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Chapter Ten

"They're coming around again!" Lieutenant Commander Hughes snapped as a fresh salvo of missiles ripped down on Gudrid. "Get those gravitics back now!"

ET/1c Wanderman felt sweat dripping down his face as he crouched over his diagnostic probe and the harsh flow of combat chatter washed over him as the surviving LAC skippers maneuvered hard to intercept the raiders' latest pounce. The attack had come as a complete surprise, and it was obvious they were up against an entire squadron of privateers, not run-of-the-mill pirates. Hughes' tac team's first warning had been the missile salvo which blew one of their escorting destroyers to splinters, and then the enemy had come charging down his missiles' wake.

"I know they're out there," Lieutenant Wolcott, Wayfarer's assistant tac officer, snarled, and Aubrey felt a stab of inadequacy. Whoever these people were, they had excellent electronic warfare systems of their own, and that EW was playing merry hell with Wayfarer's active sensors. They also had at least one heavy missile platform, which was engaging the convoy escorts from beyond Wolcott's active detection envelope. Sensor range was always degraded in hyper-space, and Wolcott needed her gravitics to pick her enemies' impeller signatures out of the background hash of charged particles, jamming, and the EMP of detonating laser heads. But the entire gravitational detection system was down, and he couldn't get it back.

"We've lost Thomas!" someone announced, and this time Hughes swore out loud. Three raiders were already dead, but that was the fourth LAC the enemy had picked off, and Captain MacGuire's Gudrid had taken a beating, as well.

"Targeting change! Stand by port!" the tac officer snapped, punching keys at her console, and Wayfarer's massive energy batteries quested hungrily as someone finally entered their range.

"Breakdown on Graser Five!" someone barked, and Aubrey heard terminal keys rattle. "Damn, damn, damn! It's operator failure!"

"Crap!" Hughes bent over her terminal. Wayfarer's people were still too raw, and it was showing. She input a query and spat a silent curse. "Override Five! Try to slave it to central!"

"Slaving," the first voice announced. "Coming in—now! Back on-line in central control!"

"Tracking!" Hughes' chief yeoman said. "Tracking . . . tracking . . . lock!"


Eight grasers, each as heavy as any ship of the wall might mount, fired as one, blazing away through the "gun ports" in Wayfarer's sidewall, and a battlecruiser-sized raider vanished in the brilliant flash of a failing fusion bottle.

"That's one!" someone snarled.

"Yeah, but now they know what we're armed with," someone else said grimly.

"Permission to deploy pods?" Wolcott called, but Hughes shook her head violently.

"Negative. We still haven't found their missile platforms."

Wolcott nodded unhappily. Gudrid had lost her after cargo doors to a freak hit early in the attack, crippling her missile pod system. That meant Wayfarer had the only heavy missile capacity left to Hughes, but if she revealed it against the targets she could see, the ones she couldn't see would concentrate all their fire on her. Given Wayfarer's fragility, that would be disastrous, and Aubrey swore under his breath as the panel of his diagnostic flickered. Numbers and schematics cascaded across it as it interrogated the gravitic system's software and test programs examined the hardware. He needed Ginger and her instinct for troubleshooting, but Ginger was a casualty down in Gravitic One, and—

A red light flashed, and his display froze. His eyes darted across the schematic, and he swore again. The hit which had destroyed Gravitic One had spiked the main array. The fail-safes had protected the array itself, but the spike had bled back through the data transmission chain and burned out the primary data coupling from Gravitic Two. Fixing the problem was going to require complete replacement, and that would take hours.

"There goes Linnet!" a plotting rating announced as the convoy's last regular escort blew apart.

"They're coming in on us now, Ma'am!" Wolcott said suddenly. "Bogies Seven and Eight coming up from astern and low, two-four-zero by two-three-six." Her voice was already taut; now it went even harsher as she completed her report. "Thirteen and Fourteen are swinging in from starboard and high, too, Ma'am. One-one-niner by zero-three-three. Looks like they're trying to overtake and cross our T!"

"Show me!" Hughes snapped, and Wolcott dumped her data onto the main tactical plot. The lieutenant commander studied the icons for an instant, then nodded. "Roll port and come to three-three-zero, same plane!"

"Rolling port, coming to three-three-zero, same plane, aye," Chief O'Halley acknowledged, and Wayfarer began a ponderous swerve.

"John and Andrew just nailed Bogie Nine," Hughes' yeoman reported, but the tac officer said nothing. Her eyes were glued to her display as the lumbering converted merchantman rolled up on her port side, presenting her belly to the threat from starboard, and turned back across the convoy's track. The maneuver brought her port side down toward the two cruiser-range raiders coming in from "below" her, and Hughes' fingers flew over her panel.

"Radar lock on Bogies Seven and Eight," her yeoman announced.

"Fire as you bear," Hughes replied grimly.

"There goes Gudrid," someone groaned. "She's breaking up!"

"Carol, find me those missile ships!" Hughes said, and Aubrey closed his eyes while his mind raced.

The raiders had caught the convoy at its most vulnerable moment, as it transited between grav waves in the depths of hyper-space. The two waves were over a half-light-day apart at this, their closest approach. At the convoy's best h-space speed it would take thirty hours to make the transition, and by catching the convoy here, the raiders had been able to come in under impellers. They'd not only intercepted when the merchantmen were slowest and least maneuverable but done so under conditions which let them use their own sidewalls and missiles. Worse, no one had spotted them because of the poor sensor conditions and their unexpectedly good EW until their opening salvos had savaged both destroyers and crippled Gudrid's pods. The fact that they weren't currently in a grav wave had at least let Hughes get her LACs away, and their unanticipated appearance—and power—had given the enemy pause, but it hadn't driven them off. Apparently they'd decided anything this heavily defended had to be worth capturing, and despite their own losses, they were still driving in hard. Without their missile support, Wayfarer and her remaining LACs could still take all of them, but doing anything about their missile platforms required the ability to at least see them, and with the coupling down, how the hell did Aubrey—

Wait! His eyes popped open, and he punched a query into his probe, then grinned fiercely. It was completely against The Book, and it would be cumbersome as hell, but if he took down Radar Six and routed the input from Grav Two through Six's systems to Auxiliary Radar at Junction Three-Sixty-One, then ran a hardwired shunt from AuxRad—

"Port battery firing—now!" Hughes' yeoman snapped, and fresh energy howled from Wayfarer's grasers as they came to bear. Two more raiders blew up, but one of them lasted long enough to fire back. Her weaker lasers blew right through the Q-ship's underpowered sidewall and nonexistent armor to rip Graser Three, Graser Five, and Missile Seven and Nine apart, with near total casualties on both energy mounts.

Aubrey's fingers flew, setting up the required commands. He was working as much by feel as training, for no one had ever tried anything like this before, so far as he knew, but there wasn't time to work it all out properly. His execution files were quick and dirty, but they ought to do the trick, and he dropped his control box and ripped open his tool kit.

"Keep an eye on those suckers to starboard," Hughes ordered.

"Enemy missile fire shifting to us from Gudrid," Lieutenant Jansen reported from Missile Defense.

"Do your best," Hughes said grimly, and Aubrey hurled himself under the radar display, burrowing into the limited space so quickly Jansen didn't have time to get out of the way. The lieutenant gave a chopped off, surprised cry, then snatched his feet out of Aubrey's path, and the tech ripped the front off the main panel. He forced himself to take a moment, making sure of his identification, then clamped the heavy alligator clips to the input terminals. He rolled onto his back, sat up, grabbed the edge of the console, and sent himself slithering across the decksole on the seat of his trousers, then rolled under Wolcott's panel.

Unlike Jansen, the assistant tac officer had seen him coming, and she turned her chair sideways to give him room to work even as she continued driving her sensors.

"Paul reports loss of her wedge, and Galactic Traveler's taken two hits in her after impeller ring. Her accel's dropping."

"Put us on a least-time for Traveler, Helm!" Hughes snapped. "Starboard batteries, stand by. Eleven and Thirteen are pulling ahead of us!"

"Incoming birds in acquisition!" Jansen sang out, then swore as Aubrey reached out, clamped his cable to the terminals under Wolcott's console, and brought his improvised software on-line. "We've lost Radar Six! Going to emergency override Baker-Three!"

"Gravitics up!" Wolcott shouted in sudden triumph. "Enemy missile platforms bear zero-one-niner two-zero-three, range one-point-five million klicks! Designate them Bogies Fourteen and Fifteen! They look like a couple of converted freighters, Ma'am!"

"Got 'em!" Hughes barked back. "Stand by to roll pods!"

"Programming fire control," Wolcott replied. A handful of seconds ticked past, and then. "Solution accepted and locked! Pods ready!"

"Roll them!" Hughes snapped, and six missile pods spilled from Wayfarer's stern. Their sudden appearance took the raiders by surprise, and no one even tried to fire on them before attitude thrusters kicked them to the right bearing and they launched. Sixty missiles, far heavier than anything the raiders had, shrieked towards their targets, and Aubrey rolled up on his knees, panting, to watch their tracks cross the main plot. The laser heads reached attack range and detonated, and scores of x-ray lasers ripped at the missile ships. Their defenses were even weaker than Wayfarer's; they never had a chance, and both of them blew apart under the terrible pounding.

"All right!" someone screamed.

"Watch starboard!" Hughes barked. The two raiders still sweeping up and around Wayfarer's starboard bow could still have killed them, but the privateers had already lost half their squadron, and the sudden revelation of Wayfarer's missile power, coupled with the loss of their own missile platforms, took the heart out of them. They broke off, accelerating hard and rolling to cover themselves with their own wedges, and Hughes' lips drew back to bare her teeth. "Keep rolling pods, Carol! I want those bastards!"

"Aye, Ma'am. New solution locked. Launching now."

A fresh stream of pods rolled from Wayfarer's after cargo doors. The fleeing raiders were much harder targets than the missile ships, but not hard enough to resist that sort of fire. It took only five more salvos to kill them both, and Hughes sat back with a sigh as the raiders on the far side of the convoy's track also spun away and fled madly.

Aubrey sank down to sit on his heels and dragged a forearm across his sweaty forehead as the displays suddenly blanked. Then they came up again, this time showing the untouched ships of the convoy still plowing serenely along down grav wave MSY-002-91, and Hughes ran a hand through her own hair before she turned to her tactical crew.

"Not too shabby, people," she said as the tone announcing the simulation's end sounded. "We were late picking them up, but once the shooting actually started you did good."

"Indeed they did," a soprano voice said, and Aubrey scrambled to his feet with a start. Captain Harrington stood in the open hatch between Alpha Simulator and Beta, where Commander Cardones had been running the "raiders." Her treecat was cradled in her arms while she rubbed his ears, and Aubrey had no idea how long she'd been standing there. From the look on Lieutenant Commander Hughes' face, he wasn't the only one who wondered.

Everyone else rose as the Captain stepped into the compartment, but she shook her head.

"As you were, people. You've earned a chance to sit down."

Smiles of pleasure greeted her compliment, and she walked across to Hughes' panel and tapped in a command. The moment at which the missile platforms had suddenly appeared on the plot replayed itself and froze, and she nodded.

"I thought Rafe had you with that hit on Grav One, Guns," she observed.

"Yes, Ma'am. So did I," Hughes agreed feelingly, and Lady Harrington chuckled.

"Well, if he couldn't get you, I guess the bad guys are going to have a few problems, too, aren't they?" she said, and her 'cat bleeked a soft laugh of agreement.

"He would've had us without Carol," Hughes replied, but Wolcott shook her head.

"Not me, Skipper," she told the Captain. "It was Wanderman." She nodded her chestnut-haired head at Aubrey and grinned. "I don't know what he did, but it certainly worked!"

"So I noticed," Lady Harrington murmured, and turned her own attention to Aubrey. The electronics tech felt his face go crimson, but he came to attention and met her gaze as steadily as he could. "What did you do?" she asked curiously.

"I, uh, I rerouted the data, Ma'am—I mean, Milady," Aubrey said, flushing darker than ever as he corrected himself, but she only shook her head gently.

"'Ma'am' is fine. Where'd you reroute to?"

"Uh, well, the array itself was still up, Ma'am. It was only the coupling. But the data from all the arrays runs through Junction Three-Sixty One. It's a preprocessing node, and the blown sector was downstream." He swallowed. "So I, uh, I overrode the main computers to reprogram the data buses and dumped it through Radar Six."

"So that's what happened," Lieutenant Jansen said. "You know you cut half my starboard point defense radar out of the circuit when you did it?"

"I—" Aubrey looked at the missile defense officer, then swallowed again, harder. "I didn't think about that, Sir. It was just, well, it was the only thing I could think of, and—"

"And there wasn't time to discuss it," Lady Harrington finished for him. "Well done, Wanderman. Very well done. That was quick thinking—and it showed initiative, too." She studied Aubrey thoughtfully, and her 'cat turned his head to bend his own green eyes upon the electronics tech. "I don't believe I ever saw that particular trick pulled before."

"That's because it shouldn't work," Hughes pointed out. She punched up something on her own terminal and studied it for a moment, then whistled. "There is a cross-link at Three-Sixty-One, but I still don't see how he forced data compatibility. For that matter, he had to convince battle comp to bring three independent buses into it."

She shook her head in disbelief, and all eyes turned to Aubrey, who wished he could sink through the decksole. But the Captain only smiled and cocked an eyebrow at him.

"Where'd you get the software for it?" she asked, and Aubrey shrugged uncomfortably.

"I, uh, sort of made it up as I went along . . . Ma'am," he admitted, and she laughed.

"You made it up as you went along?" She looked back at Hughes with a twinkle. "We still have a few problems on the weapons decks, but you seem to have quite a team here, Ms. Hughes. My compliments to all of you."

Aubrey could actually feel the pleasure which filled the simulator, and the Captain lifted her 'cat to her right shoulder. She turned for the main hatch, then paused and looked back.

"I'll want to review the chips with you and the Exec this evening, Ms. Hughes. Can you and Ms. Wolcott join us for supper?"

"Of course, Milady."

"Good. And be sure you bring along a copy of Wanderman's improvisation. Let's see if we can't clean it up a bit and store it permanently just in case we need it again."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Made it up as you went along," Lady Harrington repeated softly, smiling at Aubrey, then shook her head, chuckled, and walked out of the simulator.

Honor leaned back in her command chair as Wayfarer and the rest of the convoy decelerated at a steady four hundred gravities, riding grav wave MSY-002-91 toward the beta wall and a return to normal space. That kind of decel would have killed her entire crew under impeller drive, but even the weakest of hyper-space's grav waves were enormously more powerful than anything man could generate, and their "inertial sumps" were proportionately deeper. Not that it was strictly necessary to decelerate. A ship bled over ninety percent of its velocity as it broke each hyper-space wall in a downward translation, which could be a handy tactical maneuver. But crash translations were rough on personnel and systems, and merchant skippers preferred the gentler, safer stress of a low velocity translation. It not only allowed their crews to avoid the violent nausea crash translations induced but also reduced alpha node wear by a measurable percentage, and that made their employers' bookkeepers happy with them, too.

The convoy was coming up on the New Berlin System, capital of the Anderman Empire, roughly forty-nine light-years from Gregor. Left to themselves, Commander Elliot's escorting destroyers could have made the trip in seven days by the universe's clocks (or just over five by their own, given the time dilation effect), but they would have had to move well up into the eta bands to do it. Given the elderly nature of some of her charges, Elliot had held the convoy to the lower delta bands, where their maximum apparent velocity was only a little over 912 c, so the trip had taken almost twenty days objective, or seventeen days subjective. The commander had checked her decision with Honor who, whether anyone else knew it or not, was the convoy's true senior officer, but Honor hadn't even considered overriding her. It might have looked suspicious if Elliot had piled on too much speed. Besides, it had given Honor more time for simulations, like the one in which Jennifer Hughes had pinned Rafe's ears back.

She smiled at the thought and glanced across the bridge at her exec as he examined a yeoman's message board and dashed a signature across the scan plate. Despite his own skill as a tac officer, Rafe had gotten just a bit too eager when he realized Wayfarer's gravitics were down and Gudrid had lost her missile doors. The rules of the sim had precluded him from acting on his knowledge of the Q-ships' armament until it was revealed to him, and he'd done his best to obey them, but he'd known something had to have happened to Hughes' fire control when she didn't kill his missile platforms. He'd crowded in on her then, going for the quick kill, and ET Wanderman's improvisation had cost him the engagement.

Some officers might have been ticked off with the electronics tech, but Cardones had been delighted. With Honor's approval, he'd transferred the youngster from his original duty station and, despite his lack of seniority, assigned him as Carolyn Wolcott's permanent gravitics chief as an acting third-class petty officer. Wanderman seemed unable to believe his good fortune, and Honor hadn't needed Nimitz to know the young man had a serious case of hero worship where she herself was concerned. She felt a certain amusement over it, but Wanderman seemed to have it under control, so she hadn't spoken to him about it. After all, she told herself, he'll only be this young and on his first deployment once. There's no point embarrassing him—let him enjoy it.

She let her eyes drift from Cardones to Wolcott with a small smile. Carolyn Wolcott had come a long way from her own first deployment aboard the heavy cruiser Fearless. She'd always had poise; now, as a senior-grade lieutenant, she radiated an unmistakable aura of confidence. She wasn't all that much older than Wanderman—there were only nine T-years between them, which wasn't much in a society with prolong—but the acting petty officer was clearly in awe of her.

The convoy crossed the alpha wall, breaking back into normal space a conservative twenty-five light-minutes from New Berlin's G4 primary, and the swirling patterns of hyper-space vanished from the visual display. The Empire's capital sun was tiny from this range, but Honor's repeater plot was suddenly speckled with scores of impeller signatures. The closest were barely a couple of light-minutes away, and one of them headed towards the convoy under a leisurely two hundred gravities as it picked up the freighters' FTL hyper footprints.

Seconds ticked past, and then Lieutenant Cousins cleared his throat.

"Commander Elliot is being challenged by an Andy destroyer, Milady."

"Understood." Honor pressed a stud to drop her own earbug into the circuit and listened to the routine transmissions between the Andermani and Elliot's Linnet. The picket ship continued closing until its own sensors had confirmed Elliot's description of her charges, then swung back towards its original station with a courteous welcome. It all seemed dreadfully blasé to Honor, but no doubt that was because her own kingdom was at war.

The convoy continued inward, bound for the orbital warehouses and cargo platforms around the capital planet of Potsdam. There were scores of warships out there, including what looked like three full battle squadrons on some sort of maneuvers, and Honor felt a wistful longing. The IAN was smaller than the RMN, but its hardware came closer than most to matching Manticore's, and she wished Duke Cromarty had managed to bring the Andies into the war. After all, if Manticore went down, the Empire had to be next on the Peeps' list, and the support of those well trained warships would have been of immeasurable value.

But the House of Anderman didn't think that way. Or, rather, the current Emperor, Gustav XI, had no intention of coming into the war until there was something in it for him, which seemed to be an Anderman genetic trait. Generations of emperors had extended their borders in slow, steady expansion by the time-honored tradition of fishing in troubled waters, and Gustav XI clearly intended to do the same thing. So far, Manticore had more than held its own, but Gustav obviously hoped the time would come when the Star Kingdom's need for an ally was so pressing it would make concessions in Silesia to buy the services of his navy. Honor found that rather shortsighted, but it would have been unrealistic to expect anything else of an Anderman. And at least once the Empire came in on someone's side it had a record of staying the distance.

Perhaps it was only natural, she mused. After all, Gustav Anderman had been a mercenary—and one of the best in the business—before he decided to "retire" to his own empire, and his descendants seemed to have inherited his mind set. The surprising thing was how well the Empire had held together. Dozens of warlords had built vest-pocket realms over the last six or seven centuries, but only the Anderman dynasty had made it stick, because whatever its other faults, it seemed to produce extremely competent rulers. Of course, some of them had been a little on the strange side, starting with its founder.

Gustav Anderman had been convinced he was the reincarnation of Frederick the Great of Prussia. In fact, he'd been so convinced that he'd run around in period costume from the Fifth Century Ante Diaspora. No one had laughed—when you were as good a military commander as he'd been you could get away with that sort of thing—but one could hardly call such behavior normal. Then there'd been Gustav VI. His subjects had been willing to put up with him even when he started talking to his prize rose bush, but things had gotten a bit out of hand when he tried to make it chancellor. That had been too much even for the Andermani, and he'd been quietly deposed. Removing him had created problems of its own, since the Imperial Charter specified that the Crown passed through the male line. Gustav VI had been a childless only son, but he'd had half a dozen male cousins, and a nasty dynastic war had been in the making until the oldest of his three sisters put an end to the foolishness by embracing a legal fiction. She'd had herself declared a man by the Imperial Council, taken the crown (and control of the IAN Home Fleet) as "Gustav VII," and invited any of her male relatives who felt so inclined to take his best shot. None had accepted her challenge, and she'd gone on to hold the throne as "His Imperial Majesty, Gustav VII" for another thirty-eight T-years. She'd also turned out to be one of the best rulers the Empire had ever had, which was saying quite a lot.

The Empire was not, Honor thought wryly, your run of the mill monarchy, but despite the occasional quirks in its gallop, the House of Anderman had, by and large, done well by its people. For one thing, its members were wise enough to grant an enormous degree of local autonomy to their various conquests, and they'd shown a positive knack for picking up systems which were already in trouble for one reason or another. Like the Gregor Republic in Gregor-B. The entire system had fallen apart in a particularly messy civil war before the IAN moved in and declared peace, and like so much else about the Empire, that tendency to "rescue" their conquests went back to Gustav I and Potsdam itself.

Before Gustav Anderman and his fleet moved in on it, Potsdam had been named Kuan Yin, after the Chinese goddess of mercy. Which had been one of the more ironic names anyone ever assigned a planet, for the ethnic Chinese who'd settled it had found themselves in a trap as deadly as the one which had almost killed the Graysons' ancestors.

Like the original Manticoran settlers, Kuan Yin's colonists set out from Old Earth before the Warshawski sail had made hyper-space safe enough for colony vessels. They'd made the centuries-long voyage sublight, in cryo, only to discover that the original survey had missed a minor point about their new home's ecosystem. Specifically, about its microbiology. Kuan Yin's soil was rich in all the necessary minerals and most of the required nutrients for Terrestrial plants, but its local microorganisms had shown a voracious appetite for Terran chlorophyll and ravaged every crop the settlers put in. None of them had bothered the colonists or the Terrestrial animals they'd introduced, but no Terrestrial life form could live on the local vegetation, Terran food crops had been all but impossible to raise, and yields had been spectacularly low. The colonists had managed—somehow—to survive by endless, backbreaking labor in the fields, but some staple crops had been completely wiped out, dietary deficiencies had been terrible, and they'd known that for all their desperate efforts, they were waging an ultimately hopeless war against their own planet's microbiology. Eventually, they were bound to lose enough ground to push them over the precipice into extinction, and there'd been nothing they could do about it. All of which explained why they'd greeted Anderman's "conquest" of their home world almost as a relief expedition.

None of Gustav Anderman's peculiarities had kept him from being a gifted administrator, and he'd possessed an outstanding capacity for conceptualizing problems and their solutions. He'd also had a talent, which most of his reasonably sane descendants appeared to share, for recognizing the talents of other individuals and making best use of them. Over the next twenty T-years he'd brought in modern microbiologists and genetic engineers to turn the situation around by creating Terrestrial strains which laughed at the local bugs. Potsdam would never become a garden planet like Darwin's Joke or Maiden Howe, with food surpluses for export, but at least its people were able to feed themselves and their children.

That made him quite acceptable to the natives of Kuan Yin as their new Emperor. His foibles didn't bother them—they would have been prepared to forgive outright lunacy—and they became very loyal subjects. He'd started out by raising and exporting the one product he fully understood—competent, skillfully led mercenaries—and then gone into the conquistador business on his own. By the time of his death, New Berlin had been the capital of a six-system empire, and the Empire had done nothing but grow, sometimes unspectacularly but always steadily, ever since.

"We're being hailed, Ma'am," Lieutenant Cousins said suddenly, and Honor blinked as his voice intruded into her revery. She looked at him, eyebrows raised, and he shrugged. "It's a tight beam addressed specifically to 'Master, RMMS Wayfarer,'" he said, and Honor frowned.

"Who is it?"

"I'm not certain, Ma'am. There's no identifier, but it's coming from about zero-two-two."

"Jennifer?" Honor looked at Hughes, and the tac officer tapped a query into her panel.

"If Fred's bearing is right, it's coming from that Andy superdreadnought squadron," she said after a moment, and Honor's frown deepened, for there was no logical reason for an IAN ship of the wall to hail a single Manticoran merchantman. She drummed on the arm of her command chair for a moment, then shrugged.

"Put it through, Fred, but hold a tight focus on my face."

"Yes, Ma'am," Cousins replied. Tight focus wasn't customary, but neither was it unheard of, and at least it should keep Honor's betraying Manticoran uniform out of the image area. She smiled as the ready light on the pickup by her right knee lit a moment later and a man looked out of the small screen below it.

Like most citizens of New Berlin, he was of predominantly Chinese ancestry, and the skin around his eyes crinkled into a smile as he digested Honor's own appearance. He wore the white uniform of an IAN fleet admiral, but a small, rayed sun of worked gold glittered on the right side of his round, stand-up collar, and it was hard for Honor to keep her face expressionless as she saw it, for that sun was worn only by individuals in the direct line of succession to the imperial crown.

"Gutten Morgen, Kapitain." The official language of the Empire was German. "I am Chien-lu Anderman, Herzog von Rabenstrange," he went on in slightly guttural Standard English, "and on behalf of my cousin the Emperor, I welcome you to New Britain."

"That's very kind of you, Sir," Honor said carefully, trying to imagine any conceivable reason for an Andermani duke to extend a personal greeting to the captain of a merchant ship. She couldn't, yet Rabenstrange obviously had one, and the fact that she was crossing imperial territory with an armed vessel no one had bothered to mention to the Empire suggested that she be very, very careful in anything she said.

"Ah, do you suppose you might extend the focus of your pickup, Lady Harrington?" the admiral murmured, and Honor's eyes narrowed. "It can't be very comfortable to sit so still just to keep me from seeing your uniform, My Lady," he added almost apologetically, and she felt her mouth quirk in a wry smile.

"I suppose not," she said, and nodded to Cousins, then leaned back in her chair.

"Thank you," Rabenstrange said.

"You're welcome, Herr Herzog," Honor replied, determined to match his own urbanity, and he smiled. "I must confess," she went on, "that you've taken me at a bit of a disadvantage, Sir."

"Please, My Lady. We do have our own intelligence services, you know. What sort of wicked militarists would we be if we didn't keep track of people crossing our space? I'm afraid some of your people were somewhat loose-lipped about your squadron and its purpose. You might want to bring that to Admiral Givens' attention."

"Oh, I will, Sir. I certainly will," Honor assured him, and he smiled again.

"Actually," he went on, "the reason my cousin asked me to contact you was to assure you that the Andermani Empire has no objection to your presence in our space and that we understand your concerns in Silesia. His Majesty would consider it a personal favor if Admiral Caparelli would inform us before his next Q-ship deployment, however. We can see why you would prefer to conceal your deployment from the Confederacy, but it's a bit rude to keep us in the dark."

"Point taken, My Lord. Please extend my apologies to His Majesty for our, ah, oversight."

"Not necessary, My Lady. He realizes that any oversight was your superiors', not yours." The admiral was clearly enjoying himself, but his assurance was serious, and Honor nodded. "In the meantime, however, I would be honored if you would be so kind as to dine with me aboard my flagship. I fear your reputation precedes you, and my officers and staff would be delighted to meet you. In addition, the Emperor has instructed me to offer you official IAN logistic support in your operations, and my intelligence officer would like to share our own latest updates and appreciations on conditions in the Confederacy with you."

"Why, thank you, My Lord—both for myself, and on behalf of my Queen." Honor tried to hide her astonishment, but she knew she'd failed, and Rabenstrange shook his head gently.

"My Lady," his voice was deeper and far more serious, "the Empire and the Star Kingdom are at peace, and we fully appreciate the severity of your losses. Pirates are the enemies of all civilized star nations, and we will be pleased to offer any assistance we can against them."

"Thank you," she repeated, and he shrugged.

"Would eighteen-thirty local be convenient for you?" he asked. Honor glanced at the chrono calibrated to local time and nodded.

"Yes, Sir. That would be fine. But there is one thing, My Lord."


"I see our security screen's leaked like a sieve where imperial intelligence is concerned, but I would be most grateful if we could avoid giving anything away to anyone else."

"Of course, My Lady. Your convoy is scheduled for a three-day layover. If you'll take a pinnace to Alpha Station, one of my pinnaces will pick you up there for delivery to Derfflinger. I've taken the liberty of pre-clearing you for an approach to the civilian VIP bay at Alpha Seven-Ten, and station security will see to it that the gallery is unoccupied when you dock."

"Thank you again, My Lord. That was very thoughtful." Honor's wry tone acknowledged defeat. Rabenstrange had not only known she was coming, but anticipated her request for anonymity as well. Maybe it's just as well we are at peace with these people, she thought. God help us if the Peeps ever catch us out this way! But at least he was being a gentleman about it.

"Not at all, My Lady. In that case, I'll look forward to seeing you at eighteen-thirty," the admiral said with yet another charming smile, and cut the circuit.

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