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Dame Honor Harrington dropped her long, rolled bundle and removed a hat someone on Old Earth of two millennia past would have called a fedora. She dried the sweatband with a handkerchief, then sat on the weatherworn rock outcrop with a sigh of relief, laid the hat beside her, and looked out over the magnificent panorama.
Wind cold enough to make her grateful for her leather jacket ruffled sweat-damp hair that was longer than it had been before her convalescence. It was still far shorter than current fashion decreed, but she ran her fingers through it with a curiously guilty sensuality. She'd worn it cropped close for helmets and zero-gee for so long she'd forgotten how satisfying its curly, silken weight could feel.
She lowered her hands and stared out over the endless reaches of the Tannerman Ocean. Even here, a thousand meters above its wrinkled blue and silver, she smelled salt on the chill wind. It was a smell she'd been born to, yet it was perpetually new, as well. Perhaps because she'd spent so little time on Sphinx in the twenty-nine T-years since joining the Navy.
She turned her head and looked down, down, down to where she'd begun her climb. A small splash of bright green stood out boldly against the red-gold and yellow of autumn-touched grass, and she twitched the muscles of her left eye socket in one of the patterns she'd learned in the endless months of therapy.
There was a moment of disorientation, a sense that she was moving even while she sat still, and the green splash was suddenly much larger. She blinked, still not fully accustomed to the effect, and reminded herself to get more practice with her new eye. But the thought was distant, almost absentminded, as the prosthesis' telescopic function brought the sprawling, green-roofed structure and the greenhouses clustered about it into sharp focus.
That roof rose in a steep, snow-shedding peak, for Sphinx lay so far from the GO component of the Manticore binary system that only an exceptionally active carbon dioxide cycle made it habitable at all. It was a cold world, with huge icecaps, a year sixty-three T-months long, and long, slow seasons. Even here, barely forty-five degrees below the equator, its natives measured snowfall in meters, and children born in autumnas she herself had beenlearned to walk before spring came.
Off-worlders shuddered at the very thought of a Sphinx winter. If pressed, they might agree that Manticore-B IV, otherwise known as Gryphon, had more violent weather, but it was also warmer, and its year was much shorter. At least whatever happened there was over three times as quickly, and nothing could change their considered opinion that anyone who voluntarily lived on Sphinx year-round had to be crazy.
Honor smiled at the thought as she studied the stone house where twenty generations of Harringtons had been born, but there was an edge of truth in it. Sphinx's climate and gravity made for sturdy, independent inhabitants. They might not be crazy, but they were self-sufficient and stubbornone might even say obstinate.
Leaves rustled, and she turned her head as a fast-moving blur of cream-and-gray fur snaked out of the pseudo-laurel behind her. The six-limbed treecat belonged to the crown oak and picket wood of lower elevations, but he was at home here in the Copper Walls, as well. Certainly he'd spent enough time wandering their slopes with her as a child to become so.
He scampered across the bare rock, and she braced herself as he leapt into her lap. He landed with a solid thump, his nine-plus standard kilos working out at almost twelve and a half here, and she oofed in reproach.
He seemed unimpressed and rose on his haunches, bracing his mid-limbs' hand-paws on her shoulders to gaze into her face with bright, grass-green eyes. Near-human intelligence examined her from those very unhuman eyes, and then he touched her left cheek with a long-fingered true-hand and gave a soft sigh of satisfaction when the skin twitched at the contact.
"No, it hasn't stopped working again," she told him, running her own fingers over his fluffy fur. He sighed again, this time in unabashed pleasure, and oozed down with a buzzing purr. He was a limp, heavy warmth across her thighs, and his own contentment flowed into her. She'd always known he could sense her emotions, and she'd wondered, sometimes, if she could truly sense his or only thought she could. A year ago he'd finally proven she could, and now she savored his content like her own as her fingers stroked his spine.
Stillness gathered about her, perfected rather than marred by the crisp, sharp breeze, and she let it fill her as she sat on the rock shelf as she had in childhood, mistress of all she surveyed, and wondered who she truly was.
Captain Dame Honor Harrington, Countess Harrington, Knight Commander of the Order of King Roger. When she was in uniform, her space-black tunic blazed with ribbons: the Manticore Cross, the Star of Grayson, the Distinguished Service Order, the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal with cluster, the blood-red stripe of the Monarch's Thanks with two clusters, two wound stripes . . . The list went on and on, and there'd been a time when she'd craved those medals, those confirmations of achievement and ability. She was proud of them even now, but they were no longer the stuff of dreams. She'd learned too much about what those bits of ribbon cost.
Nimitz raised his head and kneaded the tips of his claws through her trousers to register his discontent with the direction of her thoughts. She stroked his ears in apology, but she didn't stop thinking them; they were the reason she'd spent the last four hours hiking up here to the refuge of her childhood. Nimitz studied her for a moment, then sighed in resignation and laid his chin back on his true-hands and left her to them.
She touched the left side of her face and clenched her cheek muscles under her fingers. It had taken over eight Sphinxian monthsalmost a full T-yearof reconstructive surgery and therapy for her to be able to do that. Her father was one of Manticore's finest neurosurgeons, yet the damage the disrupter bolt had wreaked had taxed even his skill, for Honor was one of the minority of humans who did not respond to regeneration therapies.
There was always some loss of function in neural repairs without regen. In her case, the loss had been unusually severe and complicated by a stubborn tendency to reject natural tissue grafts. Two complete nerve replacements had failed; in the end, they'd been forced to use artificial nerves with powerful boosters, and the unending surgery, the repeated failures, and long, agonizing therapy as she struggled to master the high-tech substitutes had almost defeated her. Even now there was an alien, sharp-edged strangeness to reports from her synthetic nerves. Nothing felt quite right, as if the implants were an ill-tuned sensor arraya sensation the undamaged nerves on the other side of her face only made worse by comparisonand she doubted she would ever truly become accustomed to it.
She returned her gaze to the distant house and wondered how much of her melancholy stemmed from the months of strain and pain. There'd been no fast, simple way through them, and she'd wept herself to sleep more than once as the unnatural fire crackled in her face. There were no scars to reveal the massive repairsno visible ones, anywayand her face was almost as sensitive, its muscles almost as responsive, as they'd ever been. But only almost. She could tell the difference when she watched herself in a mirror, see the slight hesitation when the left side of her mouth moved, hear the occasionally slurred words that hesitation produced, even as she felt the skewed sensitivity when the wind kissed her cheek.
And deep inside, where no one else could see, there were other scars.
The dreams were less frequent now, but they remained cold and bitter. Too many people had died under her orders . . . or because she hadn't been there to keep them alive. And with those dreams came self-doubt. Could she face the challenge of command once more? And even if she could, should the Fleet trust her with others' lives?
Nimitz roused again and rose on his haunches once more, bracing his true-hands against her shoulders. He stared into her chocolate-brown eyesone natural, the other born of advanced composites and molecular circuitry, and she felt his support and love flow into her.
She scooped him up and buried her wind-chilled face in his soft fur, embracing its physical warmth even as she treasured that deeper, more precious inner one, and he purred to her until she lowered him once more and drew a deep, deep breath.
She filled her lungs with crisp air, sucking the early fall chill deep until her chest ached with it, and then she exhaled in one long, endless breath that carried away . . . something. She couldn't put a name to that something, yet she felt it go, and something else roused in its place, as if waking from long sleep.
She'd been planetbound too long. She no longer belonged here on this beloved mountain, looking down on the place of her birth through its chilled crystal air. For the first time in far too long she felt the call of the stars not as a challenge she feared she could no longer meet but with the old need to be about it, and she sensed the change in Nimitz's emotions as he shared her feelings.
"All right, Stinkeryou can stop worrying now," she told him, and his purr turned brisker and louder. His prehensile tail twitched as he touched her nose with his, and she laughed as she hugged him close once more.
It wasn't over. She knew that. But at least she knew where she had to go, what she had to do, to lay the nightmares to rest at last.
"Yeah," she told the treecat. "I guess it is about time I stopped feeling sorry for myself, isn't it?" Nimitz twitched his tail more strongly in agreement. "And it's time I got back on a command deck, too," she added. "Assuming, of course, that The Powers That Be want me back." This time there was no fresh flash of pain at the qualifier, and she smiled in gratitude.
"In the meantime," she said more briskly, "it's also time the two of us got airborne."
She stood, set Nimitz on the rock, and bent over her long bundle. She unfastened the straps that held it closed, and alloy clicked as she assembled the tubular frame with deft, practiced fingers. She and Nimitz had discovered the wild joy of riding the Copper Walls' glorious winds before she was twelve T-years old, and the `cat bleeked in encouragement as she stretched the infinitely tough, gossamer thin fabric into place.
It took less than half an hour to assemble the hang-glider and double-check every joint. She slipped into the harness with the specially modified safety straps for Nimitz, and he scampered up her back and clung to her shoulders as she adjusted them about him. She felt his delight and anticipation bubbling with her own exuberance, and her natural eye sparkled as she clipped the harness leads to the glider and gripped the hand bar.
"All right, hang on!" she told him, and launched herself over the edge of the long, lofty drop with a. whoop of sheer delight.
The sun was a fading rim of red-orange beyond the Copper Walls' peaks as Honor made the final turn. She floated like a Sphinx albatross, five kilometers offshore, and her eyes slitted with amusement as she saw the bright splash of light against the deep twilight at the mountains' feet. The Harrington homestead's brilliant exterior lights blazed in the darkness, for her stewardwho obviously thought a four-hour hike followed by a three-hour glide was a bit much for a recent invalidwas taking no chances with his captain's landing.
She grinned and shook her head fondly. Hang-gliding was a planetary passion on Sphinx, but Senior Chief Steward MacGuiness was from the capital world of Manticore. She suspected that he believed all Sphinxians (herself included) were more than a bit mad and needed looking after. He certainly did his level best to rule her life with an iron hand, and while it would never do to admit that she enjoyed the way he fussed overand ather, she had to admit (privately) that this time he had a point. She'd been an expert glider for over thirty T-years. As such she should have had the sense to get herself home when she had good light for the landing, which meant she was going to have to endure his ever so respectful reproaches with meek acceptance.
She swept in from the sea, adjusting her weight with finicky precision, smoothing her angle of descent, and the ground rushed up toward her with suddenly breathtaking speed. Then the brilliant light was right in front of her, her dropping feet reached out, and Nimitz chittered with delight as she raced forward, absorbing her velocity with an exultant laugh of her own.
She lost the last of her speed and went down on one knee, resting the glider frame on the red-gold grass before the house, and a cold, whiskered nose caressed her right ear as Nimitz radiated his own content. She unfastened his safety straps, and the `cat dropped lightly to the ground and sat up to watch her unlatch her own straps and rise, stretching until her shoulders popped and grinning at him like a schoolgirl. Then she collapsed the glider with a few practiced motionsnot completely, just into a halfway convenient burdenand tucked it under her arm as she headed for the house.
"You left your com home again, Ma'am," a respectful, gently reproving voice said as she stepped up onto the glassed-in storm porch.
"Did I?" she asked innocently. "How careless of me. It must have slipped my mind."
"Of course it did," MacGuiness agreed, and she turned her head to give him a brilliant smile. He smiled back, but there was an edge of carefully hidden regret behind his eyes. Even now the left side of the Captain's mouth was less expressive and responsive, giving her smile a lopsided quality that was more sensed than seen. "The fact that someone might have called you in earlier had nothing at all to do with it," he added, and Honor chuckled.
"Not a thing," she said, crossing the porch to stand the collapsed glider in the corner.
"As it happens, I did try to com you, Ma'am," MacGuiness said after a moment, his voice more serious. "A letter from the Admiralty arrived this afternoon."
Honor froze for just one moment, then adjusted the glider's position with careful precision. The Admiralty used electronic mail for most purposes; official letters were sent only under very special circumstances, and she schooled her face into calm and made herself fight down a sudden surge of excitement before she turned and raised an eyebrow.
"Where is it?"
"Beside your plate, Ma'am." MacGuiness glanced pointedly at his chrono. "Your supper's waiting," he added, and Honor's mouth quirked in another smile.
"I see," she murmured. "Well, let me get washed up and I'll deal with both of them, Mac."
"At your convenience, Ma'am," MacGuiness said without a trace of triumph.
Honor forced herself to move without haste as she walked into the dining room and felt the quiet old house about her like a shield. She was an only child, and her parents had an apartment near their medical offices in Duvalier City, almost five hundred kilometers to the north. They were seldom "home" except on weekends, and her birthplace always seemed a bit empty without them. It was odd. Somehow she always pictured them here whenever she was away, as if they and the house were a single, inseparable entity, like a protecting shadow of her childhood.
MacGuiness was waiting, napkin neatly folded over one forearm, as she slid into her chair. One of the perks for a captain of the list was a permanently assigned steward, though Honor still wasn't entirely positive how MacGuiness had chosen himself for that duty. It was just one of those inevitable things, and he watched over her like a mother hawk, but he had his own ironclad rules. They included the notion that nothing short of pitched battle should be allowed to interfere with his captain's meals, and he cleared his throat as she reached for the anachronistic, heavily embossed envelope. She looked up, and he whisked the cover from a serving dish with pointed emphasis.
"Not this time, Mac," she murmured, breaking the seal, and he sighed and replaced the cover. Nimitz contemplated their human antics with a small, amused "bleek" from his place at the far end of the table, and the steward replied with a repressive frown.
Honor opened the envelope and slid out two sheets of equally archaic parchment. They crackled crisply, and her eyesorganic and cybernetic alikeopened wide as they flicked over the formal printed words on the first page. MacGuiness stiffened at her shoulder as she inhaled sharply, and she read it a second time, then glanced at the second sheet and looked up to meet his gaze.
"I think," she said slowly, "that it's time to open the good stuff, Mac. How about a bottle of the Delacourt `27?"
"The Delacourt, Ma'am?"
"I don't think Dad will mind . . . under the circumstances."
"I see. May I assume, then, that it's good news, Ma'am?"
"You may, indeed." She cleared her throat and stroked the parchment almost reverently. "It seems, Mac, that BuMed in its infinite wisdom has decided I'm fit for duty again, and Admiral Cortez has found a ship for me." She looked up from the orders with a sudden, blinding smile. "In fact, he's giving me Nike."
The normally unflappable MacGuiness stared back at her, and his jaw dropped. HMS Nike wasn't just a battlecruiser. She was the battlecruiser, the fiercely sought after, most prestigious prize any captain could covet. There was always a Nike, with a list of battle honors reaching clear back to Edward Saganami, the founder of the Royal Manticoran Navy, and the current Nike was the newest, most powerful battlecruiser in the Fleet.
Honor laughed out loud and tapped the second sheet of parchment.
"According to this, we go aboard Wednesday," she said, "Ready for a little space duty again, Mac?"
MacGuiness' eyes met hers, and then he shook himself, and a huge, matching smile lit his own face.
"Yes, Ma'am. I think I can stand thatand this certainly is a night for the Delacourt!"
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