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Chapter Forty

The harsh buzzer woke her. Nimitz complained sleepily as she sat up, and she didn't blame him. They'd just gotten to sleep, but as she always seemed to do in the morning, she'd forgotten she was missing an arm. She woke with the instant awarenessmostlythat forty years of naval service had trained into her, only to try to push herself upright with two hands, not one, and overbalance. The sheets half-wrapped around her, spilling the 'cat over onto his back, and she felt his drowsy indignation as he opened one eye. It glinted like a lost emerald in the reflected light flashing from atop the bedside com unit, and she sent him a silent apology and reached for the acceptance key. The accusing emerald blinked, and then its neighbor opened and a slightly less sleepy sense of amused forgiveness came back to her.

She found the key and pressed it, accepting the call audio-only, then ran her hand over her tousled hair.

"Yes?" Her voice came out clogged with sleep, and she cleared her throat.

"Sorry to disturb you, Admiral, but this is Commander Phillips," a soprano voice said, and Honor felt her pulse stir as she registered the tension trying to crackle in its depths. She knew Phillips was one of Benson's watch officers, but there were over five thousand ex-prisoners on Styx now. She'd been too busy with her own duties and especially the courts-martialto pay as much attention as she would have liked to other matters, and she wasn't certain exactly which watch slot Phillips held.

"Captain Benson instructed me to alert you," the commander went on, then paused as if to await her reaction.

"Alert me to what, precisely, Commander?" she asked a bit more testily than was her wont.

"Sorry, Ma'am," Phillips said in a chastened tone. "I didn't mean to sound obscure. I'm the XO on Captain Benson's watch, and she asked me to tell you that the sensor net's picked up a hyper footprint at roughly twenty-one light-minutes."

Honor stiffened, and Nimitz rolled over and heaved himself upright in the tangled bedclothes beside her. Her gaze dropped to him again as he reached out and touched her thigh with a wiry true-hand, and his emotions reached out to hers as well, meeting her sudden tension head-on.

"I see," she told Phillips after only the briefest pause, her voice calm. "How long ago did they arrive? And has the challenge been transmitted?"

"We picked up the footprint about five minutes, Ma'am. We don't have it on light-speed sensors yet, but our near-space gravitic arrays say it's a single impeller source. We don't have a definitive mass, but it's accelerating in-system at over three hundred and ninety gravities, so it's not using a merchant-grade compensator. And, yes, Ma'am. Captain Benson instructed me to order the recorded challenge transmitted just over three minutes ago."

"I see," Honor repeated. She wished Benson had commed her sooner, but that was only because of her perennial dislike for delegating authority, and she knew it. Harriet had done exactly what she was supposed to do by sending the "StateSec" challenge on her own initiative immediately, as the real Black Legs would have done, rather than waiting until she could get word to Honor. And given that sending the challenge had initiated at least a twenty-nine-minute com loop, there had been no logical reason for her to rush reporting anything to Honor before her tracking team had been given time to refine their initial data as far as they could.

"Current range from Hades?" Honor asked after a moment.

"They're fourteen-point-six light-minutes from a zero/zero intercept with the planet, Ma'am," Phillips replied promptly. "They made a low-speed translationabout eight hundred KPSand their current velocity is up to just over nineteen hundred. That puts them right at a hundred and twenty-nine minutes from turnover with a decel period of a hundred and thirty-eight minutes. Call it four and a half hours from now."

"Thank you." Honor sat for a moment, considering the numbers, then nodded to herself in the darkened bedroom. "Very well, Commander. Tell Captain Benson I'll be there presently. In the meantime, she's to use her own judgment in responding to any additional com traffic. Is Commander Tremaine there?"

"He is, Admiral. And Senior Chief Harkness is on his way. I expect his arrival momentarily."

The undamaged corner of Honor's mouth quirked as the slight, prim note of disapproval in the other woman's voice brought her memory of the officer at the other end of her com suddenly into sharper focus. Commander Susan Phillips had been a computer specialist in the Sarawak System Navy. But she had also been on Hell for over forty T-years, and her training had been sadly out of date, even for Peep equipment, when her camp was liberated and she reached Styx. She'd done extremely well in the quickie refresher courses Honor had organized, but she was still rusty compared to Honor's people from Prince Adrian and Jason Alvarezor, for that matter, most of the other Allied POWs from the current war.

Phillips knew that, and for the most part, she accepted it with a good grace. But a part of her couldn't help resenting the fact that Tremaine, who was both junior to her and young enough to be her son, had been assigned to her watch specifically to handle any creative communication or electronic warfare requirements which might arise. Honor suspected she would have minded it less if Scotty had been even a little older, although the fact that he was third-generation prolong while Phillips was only second-generation must make it seem even worse to her. The Commander might have found it easier to have Anson Lethridge ride herd on herhe was only two T-years older than Scotty, but he, too, was second-generation prolong and looked considerably older. Unfortunately, Honor needed Anson on first watch.

But the same part of Phillips that resented Tremaine really resented the fact that Harkness, a mere senior chief, had become the chief cyberneticist of Hell.

Well, Honor sympathized in many ways, although she considered the commander's belief that officers could always do things better than senior noncoms foolish. Of course, Phillips came from a very different naval traditionthat of the Sarawak Republic, one of the liberal-thinking targets the Peeps had gobbled up in the early days of the DuQuesne Plan. The SSN had relied upon a professional officer corps, but Sarawak's advanced, egalitarian social theories had inspired it (unlike the dangerous, elitist plutocracy of Manticore) to use short-service conscripts to fill its enlisted and noncommissioned ranks. The result had produced something very like the present-day People's Navy, in which the service simply hadn't had its enlisted draftees long enough to train them up to Manticoran standards. Which meant that Phillips' ingrained belief that officers ought to be better at their jobs than petty officers represented her own experience, not blind prejudice. And to be fair, she was less resentful of Harkness' status than many of Honor's other non-Manticoran officers. Not to mention the fact that she was working diligently at getting rid of the resentment she still harbored. It just seemed to come a bit hard for her.

Which was too bad, Honor thought with a crooked grin, because Harkness wasn't going away. The senior chief might not have a commission, but he'd been doing his job considerably longer than Honor had been doing hers. Besides, after the better part of seven months crawling around inside Camp Charon's computers, Harkness knew them better than anyone else on Hellincluding the SS personnel Honor and her people had taken them away from. If any emergencies came up, she wanted the best person for the jobwhich meant Harknessthere to handle it.

"I understand, Commander," she said now, silently scolding herself for judging Phillips overly harshly. After all, they were from different navies, and it was as unrealistic for Honor to blame Phillips for having different traditions and expectations as it would have been for the commander to hold the same thing against Harkness. "I'll be there shortly. Harrington, clear."

She killed the com and reached for the bedroom light switch, and excitement burned within her.

Honor missed James MacGuiness even more than usual as she dressed. The fact that she had only one hand made things awkward at the best of times; when she tried to hurry herself, it only got worse. And what made her particularly irritated with herself was that she knew it did... and tried to rush herself anyway.

Nimitz chittered in amusement at the taste of her emotions, and she paused to shake a fist at him, then resumed her efforts more deliberately. She knew LaFollet, for one, thought she was foolish not to have selected another steward from among the prisoners her people had liberated, and she more than suspected that several of her senior officers agreed with him. McKeon certainly did, although Honor regarded Alistair's judgment as just a little suspect where the concept of her "pushing herself too hard" was involved. More than that, however, she knew mostnot all certainly, but mostof the enlisted or noncommissioned personnel she might have chosen would have been delighted to fill the role for her.

Yet despite her frustration with things like fastening the waist of her trousers one-handed, or sealing the old-fashioned buttons the GSN had insisted on using for its uniform blousesand which Henri Dessouix, after discussions with LaFollet, had insisted with equal stubbornness upon using in the name of "authenticity"she simply couldn't bring herself to do it. It was foolish, and she knew it, which only made her even more stubborn about refusing. But she simply couldn't.

Rear Admiral Styles was one reason, and she grimaced even now as the thought of him flickered across her brain. He continued to feel she had improperly usurped the authority which was rightfully his. And however inept he might be as a tactician or strategist (and she was coming to suspect that her original caustic estimate of his probable capabilities in those areas had been entirely too generous), he was obviously a genius at bureaucratic infighting. He reminded her irresistibly of a plant Grayson's original colonists had, for reasons none of their descendants could imagine, brought with them from old Earth. The vine, called kudzu, made an excellent ground cover, but it was almost impossible to get rid of, grew with ferocious energy, and choked out all competing flora with ruthless arrogance. Which was a pretty fair metaphor for Styles.

She found herself compelled to cut the Admiral back to size at least once per local week or so. The fact that he possessed far more bluster than backbone helped on those occasions, and he never persisted in attempting to undercut her authority twice in the same fashion once he'd pushed her to the point of bringing the hammer down on him for it the first time. Unfortunately, he'd played what McKeon scathingly called "pissing contests" for much too long to stay crushed. He either didn't believe she really would squash him once and for all, or else he was so stupid he genuinely didn't realize how much grief he was storing up for himself. Whatever his problem, he seemed capable of learning only one lesson at a time, and he was endlessly inventive when it came to finding new ways to goad her into the sort of temper explosions she hated.

She disliked admitting it even to herself, but that was one of the more ignoble reasons she refused to select a steward. Styles obviously wished to return to the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed as an RMN flag officer, with all the perks and privileges attached thereunto. The fact that he had done absolutely nothing to earn those perks or privileges was beside the point; he had the rank for them and so he was entitled to them. Except that if Honor chose not to claim them when her missing arm gave her such a good pretext for doing so, then he could hardly insist upon them without looking utterly ridiculous, and she took a spiteful pleasure she knew was petty in denying them to him.

And he should be grateful it's the only pleasure I allow myself where he's concerned, she thought grimly as she managed to get her blouse's collar buttoned. If I did what I'd like to do to him, they'd never find the body!

Nimitz yawned, baring sharp, white canines in a lazy grin while he radiated approval of that thought. Then he concentrated hard, and Honor smothered a sudden, sharp bark of laughter as he radiated the image of a Sphinx chipmunk with an unmistakable, if very chipmunkish, caricature of Styles' face, fleeing for its wretched life. She looked down at the 'cat in astonishment, for this was the first time he'd ever attempted to send her an image which obviously was not something he'd actually seen and simply stored in memory. But her astonishment turned into a helpless, fiendish giggle as the chipmunk vanished out one "side" of his projected image... and a brown-eyed treecat with bared claws, an eye patch, an RMN beret, and the red-and-gold shoulder boards of a commodore went bounding past in hot pursuit.

She half-sat, half-fell back down onto the edge of the bed, laughing delightedly, and Nimitz bleeked his matching delight at having gotten her to laugh. He sat up as straight as his crippled limb permitted, curling his tail primly around his true-feet, and groomed his whiskers at her with insufferable panache.

"You," she said severely, as soon as she could master her voice once more, "are a dreadful person and no respecter at all of rank or position, aren't you?"

He nodded complacently, and she smiled and reached out to caress his ears, then bent to pull her boots on. Despite Nimitz's opinion of Styles, however, she knew he was more dangerous than she cared to admit. Not because she thought anyone but him took him seriously, but because whatever else, he was the second-ranking Allied officer on the planet. Which meant that unless she was prepared to officially remove him, she couldn't cut him out of the chain of command, and he was quite capable of doing something outstandingly stupid in a fit of pique just to show her he wasn't to be taken lightly. Which probably meant that rubbing his nose in her opinion of him, however obliquely, wasn't the smartest thing in the entire universe that she could do. Unfortunately, just this once, and despite what Machiavelli had said about doing enemies small injuries, she couldn't help it. He was such a poisonous, irritating, pompous, stupid, officious, toad-like nonentity of an incompetent that she simply had to do something about him, and the fact that this particular response was almost as petty as he was made it so appropriate it was inevitable.

Besides, she told herself, whatever pleasure she might find in denying Styles the luxuries he coveted, there were other factors, as well. One was that she would have felt pretentious... which was also her less spiteful reason for refusing Styles. She had little doubt that most of the liberated POWs would have considered a steward her due. But she had no intention of building any walls between her and the people under her orders. It was bad enough that she'd been forced to claim her fleet admiral's rank to keep Styles in his place without assembling the sort of personal staff which would insulate her from the people who depended upon her leadership.

And there was a final reason, she admitted as she stood and collected her necktie. MacGuiness was her steward and she was his admiral, and she refused to allow anyone else to intrude into that relationship even temporarily.

Nimitz bleeked another laugh behind her, but it came with a wave of approval. MacGuiness was his friend, too, and, like Honor, he missed the steward badly. Besides, MacGuiness knew exactly how he preferred his rabbit roasted.

Honor looked back at the 'cat with one of her crooked grins, then crossed to her bedroom door and hit the open button with her elbow. It slid quietly aside and, as she had known she would, she found Andrew LaFollet already waiting, immaculate in one of the Harrington Guard uniforms Henri Dessouix had produced for him.

You know, Honor thought, I bet that's another reason Phillips waited five minutes to com me. I'll bet Harry had heror someonecom Andrew first.

She'd never considered it before, but now that she had, she wondered why it hadn't occurred to her much earlier. LaFollet had been willing to allow handpicked (by him) Marines from Hell's liberated POWs to spell him on guard duty when his Steadholder was asleep, but every single time something roused Honor in the middle of the night, he was always awake and waiting for her, as if he never slept at all. But he did, so the only way he could have managed to pretend he didn't was to make certain that anyone who contemplated waking her knew to wake him first. In fact, it was possibleno, knowing him it was probablethat he'd been vetting her calls and diverting any he felt someone else could handle just to ensure she got her sleep!

The thoughts flickered through her brain while the door was still opening, but she let no sign of them touch her expression. She intended to ask a few discreet questions to confirm her suspicions first. Of course, if she did find out that he'd been diverting calls, they were going to have to have one of their periodic little talks.

Not that she expected it to do a great deal of good. They never had before, after all.

I may not have Mac or Miranda along, but I'm sure both of them would approve of the way Andrew's taken over to mother-hen me for all of them, she thought wryly, and held out the tie.

"Help," was all she said, and then raised her chin so he could loop the ridiculous thing around her neck and knot it for her. I should have insisted that Henri make this thing a clip-on, whatever Andrew and Solomon had to say about it, she thought darkly, and waited patiently while LaFollet worked.

"There, My Lady," he said after a moment, and folded her collar down and buttoned it for her, as well.

"Thank you," she said, and returned to the bedroom for her tunic. She supposed there was no real reason she had to be properly uniformed in the middle of the night, but she refused to come running in half-dressed and out of breath. She'd always felt that taking the time to present the proper appearance was an important leadership function, however trivial it might seem to others. It was one way of demonstrating one's composure, a sort of subliminal statement of an officer's ability to exert control over the situation around her which her subordinates absorbed through their mental pores without really thinking about it. Or even if they did think about it and recognized it as a bit of subtle psychological warfare on their CO's part.

Of course, it was also true that she sometimes wondered how much of her belief in the importance of a proper appearance stemmed from personal vanity, she admitted with a small smile.

She collected her gold-braided Grayson cap from the top of her dresser, settled it on her head, and held out her arm to Nimitz. The 'cat still couldn't leap to it as he once would have, but he managed to walk up it to the crook of her elbow. She knew he felt her desire to pick him up like a kitten to make it easier on him, and she tasted the soft undercurrent of his gratitude when she refrained.

"Ready, Stinker?" she asked, and he nodded again, this time with an ear-flick of agreement.

"Good," she said, and headed back out the door to her waiting armsman.

Chapter Thirty-Nine | Echoes Of Honor | * * *