And it didn't help any that Stew and his friends poached the entire first production run of the new birds, either, Tremaine reflected. But there was no rancor in the thought. The COLACs for all six of the first group of carriers had served as squadron commanders under Jackie Harmon. They were, in fact, the only squadron COs to survive Second Hancock, and they'd paid cash for their promotions. Less than half of HMS Minotaur' s wing had survived the battle, but they'd massacred the Peep battleships once the enemy's formation came unglued. Ashford's own LAC crew had a confirmed total of three battleship kills, and his squadron as a whole had killed five.
   If anyone in the Service had earned the right to trade in their original Shrike —class LACs for the new Shrike-A s, they were the ones.
   Besides, Tremaine gloated, they may've gotten the Shrike-As, but my people got the first B models, and we got the Ferrets at the same time Incubus and her people did. And even if we hadn't, Stew's a nice guy. He's saved me a hell of a lot of grief by taking me under his wing, so to speak, too.
   "They were dead meat, all right. Except for one little detail the Admiral neglected to mention to us." He tapped the play key, and watched with that same crooked grin as the sim unfolded.
   Everything went exactly as planned — right up to the moment his LACs reached graser range, turned in to attack... and four of the eight "merchantmen" dropped their ECM. Three superdreadnoughts and a dreadnought opened fire simultaneously, and not even the powerful bow-walls of the Shrike-B or the Ferret could stave off the devastating effects of a ship of the wall's energy batteries. Sixty-three of Tremaine's LACs "died" in the first broadsides, and the remaining forty-five, squadron organizations shot to hell, scattered wildly. Thirty of them managed to roll ship and yank the throats of their wedges away from the capital ships, but one of the SDs was a Medusa —class, and she was already rolling pods. Not even the Shrike-B, with her aft-facing laser clusters and countermissiles could stave off that sort of firepower, and only thirteen of Tremaine's LACs had managed to escape destruction. Seven of them had been so badly damaged that they would have been written off on their return to Hydra (in real life, at any rate).
   "Hoooo, boy!" Ashford shook his head in sympathy... and sudden wariness. "The Old Lady's always been on the sneaky side, but this is the first time she ever did something like that. No warning at all?"
   "None," Tremaine replied with a sort of morbid pride. "Of course, as she was happy to point out afterward, not a one of us — including me — ever bothered to make a specific, visual confirmation on the targets. We trusted out sensors, instead, and we shouldn't have relied solely on them. After all, she did warn us that we were going up against Manticoran `merchies,' so someone in the wing should have reflected on what that meant in terms of EW upgrades for any possible escorts she hadn't warned us about. We didn't. And before you ask, yes, I specifically got her permission to show this to you. Permission, I might add, which I received with somewhat mixed emotions."
   "Mixed?" Ashford looked up from the display and crooked an eyebrow.
   "Well, misery loves company, Stew. It was embarrassing as hell to get handed my head this way, and I think I would have taken a certain comfort from having it happen to all the rest of you, too." Ashford chuckled, and Tremaine's eyes twinkled as he went on. "But then I thought about it, and something else occurred to me. If she went to such lengths to swat my wing in such an abundantly nasty way, and if she doesn't mind if I warn you about how she did it ahead of time, then what does that say about the nastiness she must have in mind to surprise you? I mean, after all, you're forewarned now, so she's going to have to come up with something really wicked for you, don't you think?"
   His smile was beatific, but Ashford's vanished abruptly. His expression was absolutely blank for several heartbeats, and then he glared at Tremaine.
   "You are a sick, sick man, Commander Tremaine."
   "Guilty as charged. But I'll be looking forward to seeing what she does to you."
   "Yeah? Well this is all your fault anyway, you know."
   "My fault? And just how do you figure that? I'm the one she did it to first!"
   "Uh-huh. But she wasn't doing this kind of stuff at all before she went back to Saganami Island for that conference last week. You and I both know who she spent all that time conferring with, now don't we? And if not for you and those other jokers on Hades, Duchess Harrington wouldn't have been available to help her think up this sort of thing, now would she?"
   "Um." Tremaine scratched an eyebrow. "You know, you're right. I hadn't thought about it, but this is exactly the sort of thing Lady Harrington would've done. Heck, I've seen her do it, for that matter!" He gazed back down at the display for several seconds, then nodded. "And I know exactly why she and Admiral Truman did it, too."
   "Naturally evil and sadistic natures?" Ashford suggested, and Tremaine laughed.
   "Hardly. Nope, they wanted to remind me — all of us, actually, because I'm sure this was only the first whack — just how fragile these birds are. I figure we can mix it up with screening units, including battlecruisers, at just about any range, and we can probably go in against battleships with a good chance of success. But against proper ships of the wall?" He shook his head. "Unless we've got an absolutely overwhelming numerical advantage, there's no way we could realistically hope to take out a dreadnought or a superdreadnought. And even then, there'd be an awful lot of empty bunks in flight crew territory afterward! Which is one of the points they wanted to make."
   "One of the points?" Ashford looked at him quizzically, and Tremaine shrugged.
   "Yep. I feel confident that we'll be hearing about several others when the Admiral drops by for our debrief, but I can already tell you what at least one of them will be." He paused, and Ashford made a little "go on" gesture. "Lady Harrington's said it a million times, Stew: there are very few true `surprises' in naval combat. `Surprise' is what happens when someone's seen something all along... and thought it was something else. Which is a pretty fair description of what happened here, don't you think?"
   "Yeah, I suppose it is," Ashford said after a moment. "Then again, how likely is it that Peep ECM could fool us at that short a range?"
   "I don't know. Maybe not very... but it'd be even less likely if we were watching for it, now wouldn't it? And come to think of it, I know at least one Peep tac witch who probably could fool us."
   Ashford looked up from the display, eyes bright with curiosity, but he reined himself in quickly. Tremaine could almost feel the intensity with which the captain longed to ask him just which Peep tactical officer he'd managed to strike up a personal acquaintance with. But he didn't ask... and Tremaine chose not to tell him. In fact, he rather regretted having said a thing about it. Like the other survivors from Prince Adrian, he'd made a point of not saying a word to anyone about the efforts Lester Tourville and Shannon Foraker had made to see to it that they were treated decently. By now, ONI knew Tourville was one of the Peep admirals who'd trounced the Allies so severely in Esther McQueen's offensive, and it looked like Foraker was still his tac officer. Given that, Tremaine supposed it would have made sense, in a cold-blooded, calculating sort of way, to see if they couldn't convince State Security to shoot the two of them. But the survivors had decided, individually and without discussion or debate, to keep their mouths shut. The newsies had crawled all over every escapee from Hell they could find — indeed, Scotty was amazed that Dame Honor and Nimitz (or Andrew LaFollet) hadn't killed or even crippled a single reporter, given how relentlessly they'd hounded "the Salamander"—but not one report had mentioned Tourville or Foraker.
   "In any case, it won't hurt a bit for us to be on guard against this kind of thing," he said after a moment, nodding at the display. "And truth to tell, I'll bet she and the Admiral saw it as an opportunity to work on anti-LAC tactics of their own."
   "You don't really think the Peeps are going to be able to match our birds, do you?" Ashford failed to keep the incredulity entirely out of his voice, and Tremaine chuckled.
   "Not anytime soon, no. On the other hand, don't get too uppity about the differences in our hardware. I had an opportunity to look at a lot of their stuff up close and personal, and it's not as bad as you might think. Not as good as ours, in most cases, but better than most of our people seem to assume." He paused, then grimaced. "Well, better than I'd ever assumed, anyway, and I doubt I was unique."
   "Then how come they keep getting their ears pinned back?"
   "I said their stuff wasn't as good as ours... but most of it's probably as good as anything anyone else has. Their real problem is that they don't know how to get the best out of what they've already got. Their software sucks, for instance, and most of their maintenance is done by commissioned personnel, not petty officers and ratings. Oh—" Tremaine waved both hands "—they don't have anything like the FTL com, and they haven't cracked the new compensators, the new beta nodes, or any of that stuff. But look at their missile pods. They're not as good as ours, but they go for a brute force approach to put enough extra warheads into a salvo to pretty much even the odds. And think about Ghost Rider. It's going to be years before they can match our new remote EW capability, but if they wanted to accept bigger launchers and lower missile load-outs, they could probably match the extended range capabilities of Ghost Rider's offensive side. Heck, build the suckers big enough, and they could do it with off-the-shelf components, Stew!"
   "Hmph! Have to be really big brutes to pull it off," Ashford grumbled. "Too big to be effective as shipboard weapons, anyway."
   "What about launching them from a pod format for system defense?" Tremaine challenged. "For that matter, put enough of them in single-shot launchers on tow behind destroyers and light cruisers, even if they had to trade 'em out on a one-for-one basis with entire pods of normal missiles, and they could still get a useful salvo off. I'm not saying they can meet us toe-to-toe on our terms. I'm only saying that a Peep admiral or tac officer who knows how to get maximum performance out of his hardware can still do one hell of a lot of damage, however good we are. Or think we are."
   "You're probably right," Ashford admitted slowly. "And they can afford to take more damage than we can, too, can't they?"
   "That they can... at the moment. Of course, that could change with the new designs and—"
   The hatch to the sim compartment slid open, and Tremaine broke off as he turned towards it. Then his face lit with an enormous smile as a sandy-haired man with a prizefighter's build and a battered face stepped through it.
   "Chief!" the commander exclaimed, stepping forward quickly, then paused as the newcomer held up one hand in a "stop" gesture, pointed at his collar insignia with his other hand, and gave a huge, toothy grin.
   "Whoa! I mean Chief Warrant Officer Harkness!" Tremaine said with a grin of his own, and finished throwing his arms around the older man in a bear hug.
   Stewart Ashford blinked at the sight, for commissioned officers did not normally greet their subordinates quite that enthusiastically. But then the name registered, and he gave the warrant officer a sudden, eagle-eyed second look.
   Tremaine had eased up on the hug, though he still held the older man by the upper arms, and Ashford nodded. The crimson, blue, and white ribbon of the Parliamentary Medal of Valor could not be mistaken, even if this was only the third time he'd ever actually seen it on anyone. Besides, he should have recognized the man who wore it instantly. That battered face had certainly looked out of enough HDs and 'faxes once the newsies got hold of the details of PNS Tepes' destruction.
   "Captain Ashford," Tremaine began, turning back to face him, "this is—"
   "—Chief Warrant Officer Sir Horace Harkness, I believe," Ashford finished. Harkness came to attention and started a salute, but Ashford's hand beat him to it. As was only fitting. Anyone who'd won the PMV was entitled to take a salute from anyone who hadn't, and that was one tradition for which the captain felt no resentment at all.
   "I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr. Harkness," the captain said as the warrant officer returned his salute. "I won't belabor the reasons — I imagine you're well and truly tired of hearing about them anyway — but I do have one request."
   "Request, Sir?" Harkness repeated cautiously, and Ashford grinned.
   "It's only a small one, Sir Horace, but you see, some time ago, someone dropped a little surprise into my LAC's computers. It was a legitimate trick, I suppose, under the circumstances, since, as Commander Tremaine here was just reminding me, the object is for us to learn to expect the unexpected. But as he was also just reminding me, misery loves company, and it just occurred to me that doctoring the computers could be the sort of tradition I should be passing on to some poor bast — er, I mean some deserving soul in my own wing. And since I understand you have a certain way with computers... ?"
   His voice trailed off suggestively, and Harkness grinned.
   "Now, Sir, that would hardly be a nice thing to do. And I've sort of promised the Navy I'd swear off playing with computer systems in return for a certain, ah, lack of scrutiny where a few of my records over at BuPers are concerned. And maybe one or two minor files at the Judge Advocate General's office, too. And then there was that— Well, never mind. The point is, I'm not supposed to be doing that kind of thing anymore."
   "But it would be in a very good cause," Ashford pointed out persuasively.
   "Sure it would," Harkness agreed with a snort. "You just go right on telling yourself that, Sir. Me, I can't help thinking what you really want is to see to it that you're not the only one it happens to."
   "Oh, there's some of that in it," Ashford admitted cheerfully. Then his expression sobered just a bit. "But as Commander Tremaine just discovered, surprise actually is a legitimate teaching tool, and better my boys and girls get some egg on their faces from something I do to them than sail all fat and happy into something the Peeps do to them."
   "There's something to that, Chief. I mean Chief Warrant Officer," Tremaine said.
   "Chief's just fine, Sir," Harkness told him, then shrugged. "Well, I guess if the Captain really wants it, I'll just have to see what I can do for him. Assuming that's all right with you, anyway, Sir."
   "Me?" Tremaine raised an eyebrow, and Harkness nodded.
   "Yes, Sir. Seems like I'm your new senior flight engineer, Mr. Tremaine. I know it's supposed to be a commissioned slot, but I guess BuPers decided that under the circumstances, seeing as how I've already spent so much time keepin' an eye on you and all, you'd just have to make do with me. Unless you'd rather not, of course?"
   "Rather not?" Tremaine shook his head and slapped the older man on the upper arm. "Do I look like I'm crazy?" Harkness grinned and opened his mouth, but Tremaine cut him off in the nick of time. "Don't answer that, Sir Horace!" he said hastily. "But in answer to your question, no. There's no one I'd rather have."
   "Well, good," Chief Warrant Officer Sir Horace Harkness, PMV, CGM, and DSO said. " 'Cause it looks like you're sorta stuck with me, Sir." He paused. "Until the shore patrol turns up, anyway!"


   Honor was buried in paperwork when a hand rapped gently on her Advanced Tactical Course office door. She didn't notice the quiet sound in her preoccupation... until it rapped again, harder, and a throat cleared itself with pointed firmness.
   That got her attention, and she looked up.
   "Commander Jaruwalski is here, Ma'am," James MacGuiness said in the tone he reserved for those private moments when his wayward charge required chiding, and Honor chuckled. His eyes twinkled back ever so slightly, but the look he gave her was stern, and she composed her own expression into a properly chastened one.
   "Yes, Mac," she said meekly. "Would you show her in, please?"
   "In a moment, Ma'am," he replied, and crossed to her desk. It was littered with data chips, the remnants of her working lunch, a sticky-looking cocoa mug, the crusty rim of a slice of Key lime pie, a two-thirds-devoured bowl of celery, and an empty beer stein. As she looked on in faint bemusement, MacGuiness caused all that clutter — except the data chips — to teleport itself neatly onto the tray on which he'd delivered lunch in the first place. It couldn't possibly be as easy as he made it appear, Honor thought, and then smiled as his brisk fingers twitched and flipped even her data chips into seeming order. He took another second to straighten the flower arrangement on the credenza, check Nimitz and Samantha's perch, and scrutinize Honor's uniform. A speck of fluff on her right shoulder earned an ever so slight frown, and he flicked it off with a tiny sniff.
   "Now I'll show her in, Ma'am," he said then, and departed with his tray in austere majesty, leaving the large office magically neat and tidy behind him.
   Nimitz bleeked quizzically from his place beside Samantha, and Honor smiled as she tasted their shared delight. She couldn't be certain whether they were more amused by the arcane fashion in which MacGuiness created order out of chaos or by the firm manner in which he managed her, but it didn't really matter.
   "No, I don't know how he does it either," she told them, choosing to assume it was the former, and both 'cats radiated silent laughter into the back of her mind.
   She shook her head at them, then tipped back in her chair to await her guest.
   It was odd, she thought. Or she supposed many people would find it so, at any rate. James MacGuiness had to be the wealthiest steward in the history of the Royal Manticoran Navy. If he was still in the Navy, that was. She'd left him forty million dollars in her will, and he'd known better than even to try to give it back when she turned back up alive. Most people with that kind of money would have been out hiring servants of their own, but MacGuiness had made it quietly but firmly clear, without ever actually saying so, that he was, and intended to remain, Honor's steward.
   She'd tried, in rather half-hearted fashion, to convince him to remain on Grayson as Harrington House's majordomo. He'd shown a pronounced gift for managing the staff there (which, in Honor's opinion, was far too large... as if anyone cared what she thought about it), and she'd known how badly Clinkscales and her parents would miss his unobtrusive efficiency. More than that, Nimitz and Samantha had left their 'kittens behind. The kids were old enough now to be fostered, and they would certainly suffer no shortage of 'cat parenting with Hera, Athena, Artemis, and all the males prepared to keep a wary eye on their mischief making. The normal pattern, in the very rare instances in which a female 'cat who had adopted a human also produced a litter of 'kittens, was to foster them at two or three T-years of age. Samantha's need to remain at the side of her mate while he grappled with the loss of his mental voice had simply added a bit more urgency than usual to the fostering arrangement.
   But MacGuiness had been the 'kittens' human foster parent for over two T-years. Honor knew how hard it had been for him to leave the cuddly, rambunctious, loving, chaos-inducing balls of downy fur behind, and she'd tasted the 'kittens' wistful sadness at his departure, as well. And it wasn't as if he'd had to follow her back off Grayson. At her own "posthumous" request, the RMN had allowed him to resign in order to remain permanently at Harrington House. And, she admitted, she hadn't asked the Service to do so simply because of his role in her Grayson establishment. She'd dragged him into and — barely — out of far too many battles, and she'd wanted him safely on the sidelines.
   Unfortunately, that was an option she didn't appear to have. She still wasn't sure how he'd gotten his way... again. They'd never argued about it. There'd been no need to. By some form of mental judo which put her own skill at coup de vitesse to shame, he'd simply avoided the entire discussion and appeared aboard the Paul Tankersley for the trip to the Star Kingdom. Nor had the Navy been any more successful at imposing its own, institutional sense of order on the situation. MacGuiness had never reenlisted and showed no particular desire to do so... yet no one in the Service seemed aware that he hadn't. Honor was positive that, as a civilian, he must be in violation of about a zillion regulations in his current position. The security aspects of the ATC materials to which he had access alone must be enough to drive a good, paranoid ONI counterintelligence type berserk! But no one seemed to have the nerve to tell him he was breaking the rules.
   Which, if she were going to be honest, was precisely how she preferred things. There'd been a time when the mere thought of a permanent personal servant had seemed preposterous and presumptuous. In many ways, it still did... but MacGuiness was no more her "servant" than Nimitz was. She didn't know precisely how to characterize their actual relationship, but that didn't matter at all. What mattered was that commodore, admiral, steadholder, or duchess, she was still James MacGuiness' captain, and he was still her keeper and friend.
   Even if he was a multimillionaire civilian these days.
   She chuckled again, then banished her fond smile as MacGuiness returned with a dark, hawk-faced woman in an RMN commander's uniform. It wasn't hard to assume a more solemn expression, for the dark cloud of the other woman's emotions — a wary bitterness and dread, only slightly lightened by a small sense of curiosity — reached out to her like a harsh hand, and it was all she could do not to wince in sympathy.
   I think my suspicion must have been right about on the money.And I wish it hadn't been. But maybe we can do a little something about this after all.
   "Commander Jaruwalski, Your Grace," MacGuiness announced with the flawless formality he saved for times when company was present.
   "Thank you, Mac." Honor said, then rose and held out her hand to Jaruwalski. "Good afternoon, Commander. Thank you for arriving so promptly on such short notice."
   "It wasn't all that short, Your Grace." Jaruwalski's soprano sounded very much like Honor's own, but with a washed-out, beaten down undertone. "And to be honest, it wasn't as if I had a lot of other things to be doing anyway," Jaruwalski added with what was probably meant to be a smile.
   "I see." Honor squeezed her hand firmly, for just a moment longer than was strictly necessary, then broke the handclasp to gesture at the chair which faced her desk. "Please, be seated. Make yourself comfortable." She waited until Jaruwalski had settled herself, then crooked an eyebrow. "Are you a beer drinker, by any chance, Commander?"
   "Why, yes. I am, Your Grace." The commander was clearly surprised by the question, and that surprise seemed to cut through a bit of her enshrouding gloom.
   "Good!" Honor said, and looked at MacGuiness. "In that case, Mac, would you bring us a couple of steins of Old Tilman, please?"
   "Of course, Your Grace." The steward glanced courteously at Jaruwalski. "Would the Commander like anything to go with her beer?"
   "No, thank you. The beer will be just fine... Mr. MacGuiness." The brief pause and her hesitant use of the civilian address echoed Honor's earlier thoughts, but her confusion over MacGuiness' status was definitely a secondary concern for her at the moment. It was obvious from the taste of her emotions that no flag officers had been in the habit of inviting her to drop by for a beer over the course of the last T-year.
   "Very good, Ma'am," MacGuiness murmured, and withdrew with a silence any treecat might have envied.
   Jaruwalski gazed after him for a moment, then turned resolutely back to face Honor. There was something very like quiet defiance in her body language, and Honor hid another wince as she tasted the bitterness behind the other woman's dark eyes.
   "No doubt you're wondering why I asked you to come see me," she said after the briefest of pauses.
   "Yes, Your Grace, I am," Jaruwalski replied in a flattened voice. "You're the first flag officer who's wanted to see me since the Seaford Board finished its deliberations." She smiled and gave a slight, bitter toss of her head. "In fact, you're the first senior officer who hasn't seemed to be going out of her way to avoid seeing me, if you'll forgive my bluntness."
   "I'm not surprised to hear that," Honor said calmly. "Under the circumstances, I suppose I'd be astonished if it had been any other way." Jaruwalski's nostrils flared, and Honor tasted her instant, inner bristling. But she gave no sign of it as she continued in that same deliberate tone. "There's always a temptation to shoot the messenger if the news is bad, even among people who ought to know better than to blame her for it. Who do know better, when all's said."
   Jaruwalski didn't — quite — blink, but Honor tasted a sudden watchful stillness at the commander's core. She'd answered Honor's summons unwillingly and come to this office wary and defensive, trying with forlorn pride to hide her inner wounds. It was clear she'd expected those wounds to be ripped open once again, but Honor's response had robbed her of that expectation. Now she didn't know just what Honor did want, and that made her feel uncertain and exposed. However much the contempt with which she'd been treated had hurt, at least it had been something she'd understood. And she dared not let herself hope this meeting might produce anything except more of the same.
   Not yet, at any rate, Honor thought, and looked away as MacGuiness reappeared with two frosty steins of dark amber beer. He'd taken time to put together a small tray of cheese and raw vegetables, as well, and she shook her head with a smile as he set his burden on the corner of her desk and whisked out a snowy napkin for each of them.
   "You are entirely too prone to spoil people, Mac," she told him severely.
   "I wouldn't say that, Your Grace," he replied calmly.
   "Not in front of a guest, anyway," she teased. It was his turn to shake his head at her, and then he withdrew once more and she looked back at Jaruwalski.
   The commander had smiled, almost despite herself, at the exchange. Now she pushed the smile off her lips, but without quite the same wariness, and Honor waved at the stein closer to her.
   "Help yourself, Commander," she invited, and took a deep swallow of her own beer. It was all she could do not to sigh as the rich, crisp brew slid down her throat. Of all the things she'd missed on Hell, she often thought she'd missed Old Tilman most. The StateSec garrison had imported Peep beer (most of which could have been poured back into the horse and left the universe a better place, in Honor's opinion) and some of the SS personnel and prisoners had tried their hands at brewing. But none of them had managed to get it right. For that matter, Honor had come to suspect that some subtle mutation in the hops or barley grown on Sphinx was responsible for the unique and outstanding products of the Tilman Brewery.
   Jaruwalski seemed to hear the sigh Honor didn't permit herself, and her mouth twitched. Then she settled back in her chair and took a slow, appreciative swallow of her own.
   Honor was careful not to show the deep satisfaction she felt as the commander relaxed. It was unusual for a flag officer to offer a subordinate beer, or anything else even mildly alcoholic, during "business hours." On the other hand, the circumstances of this meeting were hardly usual, and Jaruwalski had obviously faced more than her fair share of excruciatingly formal meetings since the Second Battle of Seaford.
   Honor gave the other woman a few more moments, then leaned forward and set down her beer.
   "As I said, I'm sure you wondered what it was I wanted to see you about," she said quietly. Jaruwalski stiffened back up just a little, but said nothing. She only gazed back at Honor, waiting. "You probably had a few suspicions — none of them pleasant, I imagine — about why someone from the Admiralty might want to see you, but you couldn't imagine why I should ask you to come by my office. Unless, of course, I intended to use you as some sort of `horrible example' for Crusher candidates, since it must have become obvious to you that you had no hope of further promotion after Seaford."
   Her voice was conversational, almost mild, and it hurt Jaruwalski even more because it lacked the vitriol she must have heard from so many others.
   "I did wonder, Your Grace," she said after a moment, trying very hard to keep the hurt and bitterness from showing. "I rather doubted that you intended to offer me a shot at the Crusher," she added in a gallant attempt at humor.
   "No, I don't," Honor told her. "But I may able to offer you something you'll find equally interesting."
   "You may?" Surprise startled Jaruwalski into the cardinal sin of interrupting an admiral, and her dark face grew still darker as she realized it had.
   "I may," Honor repeated, and tipped her chair back. "Before we go any further, Commander, I should perhaps tell you that I once served under Elvis Santino," she said, and paused. This time she obviously expected a response, and Jaruwalski cocked her head to one side and narrowed her eyes.
   "You did, Your Grace? I didn't know that."
   And you don't know just where I'm headed, either. But you will, Commander.
   "Yes. In fact, I first met him on my middy cruise. We deployed to Silesia in the old War Maiden, and he was assistant tac officer." Jaruwalski's face twisted ever so slightly at that, and Honor smiled with no humor at all. "You may, perhaps, begin to suspect why I was less surprised than many to hear about what happened at Seaford," she said in a kiln-dry tone.
   "I take it he was... less than stellar in that role, Your Grace?" The commander's soprano was as dry as Honor's own, hiding the hatred which had welled up within her at the mention of Santino's name, yet it also held an echo of something like humor.
   "You might say that," Honor allowed. "Or you might say that, as a tac officer, he needed four astro fixes, a hyper log, approach radar, and a dirtside flight controller with full computer support just to find his backside with both hands. On a good day."
   This time Jaruwalski found it impossible to hide her surprise. Her eyes widened at the scathing condemnation of Honor's tone, and she sat very still.
   "I've read the Board's report on Seaford," Honor went on after a moment, in a more normal voice. "Having known Santino, I suspect I have a better grasp than many of what went on — or didn't, as the case may be — in his head. I've never understood how he managed to scrape through the Crusher himself, or how even someone with his family connections could get promoted so high with such a dismal performance record. But I wasn't a bit surprised by the fact that he clearly panicked when it hit the fan."
   "Excuse me, Your Grace, but I was under the impression that many senior officers felt he ought to have `panicked'... and didn't. Or I thought the consensus was that he should have been cautious enough not to close head-on with the enemy when they outnumbered him so heavily, at least."
   "There's panic, and then there's panic, Commander. Fear of the odds, of the enemy, even of death is one thing. All of us feel that. We'd be fools if we didn't. But we learn not to let it dictate our responses. We can't, if we're going to do our jobs.
   "But there's another sort of terror: the terror of failure, of being blamed for some disaster, or of assuming responsibility. It's not just the fear of dying; it's the fear of living through something like Seaford while everyone laughs behind your back at what an idiot you were to allow yourself to be placed in such a disastrous situation. And the fact that Elvis Santino really was an idiot only made that fear worse in his case."
   She paused, tilting her head to study Jaruwalski with her working eye. The commander met her gaze steadily, but she was clearly uneasy. She agreed completely with Honor's assessment of Santino, yet she was only a commander... and one whose career had come to a crashing halt. A commander had no business criticizing any admiral, and given her situation, anything she said would have to sound self-serving.
   "I was particularly struck by three points in the Board's report, all relating more or less directly to you, Commander," Honor continued after a few heartbeats. "One was that a flag officer about to face the enemy in an extremely uneven battle deprived himself of an experienced tactical officer who'd obviously been on the station long enough to have a much better grasp of local conditions than he did. The second was that having done so, he went to the length of having that tac officer removed from his flagship and took time to dictate a message explaining her relief for `lack of offensive-mindedness,' `lack of preparedness,' and `failure to properly execute her duties.' And the third... The third point, Commander, was that you never defended yourself against his charges. Would you care to comment on any of those points?"
   "Ma'am— Your Grace, I can't comment on them." Jaruwalski's voice was frayed about the edges, and she swallowed hard. "Admiral Santino is dead. So is every other member of his staff and any other individual who might have heard or seen what actually happened. It would... . I mean, how could I expect anyone to believe that—"
   Her voice broke, and she waved both hands in a small, helpless gesture. For just a moment, the mask slipped, and all the vulnerability and hurt she'd sought so hard to hide looked out of her eyes at Honor. But then she drew a deep breath, and the mask came back once more.
   "There was a time in my life, Commander," Honor said conversationally, "when I, too, thought no one would believe me if I disputed a senior's version of events. He was very nobly born, and wealthy, with powerful friends and patrons, and I was a yeoman's daughter from Sphinx, with no sponsors, and certainly with no family wealth or power to back me up. So I kept quiet about his actions... and it very nearly ruined my career. Not once, but several times, until we finally wound up on the Landing City dueling grounds."
   Jaruwalski's mouth opened in surprise as she realized who Honor was talking about, but Honor went right on in that same casual tone.
   "Looking back, I can see that anyone who knew him would have recognized the truth when they heard it, if only I'd had the confidence to tell them. Or perhaps what I really needed was confidence in myself — in the idea that the Navy might actually value me as much as it did a useless, over-bred, arrogant parasite who happened to be an earl's son. And, to be honest, there was a sense of guilt in my silence, as well. A notion that somehow I must have contributed to what happened, that at least part of it truly was my fault."
   She paused and smiled crookedly.
   "Does any of that sound familiar to you, Commander?" she asked very quietly after a moment.
   "I—" Jaruwalski stared at her, and Honor sighed.
   "Very well, Commander. Let me tell you what I think happened on Hadrian's flag deck when Lester Tourville came over the hyper wall. I think Elvis Santino hadn't put himself to the trouble of reviewing the tactical plans he'd inherited from Admiral Hennesy. I think he was taken totally by surprise, and I think that because he hadn't bothered to review Hennesy's — and your — contingency plans, he didn't have a clue about what to do. I think he panicked because he knew the Admiralty would realize he hadn't had a clue when it read his after-action report. And I think that the two of you argued over the proper response. That you protested his intentions and that he took out his fear and anger on you by relieving you... and taking the time on the very edge of battle to send along a message with no specifics at all, only allegations so general you couldn't effectively dispute them, which he knew would finish your career. And, of course, just incidentally make you the whipping girl for anything that went wrong after your departure, since it would clearly have been your lack of preparedness, not his, which had created the situation. Is that a fairly accurate summation, Commander?"
   Silence hovered in the office, hard and bitter, as Jaruwalski stared into Honor's one good eye. The tension seemed to sing higher and higher, and then the commander's shoulders slumped.
   "Yes, Ma'am," she said, her near-whisper so quiet Honor could scarcely hear her. "That's... pretty much what happened."
   Honor leaned back once more, her face no more than calmly thoughtful, while she and both of her friends strained their empathic senses to assay that soft reply. It would be very easy for someone who truly had been guilty of Santino's allegations to lie and agree with her, but there was no falsehood in Andrea Jaruwalski. There was enormous pain, and sorrow, and a bitter resentment that no one before Honor had bothered to reach the same conclusions, but no lie, and Honor drew a breath of mingled relief and satisfaction.
   "I thought it might have been," she said, almost as quietly as Jaruwalski had spoken. "I reviewed your scores from the regular Tactical Officer's Course, and they didn't seem to go with someone who suffers from a lack of offensive-mindedness. Neither did the string of excellent efficiency evaluations in your personnel jacket. But someone had to take it in the neck over Seaford, and Santino wasn't available. Not to mention the fact that even people who'd met him had to wonder if this time he might not have had a point, since surely not even he would dismiss the officer he most desperately needed if she hadn't screwed up massively. But you knew that, didn't you?"
   She paused, and Jaruwalski nodded jerkily.
   "Of course you did," Honor murmured. "And you didn't defend yourself by telling the Board what actually happened because you thought no one would believe you. That they'd assume you were trying to find some way — any way — to defuse the serious charges Santino had leveled against you."
   "No, I didn't think anyone would believe me," the other woman admitted, face and voice bleak. "And even if someone had been inclined to, as you say, he was dead. It would have been my unsupported word against that of an officer who'd been so disgusted by my lack of nerve that he'd taken time to make my cowardice and incompetence a part of the official record even as he headed into battle against hopeless odds."
   She shrugged with hard-edged helplessness, and Honor nodded.
   "That was what I thought. I could just see Santino's face as he dictated that message, and I knew a little too much about his `lack of offensive-mindedness.' And his laziness. And his habit of looking for scapegoats."
   It was her turn to shrug, with a very different emphasis, and silence stretched out between them. It radiated from Honor's desk like ripples of quiet, flowing over them both, and she tasted the relief, almost worse than pain, as Jaruwalski realized there truly was one person in the universe who believed what had actually happened.
   The commander picked up her stein and took a long swallow, then inhaled deeply. Her face was closed off no longer, and in its relaxation it lost its masklike discipline. Now it was almost gaunt, sagging with the weariness and pain its owner had hidden for so long, and her eyes were intent as she studied Honor's expression.
   "Your Grace, I can never tell you how much it helps to hear you say what you've just said. It's probably too late to make any difference where my career is concerned, but just knowing one person understands what really happened, is—" She shook her head. "I can't begin to say how important that is to me. But grateful as I am, I can't help wondering why you've bothered to take the time to tell me."
   "Because I have a question for you, Commander," Honor said. "A very important one, actually."
   "Of course, Ma'am." There was a faint edge of fresh fear in the taste of the commander's emotions, a worry that whatever Honor wanted to know would destroy her sense of understanding. But even though she waited with inner dread for the second shoe to drop, her voice was steady and she met Honor's gaze without flinching.
   "What advice did you give Admiral Santino?" Honor asked very quietly.
   "I advised him to withdraw immediately, Your Grace." Jaruwalski never hesitated. She knew Honor's reputation, and Honor felt her fear as if it were her own — the fear that the one person who'd guessed what had happened would decide that perhaps the admiral's allegations had been accurate after all. That Jaruwalski had given in to the counsel of her own fears. The fact that Honor had obviously considered Santino a feckless incompetent didn't necessarily mean the woman the newsies called the Salamander wouldn't have looked for some intelligent form of offensive action rather than supinely surrender her command area. But Honor had asked a question... and Andrea Jaruwalski had answered it honestly, despite her dread that her honesty would cost her the only sympathetic ear she'd found in almost a T-year of bitter humiliation.
   "Good," Honor said softly, and smiled crookedly as the commander twitched.
   She didn't know whether she would have called Jaruwalski's answer "good" if not for her link to Nimitz and her ability to experience the commander's emotions and honesty directly. She liked to hope she would have, yet her own nagging honesty made her wonder if she really would have been able to look at the reply with sufficient dispassion for that. But it didn't really matter at the moment.
   "I'm glad to hear you say that," she went on after a moment. "Glad because it was the right decision, given the value — or lack of value — of Seaford Nine's facilities and the weight of metal you faced. And glad because you didn't waffle when I asked. I rather suspected what sort of person would make Elvis Santino feel so small he would overcome his own terror long enough to ensure the destruction of her career. Now I've had an opportunity to see for myself, and I'm glad I have."
   "You are, Your Grace?" Jaruwalski sounded stunned, as if she were unable even now to fully credit what she was hearing, and Honor nodded.
   "We assume a certain level of physical courage in a Queen's officer, Andrea," she said. "And usually, by and large, we find it. It may not say great things for human intelligence that our officers are more concerned with living up to the Saganami tradition, at least in the eyes of their fellows, than of dying, but it's a very useful foible when it comes to winning wars.
   "But what we ought to treasure far more deeply is the moral courage to shoulder all of an officer's responsibilities. To look past the `Saganami tradition' and see the point at which her true responsibility as a Queen's officer requires her to do something which may end her career. Or, worse, earn her the contempt of those whose good opinion she values but who weren't there, didn't see the choices she had to make. I ordered one of my closest friends to surrender his ship to the Peeps. He was fully prepared to go out fighting, just as I suppose I might have been in his place. But my responsibility was to see to it that his people's lives weren't sacrificed in a battle we couldn't possibly win.