky...."
   She let her voice trail off and shook her head, and Pierre wished he could disagree with her assessment.
   "I'm afraid I have to concur with you there," he admitted, and it was his turn to shake his head.
   Joan Huertes, Interstellar News Service's senior reporter and anchorwoman in the People's Republic of Haven, had commed Boardman directly, seeking his comment on the incredible reports coming out of the Manticoran Alliance. The good news, such as it was, was that Boardman had been smart enough to give her a remarkably composed (sounding, at any rate) "No comment," and then to contact Saint-Just immediately rather than sit around and dither over what the PR disaster might mean for him personally. Judging from his expression, he'd made up for the dithering since, but at least he'd gotten the information into the right hands quickly.
   Equally to the good, Saint-Just hadn't even considered covering up or trying to sugarcoat the situation for Pierre. Some people, including some at this table, would have in his place, for it was Oscar's people who'd screwed the pooch. But he'd made no attempt to delay while he sought scapegoats. And, finally, they were at least fortunate that the story hadn't come at them completely without warning.
   Citizen General Seth Chernock had opted to send his dispatch, with its preposterous conclusion that something must be very wrong in the Cerberus System, aboard a StateSec-crewed vessel in the name of security rather than using the first available dispatch boat. By his most pessimistic estimate, however, he ought to have arrived in Cerberus over two months ago, yet no report from him had reached Saint-Just. No one had worried about that at first. After all, Chernock was the StateSec CO of the sector in which Cerberus lay. That meant any decisions about how to deal with problems there were properly his, and he wasn't the sort to ask prior approval for his actions. Besides, what could possibly have happened to such a powerful force?
   Yet as the silence dragged out, Saint-Just had begun to grow anxious at last, and last week he'd finally dispatched his own investigators — very quietly — to look into Chernock's ridiculous worries. None had reported back yet, and wouldn't for at least another three weeks, but at least he'd already begun the information-seeking process.
   Unfortunately, that was all the good news there was... and Pierre was grimly certain they'd scarcely even begun to hear the bad news.
   "Excuse me, Citizen Chairman," Avram Turner, the thin, intense, dark-haired Secretary of the Treasury (and most junior member of the Committee), said after several seconds of silence, "but I'm still not clear on how any of this could have happened."
   "Neither are we — yet," Pierre replied. "Obviously no one saw it coming, or we would have acted to prevent it. And at this particular moment, all the information we have is what's coming to us from the Manties."
   "With all due respect, Citizen Chairman, and while that may be true, it would have helped enormously if StateSec had informed the Navy when it first received Citizen General Chernock's initial dispatches," Esther McQueen said. "We couldn't have prevented what had already happened to Hades, and we couldn't have hoped to intercept Harrington en route to Trevor's Star, but you do realize that our frontier fleets and star systems are going to hear about this from the Manties and Sollies well before they hear anything about it from us." She twitched her shoulders. "I can't begin to estimate the impact it will have on Fleet morale and the loyalty of our more, um, fractious planetary populations, but I don't expect it to be good."
   "I know." Pierre sighed, and ran the fingers of one hand through his hair. "Unfortunately, the communications lag really bit us on the ass on this one. I'm not defending my decision to keep Chernock's original report to myself, but be honest, Esther. Even if I'd shared his dispatch with you, what could we have done about it until we had confirmation of whether or not he was correct? And without sending a courier to Cerberus to see for yourself, would you have believed a completely unarmed group of prisoners, denied any technology above the level of windmill water pumps, the closest of them separated from our main on-planet base by over fifteen hundred kilometers of ocean, on a world whose native flora and fauna are totally inedible, could somehow have seized control of an entire star system? Of course Oscar and I thought Chernock had gone insane! And even if he hadn't, the force he took with him should have been capable of dealing easily with anything the prisoners could do to resist it."
   He met McQueen's eyes levelly, and the small, slender Secretary of War had to nod. She didn't feel like agreeing, but she really had no choice. None of the fragmentary information so far available explained how the prisoners had seized the planet in the first place, far less how they could possibly have defeated the powerful force Chernock had put together to go and take it back again.
   And the bastard had the good sense to ask for a regular Navy CO for his collection of Navy and SS units, she admitted to herself unhappily. Let's not point that little fact out just now, Esther.
   She pushed herself back in her chair, eyes closed for a moment, and pinched the bridge of her nose. Until their own couriers got back from Cerberus, they had only the fragments Huertes had used to prime the pump in her interview attempt with Boardman, and it was entirely possible Boardman had read too much into those bits and pieces. Unfortunately, it didn't feel that way to McQueen, and she'd learned to trust her instincts. And if Boardman hadn't overreacted — hell, if only a tenth of what he thought Huertes had meant was true — the disaster sounded pretty damned close to complete.
   She puffed her lips in silent frustration and anger, wondering how in hell it could have happened. She'd never met Citizen Admiral Yearman, but she'd pulled his record within minutes of hearing from Saint-Just — finally! — about Chernock's dispatch. From what she could see, Yearman wasn't (or hadn't been; no one was certain at the moment if he or Chernock were still alive) an inspired strategist, but he was a sound tactician. If Chernock had been smart enough to realize he needed a professional to ride herd on his SS thug starship crews, then one had to assume he'd also been smart enough to let that professional run the show once they arrived in Cerberus. And whatever Yearman's weaknesses in the area of strategy, he certainly ought to have been able to deal with the orbital defenses guarding Hades, even if they'd been completely under the escapees' control. Particularly since Chernock had specifically informed Saint-Just that he was giving Yearman the full technical specs on those defenses.
   But still...
   "The fact that Harrington is still alive may actually be even more damaging than the escape itself," Turner pointed out, and, again, McQueen nodded. Privately, she was impressed by the other's nerve. His point was glaringly obvious, but making it in front of the two men who'd decided to have Public Information fake up the imagery of Harrington's execution took guts, especially for the most junior person present. On the other hand, as McQueen herself demonstrated, actual power within the Committee of Public Safety wasn't necessarily linked with how long one had been a member. Rob Pierre had handpicked Turner to take over the Treasury just over a T-year ago, when he decided to ram through a long-overdue package of fiscal reform, and whatever his other failings might be, the thin, aggressively energetic Turner had performed impressively in implementing those reforms. His star was definitely in the ascendant at the moment.
   Then again, my star is "in the ascendant"... and I know perfectly well that Saint-Just would shoot me in a second if he thought he could dispense with my services. Hell, McQueen gave a mental snort of amusement, he'd probably shoot me anyway, just on general principles. Pierre's the one who's smart enough to know the Navy needs me running it. Saint-Just's just the one who's smart enough to know I'll shoot both of them the instant I think I can get away with it.
   "Again, I'd like to disagree, and I can't." Pierre sighed in response to Turner's observation. It was his turn to pinch the bridge of his nose, and he shook his head wearily, then managed a wan smile. "It seemed so simple at the time. She was already dead — we knew that — and whatever we said, the Manties and Sollies would never believe we hadn't killed her. At least this way we could pass it off as the end result of due process instead of leaving the impression that we'd just shot her out of hand and dumped her in a shallow grave. And we were hardly in a position to risk shaking public confidence by announcing Cordelia's death or what had really happened to Tepes, so—"
   He shrugged, and no one in the conference room needed any maps to figure out what he'd left unsaid. None of them had been part of Cordelia Ransom's faction on the Committee. If they ever had been, they would not have been in this room... or any longer on the Committee. They all knew how useful Pierre and Saint-Just had found the delay in the official announcement of Ransom's death when it came time to purge her supporters. But still...
   "That's the thing I find hardest to understand," Turner murmured with the air of a man thinking out loud. "How could she possibly have survived what happened to Tepes? And if she did, how could we not have known?"
   "Esther?" Pierre glanced at McQueen. "Would you have any thoughts on those questions?"
   Carefully, now, she thought. Let's speak very carefully, Esther.
   "I've had a lot of thoughts about them, Citizen Chairman," she said aloud, and that much at least was true. "I've gone back and pulled the scan records from Count Tilly's flag deck and combat information center, and I've had them analyzed to a fare-thee-well over at the Octagon." She reached inside her civilian jacket and extracted a thin chip folio, tossing it on the table so that it slid to a stop directly in front of Pierre. "That's the result of our analyses, and also the actual records of the explosion, and none of my people have been able to find anything to explain how Harrington and her people could have gotten off the ship and down to the planet before she blew. Or, for that matter, how Citizen Brigadier Tresca and his people groundside could possibly have missed something like that. Obviously they must have used some of Tepes' small craft, although how they could have taken control of them in the first place is beyond me. There were less than thirty of them aboard, and I can't even begin to imagine how so few people could fight their way through an entire ship's company to the boat bays. But even assuming they could pull that off, the only small craft anyone actually saw was the single assault shuttle that Camp Charon used the orbital defenses to destroy."
   She paused, watching Pierre (and Saint-Just) as neutrally as possible. The chips she'd passed to the Citizen Chairman contained exactly what she'd said they did. What they did not contain was the footage from Count Tilly's flag deck immediately after Tepes had blown up. McQueen had been very specific about the time chops she'd assigned when she instructed the Navy experts to analyze the records. She still wasn't certain what Citizen Rear Admiral Tourville had been up to when he bent over his tac officer's console, and she had no intention of allowing anyone else to figure that out if there was anything at all she could do to prevent it. Lester Tourville was entirely too good a fighting officer to hand over to StateSec. And the fact that she'd covered for him, once she found a discreet way to let him know she had, ought to prove extremely useful as a loyalty enhancer down the road...
   "The one thing I can suggest with some degree of confidence," she went on after a moment, "is that Harrington and her people must have used the temporary degradation of the Hades sensor net caused by the destruction of the known shuttle to slip their own small craft through to the surface without anyone groundside seeing them coming."
   "Degradation?" Turner repeated, and she cocked an eyebrow at Pierre. The Citizen Chairman nodded almost imperceptibly, and she turned to Turner.
   "The ground defense center at Camp Charon used high megaton-range orbital mines to destroy the Manties' escape shuttle — or what everyone had assumed was their escape shuttle — just before Tepes blew up. The blast and EMP from that, coupled with the effect of Tepes' own fusion plants when they let go, created a very brief window in which the sensor net was effectively `blinded' and reduced to a fraction of its normal efficiency. That has to be when Harrington's people slipped through to the planet."
   "Are you suggesting that they planned from the beginning to use our own response to open the way for them?"
   "I think it's obvious that they must have," McQueen replied. "And we're talking about Honor Harrington here, Avram."
   "Harrington is not some sort of boogeyman," Saint-Just said in frosty tones. Several people cringed, but McQueen met his cold eyes steadily.
   "I didn't say she was," she said. "But it's obvious from her record that she's one of the best, if not the best, Manty officers of her generation. With the sole exception of what happened at Adler — where, I might add, she still succeeded in her primary mission of protecting the convoy under her command, despite atrociously bad luck — she's kicked the crap out of every commander we've put up against her, Navy and StateSec alike, apparently. All I'm saying here is that this is exactly the sort of maneuver I would expect from her." She raised a hand as Saint-Just's eyes narrowed and continued before he could speak. "And, no, I'm not saying that I would have anticipated something like this before the fact. I wouldn't have, and I have no doubt she would have taken me completely by surprise, as well. I'm simply saying that, looking back after the fact, I'm not in the least surprised that she managed to anticipate Camp Charon's logical response to an `escaping' shuttle and found a way to use it brilliantly to her advantage. It's exactly the sort of thing she'd been doing to us for the last ten or twelve years now."
   "Which is why she is a boogeyman." Pierre sighed. "Or why altogether too many of our people regard her as one. Not to mention the reason the Manties and their allies are so ecstatic about having her back." He showed his teeth in an almost-smile. "Bottom line, it doesn't really matter whether or not she's some sort of warrior demigoddess if that's what her people think she is."
   "I wouldn't go quite that far, Sir," McQueen said judiciously. "What she actually manages to do to us is nothing to sneeze at. Still, you're essentially correct. She's much more dangerous to us, right this moment, as a symbol than as a naval officer."
   "Especially given how badly shot up she seems to be," Turner agreed with a nod.
   "I wouldn't count too heavily on her injuries to keep her out of action," McQueen cautioned. "None of them appear to have affected her command abilities. Or not," she added dryly, "to judge by the rather neat little operation she apparently just pulled off, at any rate. And it's entirely possible, if the situation turns nasty enough for them, for the Manties to send her back out, arm or no arm."
   "On the other hand, that would appear, at the moment, to be one of the brighter spots of the situation," Pierre pointed out. "For right now, at least, your people are still pushing the Manties back, Esther. Are you in a position to keep on doing that?"
   "Unless something changes without warning, yes," McQueen said. "But I caution you again, Sir, that my confidence is based on the situation as it now exists and that the situation in question is definitely open to change. In particular, we know from the Operation Icarus after-battle reports that the Manties hit us with something new in both Basilisk and Hancock, and we're still not certain exactly what it was in either case."
   "I still believe you're reading too much into those reports." Saint-Just's tone was just a tiny bit too reasonable, and McQueen allowed her green eyes to harden as they met his. "We know they used LACs at Hancock," the StateSec CO went on, "but we've known ever since our commerce raiding operations went sour in Silesia that they had an improved light attack craft design. My understanding is that the analysts have concluded the Hancock LACs were simply more of the same."
   "The civilian analysts have concluded that," McQueen replied so frostily several people winced.
   McQueen and Saint-Just had clashed over this before, and their differences, however cloaked in outward propriety, had become ever more pointed over the last few months. McQueen wanted to resurrect the old Naval Intelligence Bureau as a Navy-run shop, staffed by Navy officers. Her official reason was that the military needed an in-house intelligence capability run by people who understood operational realities. Saint-Just was equally determined to retain the present arrangement, in which NavInt was merely one more section of State Security's sprawling intelligence apparatus. His official reason was that centralized control insured that all relevant information was available from a single set of data banks and eliminated redundancy and the inefficiency of turf wars. In fact, his real reason was that he suspected that her real reason was a desire to cut his own people out of the loop in order to give herself (and any personal adherents in the upper echelons of the Navy's command structure) a secure channel through which to intrigue against the Committee.
   "I could wish for more complete and detailed data from Hancock," she went on after the briefest of pauses and in slightly less chill tones. "Only one of Citizen Admiral Kellet's cruisers got out, and every one of her surviving battleships took severe damage. And, of course, only six of them came home again."
   She paused once more to let the numbers sink in, and her eyes surveyed her fellow Committee members cooly. I don't think I'll mention Citizen Admiral Porter again just now, she decided. I've made the point plainly enough to both Pierre and Saint-Just in the past, and it would be... untactful to make it again in front of the others. But, Christ! If the idiot hadn't panicked when he realized he was in command, if he'd only stayed concentrated for another thirty minutes, we'd've gotten a hell of a lot more battlewagons home. Kellet and Hall had them clear of the Manty SDs, and it's obvious the LACs were about to break off the action, but then the fucking idiot went and ordered his units to scatter and "proceed independently" to the hyper limit! He might as well have dropped fresh meat into the water for a bunch of Old Earth piranha! I know it, the rest of the Octagon staff knows it, and Saint-Just and Pierre know it, but the bastard's political credentials were so good Pierre let Saint-Just turn the entire board of inquiry into one gigantic whitewash. So there's still no open channel I can use to let the rest of the officer corps know what really happened, and that's making all of them even more nervous than they ought to be over whatever "secret weapons" the Manties are coming up with this time around. Thank God Diamato got back alive... but it took over two months for the medics to put him back together well enough for us to get anything coherent even out of him.