Captain Michel Reynaud, Manticore Astro-Control Service, stood at Commander Arless's shoulder and watched his display with mixed emotions as HMS Fearless held position near Basilisk Control and the heavy cruiser Warlock slid into the heart of the terminus. The heavier ship's Warshawski sails glowed brilliantly for just a moment, and then she vanished, and Reynaud was scarcely sorry to see her go. Of all the half-assed, over-bred, arrogant cretins the Royal Manticoran Navy had ever assigned to watch over Reynaud's domain, Lord Pavel Young had to have been the worst. He'd never bothered to veil his contempt for the ACS in the slightest, and Reynaud and his people had reciprocated with feeling.
But for all that, Young had been a known evil, one they'd grown accustomed to working around. Now they had a new one to worry about.
The Astro-Control Service was a civil service organization, despite its uniform and naval ranks, and Reynaud was profoundly grateful for it as he gazed at the remaining cruiser's light code. He was responsible for the smooth running of the terminus' traffic, period. The rest of the Basilisk System was the Navy's concern, and the thought of what now faced that single ship's commanding officer was enough to make Reynaud shiver. Not, he thought sourly, that the stupid bastard was likely to deserve his pity. If he was, he wouldn't have been dumped here. That was a given of Basilisk Station, and the personnel of Basilisk Control regarded the dregs with which they had to contend with all the disdain they merited.
He started to turn away, but Arless's voice stopped him.
"Just a sec, Mike. We've got a couple of inbounds from that cruiser."
"What?" Reynaud swung back to the display and frowned. Two drive sources were moving towards Control's sprawling habitat. They were far too small for full-sized ships, but the fact that they were impeller signatures indicated they were larger than most small craft. And that, in turn, suggested they must be pinnaces, but why would pinnaces be heading for his command station?
"What d'you suppose they're up to?" he asked.
"Damfino." Arless shrugged. He leaned back and cracked the knuckles of his long fingers.
"You mean they didn't file a flight plan?"
"You got it. They—hold on." The controller leaned forward and flipped a switch, shunting his com channels to Reynaud's earbug.
"—ontrol, this is Navy flight Foxtrot-Able-One. Request final approach instructions."
Arless started to reply, but Reynaud stopped him with a raised finger and keyed his own pickup.
"Navy Foxtrot-Able-One, this is Basilisk Control. Please state your intentions."
"Basilisk Control, we are a naval liaison mission. I have on board my recorded orders and an explanatory dispatch for your station commander."
Reynaud and Arless stared at one another, eyebrows raised. It was certainly unorthodox. Liaison mission? What kind of "liaison"? And why all the mystery? Why hadn't they pre-filed a flight plan? The captain shrugged.
"Very well, Navy Foxtrot-Able-One. Make your approach to—" he craned his neck to check Arless's display "—beacon Niner-Four. You'll be met by a guide. Basilisk Control clear."
He killed the circuit and gave Arless an eloquent glance.
"Now just what the hell do you think that was all about, Stu?"
"Beats me, boss," the controller replied, "but look at that."
He gestured at his display, and Reynaud frowned. Even as her pinnaces separated, the light cruiser had swung away from Basilisk Control to go slashing off on a vector for the system primary, and not at the eighty percent power RMN ships normally used. She was ripping along at a full five hundred gravities, and she was already fifty thousand kilometers away at a velocity of over seven hundred KPS.
The station commander scratched his bristly gray hair and sighed. Just when he'd gotten the last uniformed jackass to at least keep his ham-fisted fingers out of Control's pie, this happened. It had taken months to convince Young that his condescending attempts to rearrange Control's well-tried traffic lanes into more "efficient" routes—so poorly designed they could only increase the workloads of Reynaud's already over-worked controllers while decreasing safety margins—were neither required nor desired. Managing wormhole junction traffic was a job for well-trained, highly experienced professionals, not twits who'd been exiled for how poorly they did their own jobs. There were lots of things the Navy could have done to facilitate ACS's routine operations if the over-bred fart had been interested in doing anything that would have required any effort on his part. He hadn't been, but the tin-god aspect of his personality had been pronounced. As far as Reynaud had been able to tell, Young was simply incapable of watching someone else get on with his job in an orderly fashion as long as he could interfere without exerting himself. He'd rubbed Reynaud wrong from the beginning, and the chief controller had found himself going out of his way to rub right back—with a predictable loss of efficiency he couldn't quite regret, however hard he tried.
But it appeared Young's replacement was cut from different cloth. The problem was that Reynaud didn't know what sort of cloth. Judging by the speed with which he moved, the newcomer certainly seemed to have more energy than his predecessor, but that could be good or bad. If he actually intended to assist Control, it was probably good, yet long and bitter experience made it difficult for Reynaud to visualize a senior naval officer who did more good than harm.
He shrugged. Whatever Fearless's CO had in mind, the cruiser's rapid departure made it clear he intended to dump this "liaison mission" on Reynaud for the long haul, and his total lack of warning as to his intentions was peculiar, to say the very least.
He frowned again, but there was a speculative light in his eyes as he watched the light cruiser lope away. Whatever else that captain was, he clearly wasn't another Lord Pavel Young.
"Do you have our sweep pattern plotted, Astrogation?"
"Yes, Ma'am." Lieutenant Stromboli looked up at Honor's question. His fleshy face was drawn with weariness, for Santos and McKeon had kept revising their drone availability numbers on him. Every time they'd changed their figures, he'd had to recalculate almost from scratch, but tired or no, he never—ever—again meant to tell Captain Harrington he didn't have the course she needed. "We have a vector change in—" he double-checked his panel "—twenty-three minutes. We should deploy the first drone eight hours and forty-two minutes after that."
"Good. Pass the course change to Maneuvering." Nimitz "bleeked" softly in her ear, and she reached up to stroke his head. The treecat always seemed to know when it was time for him to be seen and not heard, even on the bridge, but he'd started sounding far more cheerful from the moment HMS Warlock disappeared. Honor knew why that was, and she allowed herself a small smile before she punched up Engineering.
She got one of Santos's assistants and waited patiently while the chief engineer was summoned to the com. Santos looked awful when she finally appeared. Her dark hair was gathered in a tight braid, her face was tired, and there was a smudge of grease down her right cheek.
"We'll be beginning drone deployment in approximately nine hours, Commander. What's our status?"
"The first pattern is almost ready to deploy now, Ma'am," Santos replied wearily, "and I think we'll have the second one by the time you need it, but I'm not sure about number three."
"Problems, Commander?" Honor asked mildly, and saw Santos's eyes flash with anger. Good. If her officers got mad enough, they might start thinking for a change instead of simply feeling sorry for themselves. But the lieutenant commander bit back what she wanted to say and exhaled sharply.
"I'm concerned about fatigue, Captain." Her voice was flat. "We're already running out of beacon kits, and the kits were never intended to deploy sensor heads of this size and sensitivity. Adapting them to fit requires modifications far outside the normal repair and maintenance parameters, and that limits the utility of our servomechs. We're doing a lot of hand-wiring and grunt work down here, we only have so many sets of hands, and it's going to get worse as the kits run out."
"Understood, Commander, but timing is critical to an orderly deployment. I advise you to expedite."
Honor cut the circuit and leaned back in her command chair with a tiny smile, and Nimitz rubbed his head against the side of her neck while he purred.
* * *
"You're what?" Captain Reynaud demanded, and Lieutenant Andreas Venizelos wrinkled his brow in puzzlement.
"I said I'm your customs and security officer, Captain. I'm sure Captain Harrington's dispatch will explain everything."
Reynaud accepted the message chip almost numbly, and Venizelos's puzzlement deepened. He couldn't understand why the ACS man looked so confused. It wasn't as if Venizelos were using any big words.
"Let me get this straight," Reynaud said after a moment. "Your Captain Harrington actually expects you and your people to be quartered here at Control? He means to leave you here to support our operations?"
"Yes, Sir, she does." The darkly handsome lieutenant stressed the pronoun's gender, and Reynaud nodded, but he still looked so dumbfounded Venizelos was moved to continue. "Why do you seem so surprised, Sir?"
"Surprised?" Reynaud shook himself, then smiled oddly. "Yes, I suppose 'surprised' is a pretty good word, Lieutenant. Let me just put it this way. I've been chief controller in Basilisk for almost twenty months. Before that, I was senior assistant controller for damn near two years, and in all that time, you're the first—what did you call it? security and customs officer?—anyone's bothered to assign me. In fact, you may be the first one any station commander's ever bothered to assign to Control."
"I'm what?" Venizelos blurted, then flushed as he realized how exactly his tone matched Reynaud's original emphasis. The two of them stared at one another, and then the ACS captain began to grin.
"Now that I think about it," he said, "I believe I did read something in my original orders about the Navy being responsible for inspections and station security. Of course, it's been so long I can't be certain." He glanced at the habitat services tech standing at his shoulder. "Jayne, do me a favor and find the Lieutenant's people some quarters and get them checked out on the basic emergency procedures, would you? I've got some station regs to plow through to find out what the hell we're supposed to do with them."
"Sure thing, Mike." The tech gestured to Ensign Wolversham, Venizelos's second in command, and Reynaud turned back to Venizelos, still grinning.
"In the meantime, Lieutenant, perhaps you'd care to join me in my data search?" Venizelos nodded, and Reynaud's grin grew broader. "And perhaps you'd care to tell me a little something about your CO, as well. But take it slow, please. I'm not as young as I used to be, and I don't know if I'm ready for the concept of a competent senior officer on Basilisk Station!"
Andreas Venizelos grinned back, and for the first time in weeks, it felt completely natural.
Lieutenant Commander Dominica Santos tried not to swear as Lieutenant Manning handed her the latest projection.
They'd made the captain's deadline for the first three drone drops, but she was already heading for the fourth, and Santos glared at the chronometer with something like desperation. Less than six hours before they began deployment, and they had barely sixty percent of the drones switched over. They were losing ground steadily; there were five more drops to go; her people were drunk with fatigue; and, worse yet, they'd just run out of beacon kits. From here on out, they were going to have to build the damned conversion sets before they could even put the sensor heads into them!
She muttered resentfully to herself, compromising between bile and naval propriety by cursing too softly for anyone else to hear. What the hell was Harrington's problem?! If she were only willing to give Engineering two or three days, they could design a conversion set the maintenance and repair servomechs could turn out by the gross. As it was, laying out the design and troubleshooting the servomech software would take longer than building the goddamned things by hand! The captain didn't have to drive them this hard—and it wasn't fair for her to take out her own frustration with Young (whatever that was about!) on them.
She stopped swearing and looked around a bit guiltily. It hadn't exactly been fair of them to take out their resentment over the Fleet maneuvers on the captain, either, she supposed. And, she admitted unwillingly, she'd been as bad as the rest of them when it came to dragging around afterward—especially after she learned about their transfer to Basilisk Station. But still . . .
She flopped back in her chair and made herself draw a deep breath. All right. Fair or unfair didn't really come into it just now. She had a problem. She could either screen the captain and tell her she couldn't make her deadline (and that thought wasn't at all attractive), or she could decide that she was chief engineer aboard this bucket of bolts and figure out how to solve it.
She swiveled the chair to face her terminal and began tapping keys. Okay. They couldn't make it if they built the beacon bodies entirely from scratch, and they didn't have time to design a new one, but . . . suppose they used the targeting bus from a Mark Fifty missile? If they yanked the warhead and sidewall penaids, they could jigger the sensor heads and astro packs into the empty spots—
No, wait! If they pulled the penaids, they should be able to convert the terminal guidance units from the same missiles into astro packs! That would save components all down the line, and the guidance units would just have to go into storage if they didn't use them. The bus thrusters wouldn't have anywhere near the endurance of a standard beacon kit, but they had power to burn, and the platforms only had to do their job for a couple of months. They weren't going to be moving around, so they wouldn't really need tons of endurance, either, now would they? And if she used standard components, she could use her missile maintenance mechs to do two-thirds of the work in a quarter of the time without any reprogramming at all!
Now, let's see. . . . If she sectioned the bus off here to clear the passive receptor arrays, then took out this panel to mate the signal booster with the main ECM emitter, then she could . . .
Lieutenant Commander Santos's fingers flew over her console with gathering speed, and a whole new sensor platform took shape on her display.
Honor raised her eyes from the message board in her lap. Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Rafael Cardones, Venizelos's assistant and now Fearless's acting Tactical Officer, stood at her elbow, his painfully young face anxious.
"Uh, I think we have a problem, Ma'am," Cardones said uncomfortably. Honor raised an eyebrow, and he flinched. "It's, uh, it's the drones, Ma'am."
"What about them, Lieutenant?"
"I, well, you see—That is—" The young officer stopped and visibly took a grip on himself. "I'm afraid I misprogrammed the sensor parameters, Ma'am," he admitted in a rush. "I set them up for directional, not omnidirectional, and I, well, I think I made a little mistake in their telemetry packages, too. I . . . I can't seem to access them to accept remote reprogramming, Ma'am."
"I see." Honor leaned back in her chair and propped her elbows on its armrests, steepling her fingers under her chin. The lieutenant looked like a puppy waiting to be kicked. Worse, he looked like a puppy who thought he deserved to be kicked. His humiliation was obvious, and she wanted to pat his head and tell him everything would be all right, but she stepped on the surge of compassion.
"Well, Lieutenant," she went on after a moment, "what do you suggest we do about it?"
"Me, Ma'am?" Cardones almost squeaked. "I don't—" He stopped and inhaled. "I suppose we'll have to pick them up and reprogram, Ma'am," he said at last.
"Not acceptable," Honor said coolly. He stared at her in consternation, and she had to bite her tongue rather firmly. A more experienced tactical officer would already have seen the solution. Recon probe sensor heads were designed to tie directly into their mother ship's tactical data net, and the tac channel was dedicated. It couldn't have been affected by any mistakes he'd made in his telemetry programming because it was hardwired to prevent that very accident. Going in through the tac channel would be difficult—more because of the time involved than because of the task's complexity—but it would allow the standard telemetry to be accessed and even completely reprogrammed from Cardones' console through the CIC update links.
Honor knew that, but she had no intention of telling him so. He should have known to approach McKeon before exposing himself to his captain's wrath—and McKeon should have supervised an officer this junior more closely in the first place. It was a point she intended to make—with both of them—in a fashion she hoped would stick.
"Well, Lieutenant?" she said at length. He blinked. "How do you intend to fix the problem?"
"I don't—" He stopped himself again and glanced away for a moment, then looked back at her. "Do . . . Would the Captain care to make a suggestion, Ma'am?"
"I would not." He wilted under her cool soprano, and she struggled to keep her compassion out of her eyes. "You're Tactical Officer aboard this ship, Mr. Cardones," she went on, her voice equally devoid of condemnation or sympathy. "The drones' programming was your responsibility. So is the correction of your problem. Deal with it, Lieutenant."
He gave her one more appealing look, then swallowed and nodded.
"Yes, Ma'am," he said in a tiny voice.
* * *
HMS Fearless made her final heading change and settled into the groove, decelerating for a smooth orbital insertion. Honor was back on the bridge, watching Medusa swell in the visual display and feeling the change in the atmosphere about her. The apathy of their arrival here had faded, and if it hadn't been replaced by the esprit de corps she might have wished for, her crew's current attitude was at least a vast improvement.
The last six days had been rough for everyone . . . and a close approximation to Hell for some. Lieutenant Commander Santos had good justification for her exhaustion. She'd practically driven her people with a whip when it became obvious Honor had no intention of slowing her drone deployment, but she'd driven herself even harder, and to her own amazement, she'd met every deadline. That last-minute design improvisation of hers had been little short of brilliant, and the drones were in place now. Dangerous holes remained, but at least Honor had a warning net covering seventy degrees either side of the ecliptic, and Santos seemed to be having some difficulty deciding whether she was more proud of her department's achievements or infuriated by her captain's demands.
Nor was she the only one caught between pride and resentment. Lieutenant Cardones, probably more to his own surprise than anyone else's, had actually managed to correct his mistakes with the drone programming. He'd been forced to go to McKeon for help with the remote reprogramming, just as Honor had hoped, and spent endless hours on the project, but he'd dealt with it. And, truth to tell, she was pleased by how well McKeon had responded. As nearly as she could tell, he hadn't raked Cardones over at all, despite what must have been a bitter recognition that he should have kept a closer eye on him in the first place, and from what she'd overheard, he'd subtly directed the youngster into finding the CIC links on his own.
By the time Webster had gotten the drone data collection net set up to her demanding satisfaction and Stromboli had computed two separate on-the-fly course corrections to double back for misdropped drones, every one of Honor's senior officers had been worn out, intensely irritated . . . and working as a team again at last. It wasn't the way she would have chosen, but if self-defense was the only way she could goad them off their posteriors, she could stand their resultant unhappiness.
She turned her head as McKeon stepped out of the bridge lift and settled down in the executive officer's chair. He was as stiff and formal as ever, but she'd gotten past his defenses a time or two in the last week—especially with Cardones. Something was eating at him, that was clear, yet she suspected he, at least, understood exactly what she was doing. And, wonder of wonders, he wasn't fighting her on it. She more than suspected that he resented the way she'd gone about goading her crew back to life, and he wasn't exactly bending over backwards to help, nor had she been able to decide why he'd disliked her so from the beginning, but his professionalism seemed to be getting the better of whatever it was. There was no spontaneity in their relationship, no interplay of ideas, and the situation remained far from ideal, but at least they both seemed willing to admit, if only to themselves, that there was a problem. That was a major advance, and she hoped they were both professional enough to rise above their apparent incompatibility.
She shrugged the thought aside and looked back at her tactical display, frowning as Fearless crept through the outer parking orbits and the holo dot of a single small ship glowed crimson.
It was a courier boat, little more than a pair of Warshawski sails and an inertial compensator crammed into the tiniest possible hull, but its presence made her acutely uneasy, for it had diplomatic immunity and it was registered to the People's Republic of Haven.
She chewed the inside of her lip, wondering why seeing it bothered her so. She'd known Haven had a consulate and trade legation here on Medusa, but she hadn't realized until she read Young's official download that they maintained a diplomatic courier boat permanently on station. Legally, there was no reason why they shouldn't, but logically, the only possible purpose for a full consular mission on Medusa was covert operations of some sort. A simple trade mission could have handled Haven's legitimate interests in its traffic through the Basilisk Terminus, and the Medusan aborigines had nothing worth exporting, despite reports of "legitimate Havenite merchants" trading with them. Those reports worried Honor. The conquest-bloated Republic no longer had any privately-owned merchantmen, and it had to be losing money on any conceivable exchange basis with the Medusans. Which, as far as she was concerned, obviously meant they were up to something else. But what?
Intelligence gathering to keep an eye on in-system Fleet deployments and traffic through the Basilisk Terminus made some sense. Medusa was an awfully inconvenient distance from the terminus for that purpose, but it wasn't as if there were any closer planets they could use. Maintaining a presence in the system as a counter to Manticore's might also make sense, especially given the periodic parliamentary attempts the Liberals still mounted to get Manticore out of the system. For all she knew, the Havenite consulate might also be the headquarters for whatever espionage was being practiced within the Kingdom itself, though she would have thought Trevor's Star a better choice for that.
Whatever they were doing, she didn't like it, and she liked the presence of that courier boat even less. Consular dispatch bags had diplomatic immunity regardless of the carrier, and there were enough Havenite merchantmen in evidence to transport any dispatches the consul needed carried. The only advantage to tying up a courier boat on permanent station here was its greater speed—and the fact that the entire vessel had diplomatic immunity and so was immune to examination or search regardless of anything else it might be doing. To Honor's mind, that implied some deep-seated ulterior motive, but she was well aware of her own automatic suspicion of anything Haven did. It was entirely possible that the courier boat's presence was as innocent as the Republic claimed, that only her own paranoia insisted it wasn't.
Of course it was. And it was also possible Pavel Young hadn't deliberately set out to cut her throat.
She snorted as Chief Killian put Fearless into orbit with his customary flawless precision and signaled "Done with engines," then turned to glance at Webster.
"Com, please raise the Resident Commissioner's office. Inform Dame Estelle that I would appreciate her finding time to meet with me at her earliest convenience."
She leaned back in her chair once more, listening. Reports murmured over the intercom as the impeller wedge and inertial compensator went down and the standby thrusters took over the automatic station-keeping function. Bridge ratings moved from station to station, tapping notes into memo pads, Lieutenant Brigham was buried in the cartography section with Stromboli and his senior yeoman, updating their records on the drone net, and Honor savored the routine, orderly way they went about their duties. Despite the wracking workload she'd dumped on these people, the ship was alive once more.
Now it was up to her to redirect that aliveness into a sense of teamwork which included her as their captain, not their taskmaster.