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The atmospheric dust count was up today. Concentrations weren't enough to bother native Graysons after almost a thousand years of adaptive evolution, but they were more than sufficient to worry someone from a planet with lower levels of heavy metals.
Admiral of the Green Hamish Alexander, Thirteenth Earl of White Haven and designated commander of Eighth Fleet (assuming it ever got itself put together), was a native of the planet Manticore, and the capital world of the Star Kingdom of Manticore did not boast such levels. He felt mildly conspicuous as the only breath-masked member of the entourage on the landing pad, but the better part of a century of naval service had given him a healthy respect for environmental hazards. He was perfectly willing to feel a little conspicuous if that was the price of avoiding airborne lead and cadmium.
He was also the only person on the pad who wore the space-black-and-gold of the Royal Manticoran Navy. Over half of his companions were in civilian dress, including the two women who wore the ankle-length skirts and long, tabardlike vests of traditional Grayson fashion. Those in uniform, however, were about equally divided between the green-on-green of the Harrington Steadholder's Guard and the blue-on-blue of the Grayson Space Navy. Even Lieutenant Robards, White Haven's aide, was a Grayson. The admiral had found that a little disconcerting at first. He was much more accustomed to having members of allied navies come to the Star Kingdom than to meeting them on their home turf, but he'd quickly become comfortable with the new arrangement, and he had to admit it made sense. Eighth Fleet would be the first Allied fleet which was actually composed of more non-Manticoran than RMN units. Given the "seniority" of the Manticoran Navy, there'd never been much question that the RMN would provide the fleet commander, but a good two-thirds of its starships would be drawn from the explosively expanding GSN and the far smaller Erewhon Navy. As such, White Haven, as CO 8 FLT (Designate), really had no choice but to build his staff around a Grayson core, and he'd spent the last month and a half doing just that.
All in all, he'd been impressed by what he'd discovered in the process. The GSN's expansion had spread its officer corps thinindeed, something like twelve percent of all "Grayson" officers were actually Manticorans on loan from the Star Kingdomand its institutional inexperience showed, but it was almost aggressively competent. Grayson squadron and task force commanders seemed to take nothing at all for granted, for they knew how quickly most of their officers had been pushed up to their present ranks. They drilled their subordinates mercilessly, and their tactical and maneuvering orders spelled out their intentions with a degree of precision which sometimes produced results that were a little too mechanical for White Haven's taste. He was more accustomed to the Manticoran tradition in which officers of a certain rank were supposed to handle the details themselves, without specific direction from higher authority. Yet he was willing to admit that a navy as "young" as the GSN probably required more detailed orders . . . and if Grayson fleet maneuvers were sometimes mechanical, he'd never seen the kind of raggedness which could creep in when a flag officer assumedincorrectlythat his subordinates understood what he had in mind.
But if the earl sometimes wished Grayson admirals would grant their subordinates a little more initiative, he'd been both astounded and delighted by the GSN's relentless emphasis on actual shipboard drills, not just computer simulations, and their willingness to expend munitions in live-fire exercises. RMN tradition favored the same approach, but the Manticoran Admiralty had always been forced to fight Parliament tooth and nail for the funding it required. High Admiral Matthews, the GSN's military commander-in-chief, on the other hand, had the enthusiastic support of Protector Benjamin and a solid majority of the Planetary Chamber, Steadholder and Steader alike. Perhaps that support owed something to the fact that the current war with Haven had brought deep-space combat to Yeltsin's Star four times in less than eight T-years, whereas no one had dared attack the Manticore Binary System directly in almost three centuries, but White Haven suspected that it owed an equal debt to the woman he and his companions had gathered to welcome home.
His lips quirked and the blue eyes which could assume the chill of arctic ice twinkled at that thought. Lady Dame Honor Harrington, Countess Harrington, was only a captain of the list, as far as the RMN was concerned, and she'd earned a reputation (among her many domestic political enemies, at any rate) as a dangerous, hot-tempered, undisciplined loose warhead. But here in Yeltsin she carried the rank of a full admiral in the GSN, not to mention the title of Steadholder Harrington. She was the second-ranking officer of Grayson's Navy, one of the eighty great nobles who governed the planet, the wealthiest womanor, for that matterman, in Grayson history, the only living holder of the Star of Grayson (which also happened to make her Protector Benjamin's official Champion), and the woman who had saved the system from foreign conquest, not just once, but twice. White Haven himself was deeply respected by the Grayson Navy and people, for he was the officer who'd overseen the conquest of their fratricidal sister world of Masada and won the Third Battle of Grayson to open the war with Haven, but he remained a "foreigner." Honor Harrington didn't. She had become one of their own, and in the process, whether she knew it or not, she'd also become the patron saint of their fleet.
She probably didn't know it, White Haven reflected. It wasn't the sort of thing which would occur to her . . . which no doubt helped explain why it was true. But White Haven and every other Manticoran working with the GSN certainly knew. How could they not? The ultimate touchstone for every Grayson training concept or tactical innovation could be contained in the three words "Lady Harrington says" or their companion "Lady Harrington would." The near idolatry with which the GSN had adopted the precepts and example of a single individual, however competent, would have been terrifying if that individual's fundamental philosophy had not included the need to continuously question her own concepts. Somehow, and White Haven wasn't certain precisely how, Honor Harrington had also managed to transmit that portion of her personality to the navy so enthusiastically forming itself in her image, and he was profoundly grateful that she had.
Of course, the GSN had given her a much freer hand than the Manticoran Admiralty had ever given any RMN admiral, but that made her accomplishments no less impressive. High Admiral Matthews had admitted to White Haven that he'd all but dragooned her into GSN service expressly to pick her brain, and that was something the earl readily understood. Very few fleets could match the experience of the Royal Manticoran Navy, and for all her political problems back home, Harrington's professional reputation had been second to none in the navy of her birth kingdom. Even if it hadn't seen her in action itself, any navy in the GSN's position would have been prepared to do just about anything to get her into its uniform. And, White Haven thought, given how intensely the Graysons had listened to her, and how eager they'd been to utilize her as a training resource, it would actually have been surprising if she had realized how deeply she'd impressed her own personality and philosophy upon them. They'd adopted her concepts so readily that it must have seemed to her as if she were adapting to their philosophy. Oh, yes. He understood how it had all happened. Yet that made it no less ironic that, in so many ways, the Grayson Space Navy was actually closer to the ideal of the Manticoran Navy than the RMN itself.
It also, he admitted, had offered him a new and valuable perspective on Harrington herself. He was familiar with the sycophantic personalities which all too often attached themselves to a successful officer, just as he recognized the more extreme forms of unquestioning hero worship when he saw them, and he'd found some of both of those here on Grayson where Harrington was concerned. But when a single, foreign-born woman could walk into a theocratic, male-dominated society and win the personal devotion of a group so disparate that it contained not simply that society's navy but old-line Grayson male supremacists like Howard Clinkscales, Harrington Steading's regent; reformers like Benjamin IX, the planets reigning monarch; religious leaders like the Reverend Jeremiah Sullivan, spiritual head of the Church of Humanity Unchained; urbane and polished statesmen like Lord Henry Prestwick, Grayson's Chancellor; and even ex-Havenite officers like Alfredo Yu, now a GSN admiral, she had to be something quite out of the ordinary. White Haven had seen that in her the very first time he'd met her, despite the physical wounds and the grief and sense of guilt she'd carried away from the Second Battle of Yeltsin, but then he'd been in the position of her senior officer, looking down a steep gradient of rank, military and social alike. These days, she matched his naval rank (in Grayson service, at least) and, as a Steadholder, however new her title, took social precedence over even one of the oldest of Manticore's earldoms.
Hamish Alexander wasn't the sort to feel diminished by anyone. One of the small number of people who could address his Queen in private by her given name, he was also the single most respected strategist of the Manticoran Alliance. His reputation was firmly based on achievement, and he knew it, just as he knew he truly was the equal or superior of any serving officer in any other navy in space. He wasn't arrogantor he tried not to beyet he knew who and what he was, and it would have been foolish to pretend he didn't. But he also knew Harrington had begun her career without the advantage of an aristocratic name or the family alliances and patronage which went with it. However much White Haven might have earned by merit, and however much he'd given back in part payment for the opportunities he'd enjoyed by an accident of birth, he could never forget or deny that his family's position had given him a starting advantage Harrington had never had. Yet here on Grayson she'd been given a chance to show all that she could do and be, and what she had accomplished was almost humbling to the man who was Earl of White Haven.
She was barely half his age, and this entire section of the galaxy had entered the dark valley of a war whose like had not been seen in centuries. Not a war of negotiated peaces or even conquest, but one in which the losing side would be destroyed, not merely defeated. It had already raged for going on six T-years, and despite the Allies' recent successes, there was no end in sight. In a society in which the prolong treatment stretched life spans to as much as three hundred-plus years, advancement to the senior ranks of any navy could be glacially slow, although the RMN's prewar expansion had kept things from being quite that bad, professionally speaking, for its officers. Compared to navies like those of the Solarian League, promotion had actually been quite rapid, and now the war had kicked the door to senior rank wide. Even victorious admirals sometimes died, and the Navy's expansion rate had trebled since the start of open hostilities. Where would someone like an Honor Harrington end this war . . . assuming that she survived? What sort of mark would she make upon it? It was obviousto everyone but her, perhapsthat she would figure in whatever histories were finally written, but would she attain the exalted rank in her birth navy which her abilities deserved? And if she did, what would she do with it?
Those questions had come to fascinate White Haven. Perhaps it was because, in a sense, she'd been his hostess since his arrival in Yeltsin. She'd been generous enough to offer him the opportunity to stay at Harrington House, the official residence from which she governed Harrington Steading when she was on Grayson, while he was here. It made sense, given that Alvarez Field, the GSN's major new planetary base and site of its new Bernard Yanakov Tactical Simulation Center, was only thirty minutes away by air car. At least until Eighth Fleets units were physically assembled, most training exercises had to be done in sims, whatever the Graysonsor White Havenmight have preferred. That meant he had to be located someplace handy to Alvarez's simulators, and by inviting him to stay at Harrington House while she herself was temporarily stuck back in the Star Kingdom, Harrington had given the imprimatur of her approval to his relationship with the GSN. He probably hadn't needed it, and he was quite certain she hadn't reasoned it out in those terms, but he was also experienced enough not to turn down any advantage that came his way.
Yet living in her house, his needs seen to by her servants, speaking with her fellow Grayson officers, her regent, her security staff . . . In a very real way, it had felt sometimes as if he were uncovering facets of her personality which could be discovered only in her absence. It was silly, perhaps. He was ninety-three T-years old, yet he was fascinatedalmost mesmerizedby the accomplishments of a woman to whom he'd spoken perhaps a dozen times. In one sense, he scarcely knew her at all, but in another, he'd come to know her as he'd known very few people in his life, and a part of him looked forward to somehow reconciling the difference between those two views of her.
Honor Harrington leaned back in the pinnace seat and tried not to smile as Major Andrew LaFollet, second-in-command of the Harrington Steadholder's Guard and her personal armsman, crawled as far under the seat in front of her as he could get.
"Come on, now, Jason," he wheedled. His soft Grayson accent was well suited to coaxing, and he was using that advantage to the full. "We're due to hit atmosphere any minute now. You have to come on out . . . please?"
Only a cheery chirp answered, and Honor heard him sigh. He tried to crawl still further under the seat, then backed out and sat up grumpily on the decksole. His auburn hair was tousled and his gray eyes dared any of his subordinates to say one wordjust oneabout his current, less than dignified preoccupation, but no one accepted the challenge. Indeed, Honor's other armsmen were busy looking at anything except him, and their expressions were admirably, one might almost say determinedly, grave.
LaFollet watched them not watching him for a long moment, then sighed again. His own mouth twitched in a small grin, and he turned his eyes to the slender brown-and-white dappled treecat curled up in the seat beside Honor's.
"I don't want to sound like I'm criticizing," he told the `cat, "but maybe you should fish him out."
"He has a point, Sam," Honor observed, feeling her right cheek dimple as her smile grew broader. "He is your son. And unlike Andrew, you'd fit under the seat."
Samantha only looked at her, green eyes dancing, and her lazy yawn bared needle-sharp white fangs. Two more prick-eared heads, each far smaller than her own, rose drowsily from the warm nest she'd formed by curling about their owners, and she reached out with one gentle true-hand to push them back down. Then she turned her gaze to the larger, cream-and-gray `cat lying across Honor's lap, and Honor felt the faint echoes of a deep, intricate mental flow as Nimitz raised his head to gaze back. None of the humans present could tell exactly what Samantha was saying to her mateindeed, no one but Honor even "heard" it at all, but everyone grasped her meaning when Nimitz heaved a sigh of his own, flicked his ears in agreement, and slithered to the deck.
He flowed along the aisle using all three sets of limbs, then settled down beside the seat LaFollet had tried to climb under. He crossed his true-hands on the decksole and rested his chin on them, gazing under the seat, and once again Honor felt the echoes of someone else's thoughts. She also felt Nimitz's mingled amusement, pride, and exasperation as he addressed himself firmly to the most adventuresome of his offspring.
As far as she knew, no other human had ever been able to sense the emotions of a treecat, and certainly no one had ever been able to sense the emotions of other humans through their adopted partner, but for all its unheard of strength, her link to Nimitz remained too unclear for her to follow his actual thoughts. That didn't keep her from realizing that he was taking the time to form those thoughts very clearly and distinctly, and she suspected he was also keeping them as simple as he could . . . which only made sense when he was directing them to a kitten who was barely four months old.
Nothing happened for several seconds, and then she sensed the equivalent of a mental sigh of resignation and a tiny duplicate of Nimitz poked its head out from under the seat. James MacGuiness, Honor's personal steward, had given Jason his name in honor of the kitten's intrepid voyages of exploration, and Honor knew she should have expected the marvelous new puzzle of the pinnace to suck him into wandering. She wished he weren't quite so curious, but that was a trait all `cats and especially young ones shared. Indeed, there was something almost appalling about the compulsion to explore which afflicted all of Samantha and Nimitz's kittens. Jason was simply the worst of them, with a taste for solo boldness worthy of his name, and Honor sometimes wondered how any treecat survived to maturity if they were all this curious in the wild. But this crop wasn't in the wild, and at least every human in the pinnace knew to keep an eye out for the kids.
And so did the treecats. Even as she watched Nimitz gather Jason in with one agile, long-fingered true-hand, another brown-and-white female came hopping from seat back to seat back with yet a fourth kitten. Honor recognized the new kitten as Achilles, Jason's barely less audacious brother, and smiled again as she watched his nursemaid haul him wiggling and squirming in protest the entire way back to his mother.
She wondered if even MacGuiness truly realized just how rare a sight for human eyes that was. Treecats who adopted humans almost never mated and produced offspring, and in those very rare cases in which they did, mothers invariably returned to their own or their mates' native clans to give birth and then fostered their children with other females of the clan. Outside the Sphinx Forestry Commission, only a tiny handful of humans had ever seen infant `cats in the wild, and as far as Honor knew, no one had ever seen infants whose parents had introduced them into human society from birth.
But that was precisely what Nimitz and Samantha had done, and their refusal to conform to the expected pattern had caught both Honor and the Navy off guard. The RMN had been forced long ago to evolve special rules for the rare instances in which it had to deal with a pregnant treecat who'd bonded to one of its personnel. That was why Honor had been reassigned to the Manticore Binary System eight months ago on her return from the Silesian Confederacy. It both got Samantha away from radiation hazards and other risks associated with service in space and put her within easy reach of Sphinx and her own or Nimitz's clan. Of course, the fact that Samantha had never adopted Honor in the usual sense had put her case outside normal parameters to begin with, but the death of the person she had adopted had left Nimitz and Honor as her sole family. In the wake of that devastating loss, the Admiralty had decided, Honor qualified for the maternity leave normally granted to both halves of an adoption bond. Besides, it had given them a chance to assign her to the Weapons Development Board for the duration of said leave. She'd been an obvious choice to give the Board feedback on how well its latest brainchildren had worked in the field, since she was the only person who'd ever commanded a squadronalbeit only one of armed merchant cruisersequipped with them, and to her own surprise, she'd actually enjoyed the duty.
But despite all the Navy efforts to accommodate her needs, Samantha had proven persistently unconventional. Perhaps that was to have been expected. Virtually all of the very few female `cats who'd ever adopted had bonded to Forestry Commission rangers and never left Sphinx. Honor had run a check. No law or regulation required the registry of treecat adoptions, so the records she'd been able to consult had to have been incomplete, but as nearly as she could determine, in well over five T-centuries, only eight female `cats had ever adopted anyone except a ranger . . . and that number included Samantha. That probably should have warned her that Samantha was unlikely to feel bound by whatever parenting conventions were "normal" for `cats, but she'd still been surprised when Nimitz made it clear that Samantha wanted and intended to return to Graysonwith her kittenswhen he and Honor did.
That had seemed like a very bad idea to Honor. She and Nimitz were scheduled to resume shipboard duty soon after her return, which would leave Samantha all alone with four rambunctious young on an alien planet whose environment included invisible and insidious risk factors which could kill even an adult `cat, much less a kitten. Worse, she and her children would be the only treecats on the planet, leaving her as a first-time mother with no older and more experienced mothers of her own land to whom to turn for advice or assistance.
Honor had tried to make those points to Nimitz and Samantha, and she'd been confident Nimitz grasped them. But she hadn't been certain Samantha understood even with Nimitz to explain them to her. Telepathy was all very well, but Samantha had seemed so blithely unconcerned by Honor's arguments that she'd doubted the message was getting through.
Until the week before their departure for Grayson, that was. It had never occurred to Honor to wonder about just how much seniority Samantha had among her own kind. She was quite a bit younger than Nimitz, and Honor had simply assumed that the wishes of a `cat of her relative youth couldn't carry a great deal of weight with a clan to which she belonged only "by marriage." But she'd been forced to reconsider that assumption rather radically when no less than eight members of Nimitz's clan, three of them female, all older than Samanthaarrived on her doorstep. She'd been staying in her parents rambling, five-hundred-year-old house on the flanks of the Copperwall Mountains when they turned up, and she'd hardly been able to believe her own eyes.
She'd been certain at first that there was some mistake when MacGuiness answered the front doorbell and the newcomers had walked calmly inside, but Nimitz and Samantha had greeted them with purrs of pleasure and the unmistakable air of hosts welcoming expected guests. The thought of trying to chase them back outside had never even occurred to Honorone simply didn't do things like that with treecatsand the eight of them had hopped up onto her parents' dining room table and regarded her expectantly. Her sense of shock had made her a bit slow, but a sharp nudge over her link to Nimitz had reminded her of her manners, and she'd introduced herself to her surprise guests while MacGuiness disappeared into the kitchen in search of the celery all `cats loved.
Each `cat had acknowledged her self-introduction gravely, and though it was considered bad form to assign names to `cats unless the `cat in question had adopted the namer, there were so many of them that Honor had to call them something just to keep them all straight. Given her taste for naval history, the five males had ended up dubbed Nelson, Togo, Hood, Farragut, and Hipper, but naming the females had been harder. Since so few of them adopted, it had seemed particularly important to come up with names which reflected their personalities, and Honor had needed several days to get to know them well enough to feel comfortable naming them.
In the end, the apparent social dynamics of the group had done it for her. The eldest of the three had become Hera, for it was obvious that every one of the malesexcept, perhaps, Nimitzdeferred utterly to her authority. If she was the head of this small slice of a clan, however, the `cat Honor had dubbed Athena was obviously her exec and general advisor. The third female, Artemis, was barely older than Samantha, but she was also the feistiest of the ladies and the one who'd taken on the task of teaching the kittens the rudiments of hunting and stalking.
Honor still felt uncomfortable over having assigned names at all, but the newcomers had accepted their new appellations with cheerful approval. They'd also proceeded to settle down as if they'd always been members of her household . . . and given every sign that they intended to remain as such.
Yet if they'd been calm about it, the humans of Sphinx had not.
Despite the fact that Honor knew more about treecats than ninety-nine percent of her fellow Sphinxians, she'd had no more idea of how to proceed than anyone else did. It was clear Samantha and Nimitz had invited the others to join them, but she'd taken a while to grasp that it wasn't just for an extended visit or to take the kittens back to Nimitz's clan. And when she finally did realize Samantha actually intended for the newcomers to accompany her and Nimitz back to Grayson, it really hit the fan.
Treecats were a protected species. More than that, the Ninth Amendment to the Star Kingdom's Constitution expressly granted them special status as the indigenous intelligent species of Sphinx. The laws which protected their corporate claim to just over a third of Sphinx's surface in perpetuity and guarded them from exploitation were, to say the least, firm, but the people who'd drafted those laws had never anticipated a situation such as this. Adoption bonds had much the same legal status as marriages, which helped explain the Admiralty regulations sending pregnant `cats and their humans home, but the fact that Samantha hadn't adopted Honor had already put their relationship on the fringes of established precedence. It was unheard of for a single human to have two `cats, although no one had been prepared to comment when it was obvious Samantha and Nimitz were mated. But eight more of them? No one had ever even contemplated a situation in which one human found herself the focus of no less than ten treecats (not to mention the kittens) . . . all of whom seemed intent on following said human off-planet!
The Forestry Commission had pitched a fit, and a dozen rangers had descended on the Harrington Homestead, grimly determined to rescue the eight "wild" `cats from any chance of exploitation. But once there, they'd been faced by their rescuees' determination not to be rescued. Two of the rangers had been accompanied by their own `cats, whose reactions had made it plain that they felt Samantha and Nimitz's friends had the right to go wherever they wanted to go with whomever they chose to go there with . . . however hot and bothered it might make humans.
But once the Forestry Commission had retreated in confusion, the Admiralty's minions had moved in. They'd wanted Honor to leave Samantha on Sphinx with Nimitz's clanwhich, in fact, had been her original intention. Honor couldn't blame BuPers for being just a bit put out with her for changing her mind (although, to be fair, she wasn't precisely the one whose mind had changed), but she did think they'd overreacted when they all but commanded her to leave Samantha, the kittens, andespecially!the eight "wild" adults on Sphinx. They hadn't quite made it a nondiscretionary order, but they had specifically denied her the right to take any `cat other than Nimitz with her aboard the military transport whose use her orders to Grayson authorized.
Unfortunately for Their Lordships, the Articles of War didn't require naval personnel to use naval shipping to reach their assigned duty stations, and once she'd accepted that her six-limbed friends were serious, Honor had given in and provided alternate transportation. At first, she'd intended to buy passage aboard a passenger liner. Then she'd considered chartering a small private vessel. What she hadn't considereduntil Willard Neufsteiler, her chief financial manager, suggested itwas buying a ship of her own.
Since even a small, unarmed, bare-bones civilian starship cost about seventy million dollars, the idea of purchasing one had seemed extravagant, to say the least. But as Willard had pointed out, she was worth over three and a half billion by now, and if she bought the ship as a corporate asset of her Grayson-headquartered Sky Domes, ltd., she would owe no licensing fees (in light of her steadholder's status), while the purchase would provide a substantial tax writeoff in the Star Kingdom. Not only that, he'd been able to negotiate a very attractive price with the Hauptman Cartel for an only slightly used vessel much larger and more capable than she'd thought possible. And, he'd argued persuasively, her growing financial empire required more and more trips back and forth between Yeltsin's Star and Manticore by her various managers and factors. The flexibility and independence from passenger liner schedules which a privately owned vessel would provide would grow only more useful as time passed.
And so, to her considerable bemusement, she'd returned to Grayson not aboard an RMN or GSN cruiser or destroyer and not accompanied by a single treecat. Instead, she'd returned in state aboard the fifty-k-ton, private registry Star Falcon-class yacht RMS Paul Tankersley accompanied by fourteen treecats, and somewhere in the course of the voyage, she'd realized what she was really doing.
She was helping Samantha and Nimitz establish the first extra-Sphinxian colony of treecats. For whatever reason, her two friends andobviouslythe rest of Nimitz's clan had decided it was time to plant their kind on another planet, and that represented a quantum leap in their relationship with humanity. It might also prove that they were more intelligent than even Honor had suspected.
She knew Nimitz, at least, understood that the Star Kingdom was at war, and he'd had entirely too close a view, on occasion, of what humanity's weapons were capable of in ship-to-ship combat. It was entirely possible that other `cats had seen what could happen when those weapons were used against planetary targets and shared the information with him, or perhaps he'd simply extrapolated the possible consequences from what he'd seen himself. Whatever anyone else might think, Honor had always known he was brighter than most two-footed people, and she'd asked him pointblank if an awareness of the military threat was behind this extraordinary departure in the behavior of his species. As always, there'd been a frustrating fuzziness to some of the nuances of his reply, but the gist of it had come through clearly enough.
Yes, he and Samantha did understand what nuclear or kinetic weaponry could mean for planetary targets, and theyor they and his clan, Honor wasn't entirely clear on that pointhad decided it was time the `cats stopped keeping all their eggs in one basket. She couldn't be certain, but she suspected that it wouldn't be long before other adopted humans were tapped to help move core colony groups from Sphinx to Manticore and Gryphon, the other two habitable worlds of the Manticore System, and that headed her towards other speculations. She'd become convinced over the years that `cats in general were considerably smarter than they chose to admit, and she could see several advantages which might accrue from concealing their full capabilities. No humans who'd ever been adopted could doubt the depth, strength, and reality of the bonds between them and "their" `cats. Honor knewdidn't think; knewthat Nimitz loved her just as fiercely as she loved him. But at any given time, only a minute percentage of the `cats' total population ever adopted, and she'd sometimes wondered if perhaps those who did filled the role of scouts or observers for the rest of their species.
Did Nimitz report back to his clan on all that he'd seen and done with her between their visits home? Had the `cats decided long ago that they needed to keep an eye on the humans, who had invaded their world? Given the ability of humanity's technology to destroy, as well as help, observing and studying the newcomers certainly would have made sense. Honor had never asked Nimitz outright if he reported to his clan, but she'd gradually become certain he did. Not that it bothered her. She certainly discussed the events they'd sharedincluding his part in themwith other humans, so how could she possibly object to his sharing them with his own family?
But his clan's decision to establish extraplanetary colonies suggested a more highly developed policy-making ability than even the most free thinking `cat experts had been prepared to posit. Not only did it require them to carry out some pretty sophisticated threat analysis, but it presupposed an ability to formulate a generational strategy for their clan and, quite possibly, their entire species. That was a sobering thought, and once it sank in, it was going to require those "experts" to undertake some substantial reevaluation of their hypotheses. And especially, Honor had thought with a smile, the theories woven in efforts to explain why seven of Manticore's last nine monarchs had all been adopted on state visits to Sphinx. If she was right in her latest hunch, that indicated the `cats had an awareness of human political structures whose sophistication no one had ever suspected in his or her wildest dreams.
In the meantime, however, she had to deal with the more immediate consequences of the decision to immigrate. At least it had provided Samantha and Nimitz with a generous number of baby-sitters, and given the appalling energy and inquisitiveness of their offspring, that was a not inconsequential benefit. More than that, the others had shown a far greater willingness to interact with humans than most "wild" `cats did. Honor hadn't tried them in a large crowd yet, but neither MacGuiness nor her twelve armsmen bothered them in any way. In fact, each of the eight newcomers had been taken around the entire crowd of humans and formally and individually introduced by Nimitz or Samantha. Most of them had followed Nimitz's example and adopted the custom of shaking hands, and the nods and ear flicks and flirted tails of the ones who hadn't had clearly been intended as formal gestures of greeting.
They'd taken the move aboard ship with equal aplomb, and they'd abided by Honor's strict injunctions not to go running about unaccompanied by a human. Like Nimitz and Samantha, they clearly understood human technology could kill by accident, as well as design, and they'd not only exhibited their own willingness to avoid such dangers but guarded the kittens against any similar risk with undeviating attentiveness.
But within thirty minutes, the GSN pinnace which had come up to collect Honor and her party from the Tankersley would deliver them all to the pad at Harrington Space Facility. And as Hera, the seat-hopping nursemaid, deposited Achilles in the seat with Samantha, Honor found herself wondering how well the Graysons would handle their planets invasion by treecats.
Graysons human settlers had always faced serious environmental limitations. In many respects, the entire planet could have been considered a vast toxic waste dump, where human-habitable enclaves could be carved out only through unremitting effort and where draconian birth control had been required for a millennium. The situation had grown steadily better over the past three T-centuries andespeciallythe last decade. When Grayson first joined the Manticoran Alliance, it had been laboriously pulling itself up by its own bootstraps via space-based industry and orbital farms. That process had been hugely accelerated when a youthful engineer named Adam Gerrick came to his newly installed Steadholders office with a proposal to build entire planetary farms under domes constructed of the advanced materials the Alliance had made available. His audacious plan had been well beyond the resources of Harrington Steading . . . but not beyond the off-world resources of Countess Harrington, and by now Honor's Grayson Sky Domes, Ltd., was busy doming entire towns and cities, as well as farms.
That was one of several reasons her personal wealth was expanding at an almost geometric rate. There were others, of course. As Willard had promised her, once her working capital passed a certain point, it became almost a self-sustaining reaction. She was even beginning to understand the inner workings of high finance, though she remained far out of the class of a wily old financier like Neufsteiler. But the impact on Grayson had been to provide an enormous expansion in safe habitats and relax many oj the traditional restrictions on birth rates.
Now sheor, more precisely, Nimitz's clanproposed to introduce a second intelligent species into that mix. To be sure, it might be some time before most Graysons fully grasped that the `cats were another intelligent species, but Honor expected them to make the leap at least as quickly as Manticorans would have. She and Nimitz had been entirely too visible here for the people of Grayson to be able to ignore the fact of his intelligence, whereas few non-Sphinxians came face-to-face with `cats back in the Star Kingdom. In a sense, the fact that treecats were an accepted part of the "scenery" there actually made it easier for native Manticorans to overlook their intelligence. Where the Graysons saw Nimitz as a new, fascinating species to be carefully studied and enjoyed, Manticorans were almost blase, comfortable with what they already "knew."
It had been rather refreshing for both Honor and Nimitz to meet an entire planet of people who were willing to accept the `cat on his own terms, but it did mean the Graysons were also more likely to grasp that Nimitz and Samantha's new friends were, in effect, the opening wedge of an invasion. A friendly one, perhaps, but still an invasion. One of Honor's traditional authorities as Steadholder Harrington was to decide how many and which emigrants would be allowed into her steading. In Graysons grim, early days, it had also been the steadholder's harsh duty to determine which of his steaders had to die if that was what was required to balance population against the maximum strain his steading could bear, and Honor was unspeakably grateful that decisions like that were no longer necessary.
Yet Grayson remained a planet with a commitment to the tradition of balancing people against resources which would have delighted the most rabid of Old Earth's pre-space Greens, and that was the environment into which Honor proposed to introduce treecats.
The good news was that `cat populations grew far more slowly than their multiple-birth reproductive patterns might suggest. Samantha's four-kitten litter was of about average size, but most females littered no more than once every eight to ten T-years. Given that they lived about two hundred years and remained fertile for a hundred and fifty, that still meant a single mated pair could produce a staggering number of offspring, but the process took much longer than initial impressions might suggest. And it was inevitable that human and `cat societies were going to be much more intimately intertwined here on Grayson, which lacked the endless forests that provided Sphinx with virtually unlimited habitat for its native sentients. Here, `cats would have to share the life-sustaining enclaves of humanity, and Honor wondered just how that would affect their adoption rate.
But whether they adopted in larger numbers or not, they were going to have to find their own niche in this new, radically different environment. From what she knew of `cats, she was confident they couldand would. And, she thought, do it in a way which made them valued citizens. In the meantime, she had the legal authority to start their colony out in Harrington, and given her steaders' fascination with and pride in "their" treecat Nimitz, she expected the initial stages to go quite well.
In fact, she thought with a lurking smile, the biggest problem was likely to be that there were too few `cats to go around!
The pinnace touched down with delicate precision.
The waiting greeters stood patiently outside the yellow warning line as the pilot brought up his belly tractors, killed his counter-grav, and powered down his other systems, and then the hatch slid open. This was the point, under other circumstances, at which the band would have broken into the Steadholder's March, but Lady Harrington had issued stern orders to leave the band home . . . and accompanied them with remarkably grisly threats about what would happen if it wasn't. Instead, Howard Clinkscales and Katherine Mayhew, as the two senior members of the greeting party, headed for the foot of the ramp as soon as the green safety light flashed. White Haven, as the senior Manticoran representative, and Honor's personal maid Miranda LaFollet, as the next most senior member of Honor's Grayson household, followed on their heels.
Lady Harrington's treecat rode her shoulder, but that was to be expected. What White Haven hadn't expected was that she would wear RMN uniform, not that of the Grayson Navy, and his eyes narrowed in approval. The last time he'd seen her in Manticoran uniform, her collar had carried a single gold planet and her cuffs had borne the four narrow stripes of a senior-grade captain. Today, there were paired planets on her collar, and her fourth cuff stripe was the broad one of a commodore. No one had told him her promotion had come through, but he was delighted to see it. It still fell far short of the rank she deserved, yet it was certainly a step in the right direction . . . and an indication that the Opposition's political vendetta against her had weakened even further.
She also, he noted, had acquired the Saganami Cross to go with her Star of Grayson, Manticore Cross, Order of Gallantry, Sidemore Presidential Medal, and CGM with cluster. She was assembling quite a crop of medals, he reflected, and his eyes darkened at the thought. He knew better than most how hard earned each of those bits of metal and ribbon had been, and he had nightmares enough of his own, on the bad nights, to guess how much she still paid for them from time to time.
Then his mood lightened, and he hid a potentially impolitic smile as Katherine Mayhew hurried forward. Virtually all Graysons were short by Manticoran standards, but Katherine was small even for a Grayson woman. Protector Benjamin's senior wife, effectively the Queen Consort of Grayson, was almost fifty centimeters shorter than Lady Harrington, and her gorgeous gown and vest were jewel-bright beside Lady Harrington's black and gold. But silly as they could have looked next to one another, there was no sense of awkwardness between them, and their obvious friendship went well beyond the official cordiality to be expected between a head of state's wife and one of his most powerful vassals.
Then Harrington turned from Madam Mayhew to Howard Clinkscales, and White Haven's eyebrows rose as she hugged the old dinosaur. Such public physical familiarity between the sexes was virtually unheard of on Grayson, and "Harrington had never struck the earl as the sort given to casual gestures of affection. But then he saw Clinkscales' expression and realized there was nothing casual about it.
He was still filing that bit of information away when another treecat flowed through the pinnace hatch. For a moment, White Haven assumed the newcomer must be the mate of Harrington's . . . Nimitz. That was the name. But that assumption vanished as a second, and then a third, a fourth, and a fifth `cat followed. A veritable procession of treecats, four of them carrying the tiny, wigglesome shapes of treekittens, trooped down the ramp, and no one had mentioned anything about this to him. From the reactions of the people around him, no one had mentioned it to anyone else, either, and White Haven felt a sudden, almost uncontrollable urge to laugh at Honor Harrington's unending ability to stand the status quo on its head.
Honor smiled wryly as Katherine Mayhew broke off in midsentence. She'd considered sending word ahead, but Tankersley was a fast ship. The Star Falcons were a civilian version of what had been a military/diplomatic courier vessel used to transport dispatches or relatively small groups of passengers when speed was of the essence. Tankersley would never make an efficient freight carrier, but her speed meant that even the fastest mail ship would only have provided the Graysons with a day or two of warning of the `cat invasion. Given Honor's own uncertainty over how they might react to the news and how quickly her arrival would have followed upon it, she'd decided it was better to wait until she could deliver it personally. She still thought that had been the right move, but she also felt undeniably nervous when the ripples of silence spread out as the `cats followed her down the ramp and assembled in a neat line behind her. They sat up on their four rearmost limbs, most of those who weren't occupied restraining a kitten who urgently wanted down grooming their whiskers, and the Graysons stared back at them.
"Howard, Katherine," she said to Clinkscales and Madam Mayhew, "allow me to introduce the newest citizens of Harrington Steading. These are" she turned to face them, pointing to each in turn "Samantha, Nimitz's mate, and her friends Hera, Nelson, Farragut, Artemis, Hipper, Togo, Hood, and Athena. The kittens are Jason, Cassandra, Achilles, and Andromeda. Going the other way," she informed the `cats, "these are Howard Clinkscales, Katherine Mayhew, Miranda LaFollet, Earl Whi"
She broke off in astonishment as Farragut's eyes met Miranda's. Only the `cat's head moved, yet Honor felt the shock like a hammer blow, reverberating down her link to Nimitz. It sang and echoed through her, and then Farragut bounded forward in a cream-and-gray streak. He left the ground two meters from Miranda, in a prodigious spring, and Honor heard Andrew inhale sharply behind her. Her armsman was only too aware of what a treecat's claws could do, and he started to shout a warning to his sister. Only Miranda needed no warning. Her eyesthe same clear gray as her brother'swere wide and soft, as filled with surprise as wonder, but her arms reached out instinctively, and Farragut's leap deposited him within them so naturally that it seemed inevitable. They tightened instantly, cradling the `cat against her, and his high, buzzing purr filled the afternoon air as he hugged her neck and rubbed his cheek ecstatically against hers.
"Well!" Honor said after a moment, letting the word out in an explosive gust. "I see at least one introduction just became superfluous." Miranda didn't even look up from Farragut, but Katherine Mayhew cleared her throat.
"Ah, is that what I think it is?" she asked, and Honor nodded.
"Indeed it is. You've just witnessed the first adoption of a Grayson by a Sphinx treecat . . . and Lord only knows where the lightning may strike next."
"Is it truly that random, My Lady?" Clinkscales asked, the edge of yearning in his voice controlled by the habits of a lifetime of discipline, and Honor shrugged.
"No, it's not random, Howard. Unfortunately, no one's ever been able to figure out what criteria the `cats go by. From my own observation, I'd say each of them uses a completely unique set of value judgments, and I doubt most of them realize that they're likely to adopt before they meet the `right' person."
"I see." Her regent gazed at Miranda and Farragut for another moment, then gave the remaining `cats a glance and shook himself. "Well, in the meantime, My Lady, welcome home. I'm delighted to see you for several reasons, not least" he smiled almost impishly "the heap of paperwork which has accumulated in your absence."
"You're a sadist, Howard," Honor observed with a smile. "In this case, however, you're going to have to wait a bit before you can drag me off to the office." His eyes twinkled back at her, and she reached past him to extend a hand to Earl White Haven. "Hello, My Lord. It's good to see you again."
"And to see you, Milady," White Haven responded. Technically, Commodore Harrington should have greeted Admiral White Haven with strict military formality. Steadholder Harrington, on the other hand, freshly returned to her own steading, was senior to anyone short of Protector Benjamin himself, and the instinctive grace with which she'd split the difference between her two personae impressed the earl. The last time he'd spoken to her, here on Grayson before her return to Manticoran service, he'd recognized how she'd grown and matured in her new role of great feudal lady. Clearly she'd gone right on maturing, and he wondered once again if she even began to grasp all the ways in which she'd changed.
"I'm sorry about all the hoopla," she went on easily, "and Their Lordships sent both my own orders and dispatches for you along with me." Her eyes went past him, to the other local dignitaries, military personnel, and armsmen waiting to greet her, and she smiled another of the crooked smiles the artificial nerves in the left side of her face imposed. "I suspect I'll be rather occupied saying hello for the next half-hour or so, My Lord," she continued, "and then I have to get Sam, the kids, and the rest of the `cats settled in Harrington House. May I impose upon you and ask you to wait for your dispatches while I finish putting out all my various fires?"
"Of course you may, Milady," the earl replied with a chuckle, and released her hand with a final squeeze.
"Thank you, My Lord. Thank you very much," Honor said with true feeling, and turned to greet the wave of people crowding forward to welcome her home.
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