"Coming up on final mark. Stand by to fire." Lieutenant (JG) Rafael Cardones's voice was soft, his eyes intent, as he watched his targeting display with narrow eyes. His right hand crept out, forefinger resting lightly on the big, square button at the center of his weapons console while his senior rating's hand hovered over the backup panel.
"Firing . . . now."
Cardones's finger stabbed downward, and his display blinked bright as the master fire key went flat. A second passed, and then the screen lit again, this time with an estimate of fire on target.
He leaned back and wiped sweat from his forehead, shoulders tight and aching with the tension of the last forty-five minutes' tactical exercise. He was almost afraid to check the results, but he steeled his nerve and made himself look—then blinked in surprise. Eighty-three percent for the energy weapons, by God! And almost as good for the missiles—three hits out of five fired!
"Nicely done, Mr. Cardones," a soprano voice said, and he twisted round in his chair to find the Captain standing at his shoulder. He still wasn't quite used to how quietly she moved, and he hadn't had the least idea she was there. Yet she was, and her brown eyes were thoughtful as she tapped a key at his senior tracking rating's station. The complex, corkscrewing vectors of Cardones's painstaking approach replayed themselves at high speed, and the Captain nodded.
"Very nice, indeed, Guns," she said, and Cardones managed, barely, not to preen with pride. It was the first time the Captain had awarded him the accolade of that ancient informality, and that was worth every minute of concentration—and every grinding hour of practice which had led up to it. It was certainly a far cry from the miserable day he'd had to admit he'd botched the sensor drone deployment programs.
"However," the Captain went on, running Tracking's record back, "what about this maneuver?" She froze the display, tapping a finger on the screen, and her treecat cocked his head as if to study the tangled lines of light, then looked at Cardones curiously.
"Ma'am?" Cardones asked cautiously.
"At this point, you pulled a three hundred-gee level-plane heading change to oh-three-five," she said. He relaxed just a bit. There was no bite in her voice; instead, she sounded like one of his Academy instructors. "It got you around to the heading you wanted, but look here." Her finger moved to the range and bearing readouts at the top of the display. "See where his main battery was pointed?"
Cardones looked, then swallowed and blushed pink.
"Right into the front of my wedge, Ma'am," he admitted.
"Agreed. You should have skew-turned and changed planes to bring your belly bands up to cover yourself, shouldn't you?"
"Yes, Ma'am," he said, feeling some of his elation fade. But the Captain touched his shoulder and smiled.
"Don't feel too bad. Instead, tell me why the computer didn't nail you?"
"Ma'am?" Cardones looked back at the display and frowned. "I don't know, Ma'am. The beam window was wide enough."
"Maybe, maybe not." The Captain tapped the readouts again. "The human factor, Lieutenant. Always remember the human factor. The tac computer's programmed to assign a response time to your supposedly flesh-and-blood opponent, and this time—this time, Guns—you were lucky. The range was long enough your opponent had less than three seconds to see the opening, recognize it, and take it, and the computer decided he hadn't reacted quickly enough to get the shot off. I expect it was right, too, but don't count on that when it's for real. Right?"
"Right, Skipper!" Cardones replied, grinning once more, and Honor patted his shoulder gently before she returned to her command chair.
She didn't mention that she'd been running the same problem from the other side through her command chair displays, using Cardones's maneuvers in real time, and that she had gotten her shot off. The youngster had made tremendous strides in the last few weeks, and he deserved his enjoyment. Besides, she wasn't at all sure she would have seen it and responded so quickly had it been a genuine action, and she had no intention of raining on his parade over a might-have-been.
She seated herself and let Nimitz slither down into his favorite spot in her lap while she scanned her bridge. Lieutenant Panowski was running his own exercise at Astrogation, and from the looks being exchanged between Lieutenant Brigham and Panowski's senior yeoman, it wasn't going very well. She hid a smile. McKeon had been right about the assistant astrogator's tendency to coast, and he'd looked almost betrayed when Honor announced that, shorthanded or not, in parking orbit or no, Fearless would continue her regularly scheduled drills without break. It was difficult for her to be as hard on Panowski as he probably deserved because of her awareness of her own weaknesses as a mathematician. She was a lousy astrogator and she knew it, but McKeon, ably assisted by Brigham, was taking up the slack for her nicely.
She let her eyes drift back to the main maneuvering display, pondering the ships in orbit around Medusa. Fearless had been on station for almost a full Manticoran month now, and there were far fewer than there had been when she arrived five weeks before; a direct result, she suspected, of Ensign Tremaine's campaign against illegal traffic. Medusa was no longer a good place to transship prohibited goods, and the word was getting around. She hadn't realized what a holy terror Tremaine was going to be—he seemed to be developing some sort of ESP where smugglers were concerned—and Stromboli's eagle eye on ship-to-ship traffic had guided the ensign to three mid-space pounces that had netted close to half a billion more dollars of contraband. She'd seen to it they both got "well dones" for their success, and Lieutenant Venizelos had come in for quite a few of his own for his efforts at the terminus. Judging by the violence and volume of the protests they were generating, they and their people were putting an extremely painful crimp into someone's profits, and she'd made sure they knew she knew it.
And, as she'd hoped, the recognition Fearless's company was earning, not just from her but from Dame Estelle, the NPA, and the ACS, as well, was turning the corner. She no longer had to bully and harass her crew into doing their jobs. The notion that they, unlike anyone else who had ever been assigned to Basilisk Station, were making a difference was pulling them together. They were overworked, dog-tired, and only too well aware that they were scoring their successes in spite of the system rather than because of it, and that only made them prouder of themselves.
They deserved their pride. Indeed, she was proud of them, and their sense of accomplishment was starting to earn her their regard. The prize money they'd earned for their seizures didn't hurt any either, of course. The traditional award of a half percent of the value of all contraband seized might not sound like a lot, but they'd sent in over a billion and a half dollars worth of it. If all of it was finally condemned by the Admiralty Court, as Honor confidently anticipated it would be, that was more than seven and a half million dollars for the ship's company to split—and that assumed Mondragon's owners would simply be fined. If their ship was confiscated, as it well might be, its assessed value would be added to the pot. The captain's share was six percent of the total, which gave Honor herself a tidy little half million so far (she'd discovered that even she could do that math easily enough), which was almost eight years' salary for an RMN commander, but her noncoms and enlisted personnel got seventy percent to split among them. That meant even the least senior of them would receive almost twelve thousand dollars, and by long tradition and despite periodic assaults by the Exchequer, prize money was untaxable.
Needless to say, Ensign Tremaine and Lieutenant Venizelos had become very popular with their crewmates, but they'd all earned every penny of their bonus, and she knew they valued their self-pride even more highly. Indeed, the prize money was more valuable to them as a vindication of their efforts, a proof of their effectiveness, than for what it could buy, and it showed. Lieutenant Commander Santos had been the first to call her "Skipper," the possessive honorific none had been willing to extend after the disastrous Fleet exercises, but more and more of her officers were beginning to use it now.
More of them, yes, she thought with a sudden, inner frown, but not all. Lois Suchon still carried a palpable aura of resentment about with her, and Honor had come to the conclusion that she always would. The surgeon was simply one of those fortunately rare individuals who were naturally incapable of pulling their weight as a member of a team.
And then there was McKeon. He was doing his job. She couldn't fault the time he'd taken with Cardones, or the long hours he'd put in coaching and ass-kicking Panowski, or the skill with which he juggled their tight-stretched human resources to keep all bases covered. Yet for all that, the barriers remained. She could see what a tower of strength he might have been. Indeed, the fact that he was accomplishing so much without ever letting her close to him only underscored his abilities. But he couldn't seem to take that final step into partnership with her, and she suspected from his tight expression that it frustrated him almost as much as it did her. It was as if he needed to make the transition and couldn't, and she wished she understood what the problem was. One thing was certain, it went deeper than the malaise which had gripped the rest of her crew when they were first sent here, and—
A soft chime intruded into her thoughts, and she turned her head as Webster acknowledged the incoming signal. The lieutenant said something, then nodded and turned his chair to face her.
"I have a transmission for you from the surface, Ma'am. From the resident commissioner's office."
"Transfer it to my screen," Honor said, but the com officer shook his head.
"Dame Estelle asks to speak to you privately, Ma'am."
Honor felt an eyebrow rise and smoothed it back down, then lifted Nimitz to the back of her chair and rose.
"I'll take it in my briefing room, Samuel."
Honor nodded and walked through the hatch, closing it behind her. She sank into the captain's chair at the head of the conference table and keyed an acceptance signal into the data terminal, then smiled as Dame Estelle appeared on the built-in com screen.
"Hello, Commander," the Commissioner said.
"This is a pleasant surprise, Dame Estelle. What can I do for you?"
"I'm afraid I really called to cry on your shoulder, Honor," Matsuko said wryly.
"That's what the Navy's here for, Ma'am," Honor replied, and the commissioner snorted. Honor let it pass, but she hadn't missed the fact that Dame Estelle didn't seem to regard her as really belonging to the RMN. It was part and parcel of the way the commissioner addressed her by her first name, as if to distance her from the real Fleet officers (i.e., deadbeat incompetents) she'd had to deal with so often.
"Yes, well," Matsuko said after a moment, "the truth is, I'm beginning to think I may have a bigger problem down here than I thought I did."
"Since you sent Lieutenant Stromboli and his people down to take over space control, my air traffic people have been freed up to deal with more local concerns. They've plugged a lot of the holes in our Outback aerial coverage with the extra manpower and your survey sats—not all; there are still a few left—and they've picked up a small number of unidentified flights in restricted areas."
"Oh?" Honor sat straighter in her chair and frowned. "What sorts of flights?"
"We can't tell." The commissioner sounded disgusted. "Their transponders don't respond when we query them, which, coupled with the fact that they certainly didn't file flight plans for their destinations, seems like pretty clear proof they're up to something we wouldn't like. We've tried interceptions, but the NPA's counter-grav is designed more for reliability and endurance than speed, and they run right away from us. If you hadn't made such a hole in our space-to-ground traffic, I'd guess they were rendezvousing smugglers."
"I suppose they still could be," Honor mused. "We've only been working on them for a month now. They could still be handing off stuff they'd already gotten down."
"I thought about that, but even if it was already down, they'd still have to get it back up past you to do them any good. Besides, they're too far out in the bush for that to seem very likely."
"Um." Honor rubbed the tip of her nose and frowned. The NPA's vehicles, for the most part, worked fairly close in to the enclaves, she reflected. "Could they be meeting to transship that far out just to stay beyond your interception range?"
"I doubt it. Oh, it has that effect, but they seem to operate in singletons, as far as we can tell, and they'd have to be working with very low-mass consignments, unless they have a base with their own cargo-handling equipment tucked away somewhere. And even if their cargoes were small and light enough to hand load, they're losing our radar, outbound and inbound, in the Madcat Mountains or over in the Mossybacks. If all they were doing was meeting other air traffic, why come out of the mountains where we can see them at all? They could rendezvous in one of the valleys out there, and we'd never spot them without a direct overflight. Besides, I'm beginning to have some very unhappy suspicions about what they might be up to."
"Such as, Ma'am?"
"You remember your first visit, when I mentioned mekoha to you?" Honor nodded, and Dame Estelle shrugged. "Well, as I said then, mekoha's highly sophisticated for the Medusans' technology. They're surprisingly good bathtub alchemists, but this is a pretty complex—and potent—alkaloid analogue with a kicker something like an endorphin. It's not an endorphin, or at least, we don't think it is, but we're only beginning to really understand Medusan biochemistry, so we could be wrong. Anyway—" she made a moue and shook her head "—what matters is that manufacturing it is a lengthy, complicated, and dangerous process for the local alchemists, especially in the final drying and grinding stages when they have to worry about breathing free dust. That means any heavy, systematic use of it has been restricted, by and large, to the wealthier natives simply on the basis of cost."
She paused, watching Honor until she nodded in understanding.
"All right. The other thing to remember about mekoha is that it has some really nasty side effects. It's extremely addictive, and the lethal dose varies widely from individual to individual, particularly with the poor quality control the alchemists can manage, so a mekoha-smoker usually ends up doing himself in with it eventually. It provides a short-term sense of euphoria and exhilaration and mild—at least, usually mild—hallucinations, but in the long term it produces severe respiratory and motor control damage, gradual loss of neural function, and a marked decrease in both attention span and measurable IQ. All of that is bad enough, but if the drug is sufficiently pure, it produces a strength reaction like an adrenalin-high and virtually shuts down the pain receptors, and the immediate euphoria can slide into a sort of induced psychosis with absolutely no warning, probably because of the hallucinogenic properties. Medusans don't normally indulge very much in violence. Oh, they're as fractious as any other bunch of aborigines you'd care to name, and some of the nomads are natural-born raiders by inclination, but the sort of random or hysterical mob violence you see in disfunctional societies isn't part of their matrix. Unless there's mekoha around. Mix in mekoha, and all bets are off."
"Have we tried restricting or controlling it?"
"Yes and no. It's already illegal in most of the Delta city-states—not all, but most—and restricted in the others. On the other hand, the cities are where most of the mekoha used outside the Delta has traditionally been made, and even the Delta councils are wary of crossing the mekoha traders. It brings in a lot of money, and the drug merchants are none too choosy about the means they'll adopt to protect their trade. Besides, the stuff has a firm niche in several of the Medusan religions."
"Oh, Lord!" Honor sighed, and Dame Estelle grimaced.
"Right. The NPA can't interfere with religious practices, both because we're specifically forbidden to by our charter and because, much as I hate to admit it, trying to do that would be the one sure way to destroy all the goodwill we've managed to build up. Some of the Delta priests—and more of the shamans in the Outback—are convinced that off-worlders are an evil and corrupting influence, anyway. If we try to take their holy drug away from them, we'll just be validating their feelings, so we've been forced back into education efforts, which aren't the most effective way to reach Bronze Age minds, and behind-the-scenes pressure on the manufacturers."
Honor nodded again as Dame Estelle fell silent once more, but her thoughts raced. She doubted the commissioner would have embarked on her lecture on Medusan pharmacology unless it was related to the unidentified air traffic, but that—
"Dame Estelle, are you suggesting that someone from off-world is supplying this mekoha to the Medusans?"
Matsuko nodded grimly. "That's exactly what I'm suggesting, Honor. We've known usage was going up even in the areas we police regularly. Since you've freed up the people I had stuck inspecting the orbital and ship-to-surface traffic, I've been able to push our routine patrols further into the Outback, and it looks like use levels are even higher there. More than that, we've gotten some samples of mekoha from the Mossybacks region, and it's not the same as the stuff produced in the Delta. The proportions are slightly different, and it's got a lower impurity content. Which, my people tell me, means this new version probably has more kick, too."
"And you think it's being manufactured off-world," Honor said flatly.
"That's what I'm afraid of. We can't prove it, but, as I say, it brings a high price, by Medusan standards. And however hard it is for the locals to produce, any half-competent off-world lab could churn it out in job lots if it had access to the raw mek moss it comes from."
"But first they'd have to get the moss off Medusa," Honor thought aloud. "And after they processed the drug, they'd have to get it back onto the planet again."
"Neither of which would have been an insurmountable problem before you and Fearless turned up," Matsuko put in. Honor shook her head.
"I don't know about that . . . and it still sounds too complicated to be very profitable, unless the selling price is even higher than you seem to be saying. How much of this—mek moss, you said?—does it take to produce, say, a gram of the refined drug?"
"A lot. Just a second." Matsuko tapped keys on her data console, then nodded. "It takes about forty kilos of green moss to produce one kilo of raw mekoha paste, and about ten kilos of paste to produce one kilo of the final product. Call it a four hundred-to-one ratio."
"And the most common dosage levels?"
"Lord, I don't know," Matsuko sighed. "Maybe thirty grams for a new user, but that tends to go up as the habit grows. Of course, given this new stuff's greater purity, initial dosage levels may be lower, but I expect the Medusans simply maintain their normal levels and enjoy a stronger high."
"So for every dose they sell, they'd have to transport—what?" Honor did the math in her head, then frowned at Matsuko. "Over twelve kilos of moss or more than one-point-two kilos of paste off-world? Does that sound right?" Dame Estelle whipped through the same calculation. When she nodded, Honor shook her head again. "That sounds like too much bulk to be very practical, Dame Estelle. Besides, if there were any significant long-term traffic in it, there should still have been enough in the pipeline for us to have seen some sign of it in our earliest customs inspections even if Major Isvarian's people had missed it. If not the drug itself, surely the moss or paste would be hard to hide, and Ensign Tremaine's been keeping as close an eye on outbound as inbound shuttles, I assure you."
"So you don't think there's any off-world involvement?"
"I didn't say that. What I said is that it seems to me that the raw materials would be too bulky for their interstellar transport to stay hidden. Barney Isvarian and his teams may not have been trained customs agents, but I feel sure they would have noticed that much moss going off-world and brought it to your attention. But—" Honor's dark eyes narrowed "—that doesn't mean someone couldn't have shipped in the lab equipment to produce it locally. That would have required only a one-way penetration of Isvarian's customs patrols—or ours, for that matter—and from what you're saying, the mass ceiling wouldn't have been all that high."
"No," Dame Estelle said thoughtfully. "No, you're right about that. And in that case, our air traffic wouldn't be distributing mekoha that's been shipped in; it'd be local production, and the way you've choked off the smuggling wouldn't slow it down a bit."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Honor replied. "I'm not trying to shift responsibility for this, Dame Estelle, but it sounds to me as if the drug itself isn't coming from off-world at all."
"In which case, it's an NPA responsibility," Matsuko agreed. She breathed in deeply, then exhaled a slow, hissing breath. "I wish you were wrong, but I don't think you are."
"Perhaps. And perhaps it is an NPA responsibility. But it's my responsibility to assist the NPA in any way I can." Honor rubbed the tip of her nose again. "What sort of power requirement would a mekoha lab have?"
"I don't know." Matsuko frowned in thought. "I suppose it would depend on its production levels, but the process is fairly involved. I'd imagine the total energy cost is pretty high. It can't be too high, since the Medusans make do with water-power, sweat, and sunlight evaporation in the final drying steps, but they also produce it in very small lots in proportionately small 'labs.' I doubt our off-worlders—assuming we're right about what's going on—rely on that kind of technology, especially if they're producing the volumes my people suspect are in use. Why?"
"Check with Barney Isvarian," Honor suggested. "If your people can come up with some sort of parameters for the power involved, he can monitor the central grid and see if anyone's using a suspicious amount of juice. I know a lot of the enclaves have their own generators or orbital power collectors, but that would at least let you do some tentative elimination of suspects and narrow your target area."
"That's a good idea," Dame Estelle agreed, tapping notes into her terminal.
"Um. And while you're at it, see if your techs can give you an estimate for reasonable legitimate power use for the enclaves that aren't on your central grid. We can't do much with the ones with internal generators, but I can put some unobtrusive meters on the orbital collectors."
"Even if you find a high demand, it won't be proof," Matsuko pointed out, and Honor nodded.
"Not proof, no. But, as I say, we can probably eliminate some of the innocents, at least, and it may give us a lead." She nodded thoughtfully. "In the meantime, I'll have Ensign Tremaine make some orbital passes looking for power sources outside the enclaves." She grinned suddenly. "I wouldn't want him getting bored now that he and his people have the smugglers cut down to size, now would I?"
"You're a terrible person, Commander Harrington," Dame Estelle said with an answering grin.
"Dame Estelle, you have no idea how terrible," Honor agreed cheerfully. Then she sobered a bit. "It's not much, but it's the best I can offer. If you think of any other way we can help you out, please let me know and I'll do what I can."
"Thank you," the commissioner said gratefully. "And it's a nice change to—" She broke off with a shrug and a faint smile, and Honor nodded once again.
"You're welcome, Ma'am," she said, and switched off her com.