Back | Next

HMS Nike

Manticore Planetary Orbit

Manticore Binary System

November 19, 1905 PD

“More tea, Captain?” Chief Steward James MacGuiness murmured.

“Yes, please,” Captain Alistair McKeon replied, and watched as MacGuiness refilled his glass. McKeon had never been exposed to the concept of iced, sweetened tea before his first visit to Grayson, but he’d become sadly addicted to it in the years since. And MacGuiness not only knew about his addiction but, evil man that he was, had learned exactly how to cater to it.

“This, as always, was delicious, Mac,” the tall, brown-haired woman seated at the head of the table said, as if echoing McKeon’s thoughts.

“I’ll pass that along to the galley, Ma’am,” MacGuiness replied, smiling at Captain Honor Harrington.

“I thought the tangerine duck was done particularly well, Mac,” Doctor Allison Harrington said.

“Which is a high compliment from Mom,” Honor pointed out. “We all know what those gourmands from Beowulf are like!”

The cream-and-gray treecat in the highchair to her left bleeked a laugh as Honor smiled teasingly at her mother.

“Is it my fault your father didn’t even know how to steam rice properly before we met?”

“Hey!” Doctor Alfred Harrington—who was, in fact, an excellent cook in his own right—looked at his wife sternly. “That’s a base libel! I knew exactly how to boil rice. I can’t help it if effete, overcivilized people prefer separate grains. You boil it long enough to get rid of the air spaces, and you can fit a lot more of it on your plate!”

“How such a barbarian ever won my heart and hand is one of life’s mysteries, Mac,” Allison told the steward in a tone of sorrowful bemusement.

“I can see that, Doctor,” MacGuiness replied gravely, then returned his attention to Honor. “Coffee and cocoa, Ma’am?” he asked.

“I think that would probably be a good idea,” she approved.

“And the chocolate cake, Ma’am?” He smiled. “I believe it’s double fudge . . . and I just happen to have come into possession of a small quantity of mocha chocolate ice cream as a side, should you be interested.”

“Alas, you know me too well.” Honor smiled back at him, then looked across the table at her father. “And what about you?”

“I think—solely because you and I are both descended from the Meyerdahl First Wave, you understand—that that would be an excellent idea,” he replied gravely, and his undutiful wife gave a rather unladylike hoot of amusement. He looked at her with an affronted expression, and she shook her head.

“Do you have any idea how often over the last half-T-century I’ve heard that as an excuse to feed someone’s sweet tooth? Oh, I know all about that metabolism of yours. God knows keeping Honor fed as a teenager was a challenge! But Mac knows as well as I do about you and double-fudge chocolate cake, Alfred Harrington!”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He elevated his nose with an audible sniff. “Personally, I think your verbal abuse stems solely from the fact that certain individuals with less active metabolisms resent the fashion in which those of us blessed with more active metabolisms are free to indulge in the finer things in life without fear of unfortunate consequences.”

“I’ve noticed the same thing, Daddy.” Honor nodded soberly. “Mike was always that way at the Island, too. Every time I took an extra serving of blackberry cobbler and asked for the whipped cream, she looked at me like I was cheating or something. Sad.” She shook her head. “So sad.”

“Wait a minute!” Captain Michelle Henke protested. “I’m just an innocent bystander in this food fight!”

“Bystander, maybe,” Honor said. “Innocent?” She extended one hand, palm down, and wiggled it from side to side.

Henke shook her head with a chuckle and looked at the short, powerfully built captain seated across the table from her.

“You see what I’ve been putting up with ever since the Academy, Paul?” she said. “You sure you want to get involved with someone with her abusive personality?”

“Too late,” Captain Tankersley replied. “Besides, I haven’t noticed her being abusive to anyone who didn’t deserve it.”

Et tu, Brute?”

“You know I don’t speak Spanish.” Tankersley’s tone was so aggrieved, his expression so perplexed, that Honor giggled. She hated it when she giggled, and the twinkle in Tankersley’s eye said he knew it.

“That was Latin, buffoon!” Henke’s voice was unsteady as she fought her own laughter.

“Latin, Spanish, German—” Tankersley shrugged. “What’s the difference?”

“Oh my God.” Honor shook her head. “I happen to know you speak three languages in addition to Standard English, Paul!”

“Four, actually. Not that I’m keeping count, of course,” Tankersley replied complacently.

“I think, Mac,” Honor said, “that it would probably be a good idea to get dessert served before someone at this table comes by his just deserts. And”—she reached out to caress the treecat’s ears—“I think Nimitz would probably appreciate a celery chaser for his duck.”

The ’cat bleeked enthusiastic agreement, and Honor looked back at MacGuiness.

“You see?”

“Of course, Ma’am.”

MacGuiness bowed with commendable gravity, and Honor shook her head as he disappeared through her dining cabin’s hatch.

“Mac puts up with entirely too much out of all of you,” she said severely.

“Well, after looking after you for five T-years, he should be all trained up by now,” Henke replied. “I wouldn’t want to say anything about pots and kettles, you understand, but—”

She shrugged, and Tankersley laughed.

“Are you going to just sit there and listen to them abuse me, Alistair?” Honor asked, looking at him across the table.

“You seem to be doing just fine to me,” he said, and sipped iced tea.

“Yeah, sure!”

Honor shook her head again, and McKeon chuckled, but the truth was that he was deeply relieved to see the smile in her eyes as she looked around the table. She’d had precious little to laugh about in the eight T-months since the Battle of Hancock, and especially not in the last two T-months since the slowing operational tempo had finally allowed her to bring her own wounded ship home to Manticore.

He watched her profile as she turned to say something else to Tankersley, and his own eyes softened as Tankersley smiled back at her. That was one of the best things that could possibly have happened to her, not that McKeon would ever have expected it, given the circumstances under which she and Tankersley had first met. On the other hand, he wouldn’t have expected his own deep friendship with her, either, given the circumstances under which he’d first met her.

His own smile faded just a bit as he recalled the day in HMS Fearless’ briefing room when he’d finally confronted—admitted—how deeply he’d resented seeing her in the captain’s chair he’d wanted so badly. Recalled admitting, not just to himself, but to her, how completely he’d failed her as her executive officer.

And recalled the way she’d acknowledged his failure and stepped past it, put it behind them as they built a rock-solid professional partnership . . . and what was probably the deepest friendship of his life.

Lady Dame Honor Harrington, Countess and—of particular significance, given this evening’s dinner—Steadholder Harrington, had that effect on people, he thought, and she seemed to be the only person who never even realized she did. He suspected her parents explained a lot of that, and so did her adoption bond with Nimitz. A woman didn’t grow up with those parents and that deep bond without becoming an exceptional person, but that indefinable . . . something about her, the effortless authority and charisma that made her not simply one of the Royal Manticoran Navy’s most brilliant commanders but one of its best mentors and teachers of future brilliant commanders. . . . That came from somewhere else, from a gift, a spark, that touched only the truly great captains.

It was one she managed to pass along to others, too, and he doubted that she ever realized that, either. He himself would never possess that spark the way she did. He knew that. No one would ever possess it the way she did. But he knew he was a far better starship captain than he would ever have been if they’d never met.

Which made the reason for this convivial dinner bittersweet, to say the least. His mood darkened, and Honor looked across the table at him again as if she’d tasted the change in his emotions.

“Why do I suspect you’re thinking less than happy thoughts, Alistair?” she asked almost gently.

“Who, me?” He gazed back at her with his most innocent expression, and she waved an admonishing forefinger at him.

“You,” she replied, and then moved around the table, starting with her mother and working her way to Henke, “and you, and you, and you. In fact, the only person at this table—aside from Nimitz, who’s too busy contemplating the celery about to arrive on his plate—who isn’t thinking less than happy thoughts, is Paul.”

“Don’t leave me out,” Tankersley protested. “I’ll have you know I’m capable of thinking thoughts which are just as unhappy as those of anyone else around this table. Although,” he added in the tone of one acknowledging a fair point, “mine are probably less . . . cerebral than the others. But then, I’m a low and vulgar fellow.”

“What you are is a jerk,” Honor told him, touching the side of his face gently, but then she looked back at McKeon.

“Seriously, Alistair. Cheer up! I’ll only be gone for a few months, and Nike will be in the yard dogs’ hands the entire time. She may still have been combat capable, but in addition to finishing the flag deck rebuild, she’s got a lot of other, littler stuff that needs attention, and just getting to some of it’s going to be an incredible pain. So it’s not like there’s a lot I could be doing here that Eve Chandler and Rafe Cardones can’t handle just fine.”

“I know.” McKeon nodded. “It’s just that it’s so damned unfair that you’re the one being run out of the star system.”

“First,” she said firmly, “I’m not being run out of Manticore. And, second, the fact that I’m . . . taking a brief vacation isn’t unfair.”

“Forgive me, sweetheart, but it damned well is unfair,” her mother said.

Honor looked at her, and Allison shrugged.

“In a ‘fair’ universe they would have shot the motherless bastard,” she said, and her expression had turned as grim as her voice.


“I have no intention of raining all over the dessert when Mac brings it in, Honor, but since this has come up, I’ll just take this opportunity to say that ever since Pavel Young crossed your path at the Academy, I’ve been waiting for the day the mills of the gods finally caught up with him. And I wasn’t a bit surprised when the sort of scum who’d tried to rape a fellow middy turned out to be a coward, as well. If there were any true justice in the universe, the Navy would have shot him, and you know it.”

“Well, that’s a downer,” Honor observed wryly.

“It’s also true!” Allison shot back. “In fact, I’m having a little trouble forgiving the Navy for just cashiering him.”

“That wasn’t really the Admiralty’s choice,” Alfred said, reaching to take Allison’s hand. “Trust me, they wanted to shoot him.”

“Really?” Allison turned her head, and the anger her earlier humor had masked looked out of her eyes at him. “Obviously not everybody in the Navy did. Or they would have.”

“All right. That’s fair,” Honor conceded. “If he’d been convicted on all of the specifications, they would have. So the fact that he wasn’t would seem to indicate that at least someone on the court-martial board who knew he was guilty cast a political vote when it came to the capital charges. And I won’t pretend that knowing he walked away from the firing squad when whoever it was knew perfectly well that he was guilty doesn’t make me angrier than hell, Mom.”

Honor Harrington seldom used even the mildest of profanity, and the huge, almond eyes she shared with her mother were just as hard as Allison’s own. But then she inhaled deeply.

“Knowing that makes me angry, it makes me sick at heart, and it makes me incredibly bitter when I think about all the people in Hancock he helped the Peeps kill when he ran for it,” she continued. “But that doesn’t mean it was the wrong decision.”

“What?” Allison stared at her, and even her father seemed to twitch in surprise. In fact, the only person who didn’t seem surprised by her last sentence was Tankersley.

“I said that doesn’t mean it was the wrong decision.” Honor shrugged. “Understand me, I don’t like it one bit, I don’t think it was the one the facts supported, and I know as well as anyone else in this compartment that the Navy’s failure to shoot him happened only because of corruption and the raw, naked abuse of political power.” Her eyes were still hard, but her voice was level, almost conversational. “All of that may be true, but what’s also true is that there wasn’t any ‘right’ decision in this case. There couldn’t be, given the politics in play.” She grimaced. “I don’t like politics. I don’t understand politics, and I don’t really want to understand them, but sometimes we all have to do things we don’t want to do. So, I’ve been forced to try to understand this.”

McKeon watched her expression, remembering the Honor Harrington he’d first met as she came aboard HMS Fearless as the light cruiser’s newest commanding officer. She hadn’t “understood politics” then, either, which might have explained why she’d ignored all the reasons she shouldn’t step on all those wrong, politically powerful toes to do her duty. It might have . . . but it didn’t. The explanation was far simpler than that: she’d known what her duty was, and she was constitutionally incapable of doing a single centimeter less.

And that was what he was seeing in those brown eyes of hers now, he realized. That same woman, five years later, with enormously more experience, still refusing to do a single centimeter less than her duty to her Star Kingdom demanded.

“We need that declaration of war,” she said now, laying her folded forearms on the table leaning slightly forward over them. “Right now, Admiral Caparelli and the Admiralty are fighting a ‘non-war’ on a shoestring. Alistair, you and Mike both know Caparelli’s already operating well beyond the theoretical limitations of Riposte Gamma trying to keep any momentum on our side. And you know how tight we’re starting to run maintenance cycles just to keep ships forward deployed, too. Just like you know we can’t even activate the mutual defense provisions of the Alliance without a formal declaration. And Young’s father and his cronies were totally willing to let the entire Star Kingdom go straight to hell to protect his worthless backside. That’s beneath contempt, but it’s also the way things are. So somebody on that court-martial board voted to convict on all of the non-capital charges, to at least get him out of the Service. But that same somebody—and, frankly, I have a few suspicions about who it might have been—also recognized that convicting him on the capital charges, getting him shot, would have driven his father and the Conservative Association even deeper into opposition. The Progressives probably would have gone with them, and that could very well have—probably would have—brought down the Cromarty Government. It would certainly have delayed the declaration even longer, and it might even have forced a coalition government. One that could even have brought someone like Janacek back to the Admiralty. Just how do you think that would have affected the war?”

She looked around the table, and Henke cleared her throat. Honor raised an eyebrow at her, and the other captain shrugged.

“I can’t fault a single point of your analysis,” she said. “But I think it might not be a bad idea to add that in addition to the nepotism, cronyism, and complete and total corruption of the Conservative Association, there are those members of the House of Lords who still genuinely believe if we just stand back long enough, the Peeps will finish self-destructing and there won’t be any need for a war.”

“That’s fair,” Tankersley said. “Incredibly stupid of them, but a fair summation. And it’s also fair to say some Peers, and even quite a few of New Kiev’s Liberals in the Commons, simply can’t bring themselves to give up their desperate hope that Pierre and his Committee of Public Safety truly do represent a genuine reform movement that will recognize the bankruptcy of its warmongering predecessors and embrace the cause of peace, justice, and interstellar amity.”

“And I have some nice bottomland on Fenris I’d like to sell anybody stupid enough to genuinely believe that,” Henke told her cousin tartly.

“I didn’t say all of them who are saying it genuinely believe it, Mike,” Tankersley said mildly. “I do think most of the ones saying they believe it truly do, mind you, probably because they have to. They live—or want to live—in a world where sweet reason will always triumph if we ‘just give peace a chance.’ It’s the reason so many of them have fought our military buildup tooth and nail ever since King Roger’s death, because ‘someone has to be the voice of reason.’ My God, some of them have been doing that for over half a century! You think someone dug into that deep a bunker can just abandon it simply because reality kicks them in the head?”

Despite his even tone, his expression was disgusted, and he shrugged.

“But my real point was that the justifications people like High Ridge are giving—that the Peeps will simply implode if we leave them alone long enough—are bolstered by the ‘give peace a chance’ crowd, as well. Which gives the ‘how do we save Pavel Young’s worthless ass’ cabal additional cover that their talking heads and the opposition ’faxes are playing up for all they’re worth.”

“And that’s also one reason for the demonstrations.” Honor nodded. “Oh, there aren’t that many of them, and a few hundred—or even a few thousand—demonstrators represent only a teeny tiny percentage of the total electorate. But they can be a very visible and noisy teeny tiny percentage. Visible and noisy enough that they seem to represent a much larger chunk of voters than they actually do. And like Paul says, the ones still opposing the declaration aren’t all in the Conservatives’ pocket by a long chalk. In fact, darned near half of them are card-carrying Liberals—and even a few Progressives—who truly buy into that ‘the Peeps will implode’ theory. Quite a lot of them because they’re genuine pacifists, horrified by the very notion of a war on this scale, and desperate to embrace anything that will avoid one.” Her nostrils flared, and her eyes went bleak for a moment. “I know we all think they’re wrong—and I think they’re dangerous, as well—but a part of me wishes to God they were right . . . and that we had a single chance of dodging this pulser dart.”

She sat silent for a moment, then inhaled deeply and shook herself.

“Of course, that only accounts for the demonstrators who aren’t in the Conservatives’ fold,” she continued wryly. “According to a certain unofficial, unnamed source in Admiral Givens’ office, at least half of the Conservative protesters waving Young’s picture around outside Parliament are professional, paid demonstrators. But the other half aren’t, and the fact that Young’s father died in front of him while the verdict was being read bought him a lot of sympathy he doesn’t deserve. And then there’s the thorny little problem that with his father gone, he becomes Earl North Hollow, which makes him a member of the House of Lords, and his court-martial verdict doesn’t do a thing to prevent that.”

“And that makes this your fault, your problem, exactly how?” McKeon was a bit surprised by the amount of anger he heard in his own question.

“Well, for those who think I’m a loose warhead, it’s all my fault!” Honor surprised them all with a chuckle that sounded completely genuine, but then her expression sobered again.

“Right now, for better or worse, Young and I are the faces—the public . . . avatars—for the pro-declaration and anti-declaration crowds. I don’t know about him, but I’d really rather not see the holo-posters with my face on them being waved around over clouds of old-fashioned teargas. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s happening, though.” She grimaced. “And that means anything I can do to dial the temperature down, even a little, is completely worth doing.”

“And you don’t think letting the Opposition claim—tactfully, of course!”—Allison rolled her eyes—“that they’ve chased you clear out of Manticore won’t embolden them? That they won’t announce that the only reason you’re leaving is because you’re so furious that your unprovoked vendetta against the Young family has gone so poorly?”

“Mom, an act of God couldn’t prevent some of them from claiming that! But when they do, Cromarty and his supporters can cut them off at the knees—tactfully, of course”—Honor actually grinned at her mother—“by pointing out that I’m also Steadholder Harrington. My ship’s in the yard for repairs, I haven’t taken any leave in the last couple of T-years, and I have legal obligations to the Star Kingdom’s most visible ally—the ally in whose home star system we fought one of the critical opening battles of the war, I might add—as a steadholder. I’ll be fulfilling those obligations—and I really will be, and you know it—if anyone wants to raise a stink over my departure. And, frankly, while it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me under other circumstances, I darned well ought to have already been there and done that.” She shook her head. “I took an oath, Mom, and it’s time I stepped up and fulfilled it.”

“Which is the only reason you’re going at just this particular instant, of course.” Allison’s tone was far more sarcastic than any she normally employed with her daughter.

“No, it’s not. But”—Honor smiled at her, much more gently—“that doesn’t mean it isn’t the reason I should have done this at least two T-years ago.”

“Honor, are you attempting to convince me that you genuinely want to go to Grayson right now?” Allison asked skeptically.

“I’m telling you I don’t genuinely not want to go to Grayson right now,” Honor replied. “And, to be honest, one reason I am less than totally enthralled with the notion is that Paul can’t come with me.” She turned her head to smile warmly at Tankersley. “I’d a lot rather stay right here where I could keep an eye on him and his yard dogs—in a purely professional and platonic sort of way, you understand—while they patch up Nike’s holes and dents.”

Her smile turned wicked and her eyes danced as Tankersley waved one hand in modest disclaimer.

“Unfortunately,” she looked back at her mother, “Hephaestus and the Navy seem quite impressed with his capabilities and they won’t let me stash him away in my luggage. And if they would,” she added judiciously, “I’d probably get a lot less accomplished on Grayson, thanks to the distraction quotient.”

“‘Distraction quotient’?” Tankersley repeated in an offended tone.

“But a very nice distraction, Paul!” she reassured him earnestly.


“Look at it this way,” she said, unfolding her forearms to lay one hand on his shoulder as MacGuiness and the pair of second-class stewards mates he’d drafted for tonight’s dinner party reentered the compartment, “if I’m gone for, say, two whole months, by the time I get back here I’ll be in a mood to greet you very enthusiastically.” She batted her eyelashes at him. “They do say every cloud has a silver lining, you know.”

“I believe I’ve heard that somewhere,” he said, smiling back at her, then looked in Allison’s direction and arched one eyebrow as Doctor Harrington chortled.

“I think you’d better get your vitamins and your rest while she’s gone, Paul!” Allison said. “She is half-Beowulfan, you know.”

“Why, yes, now that you mention it,” Paul replied, smiling broadly as the faintest trace of a blush brushed Honor’s high cheekbones. “I did know that. Quite . . . exhausting sometimes, actually, isn’t it?”

“Oh, tell me about it!” Alfred shook his head, his smile equally broad. “Tell me about it.”

Back | Next