Silesian space seemed oddly quiet this week. HMS Fearless had been patrolling for over two months now. Most weeks, they could expect at least one or two encounters and several additional sensor reads, out of range. Even if they did not make contact with all friendly or hostile ships, seeing them there would send a message.
This week, they seemed to be floating alone down the trade routes, making contact with no one and nothing of interest. Some weeks, that was the way things were, but it had Captain Honor Harrington's nerves on edge. Sometimes, these lulls were just coincidence. Sometimes, they were not. She was not yet certain which was the case here.
Ensign Carolyn Wolcott, the junior tactical officer on duty, was running simulations on her computer. Honor watched the young woman's progress on her own computer. Carolyn was slow to improvise and uncertain of her own competence, but her skills were sharp. The confidence and aggressive exploitation of a more seasoned tac officer would come to her in time.
Honor watched Carolyn's ship begin a convoluted evasion pattern and narrowed her eyes at her screen. Nimitz, her treecat, looked up from his perch beside her and bleeked a laugh. She scratched briefly behind his ears, then let her hand fall away. A few taps on her screen gave her a simulated vessel of her own, with Carolyn's ship as its adversary. Her hand poised over her control pad, watching the twists and turns of the imaginary ship in front of her. When she touched the button to fire, she knew the shot would be true.
Ensign Wolcott carried on in complete ignorance of her commanding officer's kill shot; her computer-simulated opponent was not as swift, and she managed to get a missile past its defenses, disabling its forward power plant. As its acceleration plummeted, Carolyn scooted away.
"Skipper, I'm picking up some sensor traces on the outside edge of our range." Rafael Cardones, Wolcott's superior officer and the duty tac officer, spoke up from his station. Carolyn shut down her simulation to call up a duplicate of his readings.
Honor cleared her screen. "What do they look like, Rafe?" she asked.
"I'm getting a transponder code on the largest, ma'am. It's reading as the Triumph, a privately owned warship registered out of Jackson's Whole to something called the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet."
Honor raised an eyebrow. "Jackson's Whole," she mused. "They're a long way from home. Jackson's Whole is on the far side of the Solarian league, yes?"
"Yes, ma'am. We're getting reports on the other two. It's the Ariel and the Peregrine, both also registered to the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet."
Honor called up the tactical readout on her own screen and studied the little yellow dots. She tapped her fingertips lightly on the arm of her chair, considering them. "How close will we come to them on this course?"
Rafe already had the numbers ready, "If no one alters course or acceleration, we'll pass seven point one million kilometers from the Peregrine at the closest range, ma'am, with a relative velocity of nine-six-seven KPS."
"Thank you, Guns," Honor said almost absently. She reached to rub the furry head of the treecat beside her.
"Captain, I think the Ariel may be damaged," Wolcott put in. "Her power levels are fluctuating more than spec."
"Oh, dear," said Honor dryly. "I wonder who could have hurt the poor little mercenaries."
Someone laughed, and Honor turned to her astrogation officer. "Mr. DuMorne, plot us a course to intersect with the mercenary 'fleet' at zero velocity."
"Yes, ma'am," DuMorne replied. "Course is zero-four-six-point-three by one-two-one-point-five-two. Acceleration is three-eight-zero gravities, with turnover in two-point- six hours."
"Lay it in, Helm."
"Aye, aye, ma'am," said Chief Killian from his station. "Coming to zero-four-six-point-three by one-two-one-point-five-two. Standing by for three-eight-zero gravities."
"Make it so."
"Aye, aye, ma'am. Underway."
As the massive ship shifted without any sense of motion, Honor sat back in her chair and studied her readout. "Mr. DuMorne, what lies along their course behind them? Where do you think they were coming from?"
"Based on the charts, ma'am, I would guess they're coming from Boudicca. It's not far off their course."
Honor nodded, watching the mercenary vessels. "Rafe, give me a threat assessment."
"Low, ma'am. The Triumph is a pocket dreadnought, but masses less than the Fearless and is significantly older. Their weapons will not be able to match ours, and they'll hold up to much less damage. The Ariel is barely armed, made for speed more than firepower. The Peregrine is between the two. They can potentially hurt us, working together, but they do not pose a credible threat."
"Skipper, the lead ship is hailing us." Lieutenant Metzinger had a hand to her earbug, listening to the message piped into her ear. "Admiral Naismith's compliments, ma'am, and he requests permission to match velocities and conference."
"Admiral Naismith" had offered to host Fearless's captain on his flagship, an offer Honor had cordially declined. At his insistence that they should speak, she had extended him a counter-offer to dine with her aboard Fearless, which he had accepted without hesitation. "Be sure he understands," she had told Metzinger, "that the Kingdom of Manticore does not look favorably on mercenaries, and that any provocations by his ships will be dealt with firmly."
"Aye, aye, captain," Metzinger had replied. Naismith had offered no protest.
She did not meet him at the boat bay herself, sending Lieutenant Commander DuMorne to welcome him aboard and show him to her dining room. It was a calculated gesture, a measured provocation against his self-proclaimed admiral's rank. She had met too many self-promoted tin god admirals in Silesian space; she did not imagine the Jackson's Whole variety were worth much more of her effort.
She could not guess what he wanted or expected to gain from this interview, but she planned to keep the advantage entirely on her side of the mat.
The attention signal chimed, and Honor activated the com. "Lieutenant Commander DuMorne with Admiral Naismith and Commander Quinn of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet, ma'am," announced the Marine sentry who guarded her door.
Honor adjusted her beret very slightly. "Let them in."
Honor faced the hatch as it slid aside, and controlled a start of surprise at her first sight of the pair. There was no universal physical type for those who bought, captured, or conned fleets for themselves, but in her experience most of them were physically imposing: large, strong men with grim expressions and muscle to back their claims to authority. This Admiral Naismith could not possibly exercise control through those means. He was around forty centimeters shorter than she was, she judged; she could have comfortably rested her elbow on the top of his head.
He wore a uniform of grey and white, very crisp and clearly tailored to him. As she studied it, Honor realized that the precision of the fit masked some imprecision of his small body, more abnormality than just the height. He was carefully groomed, clean, and very professional.
It was only as a second thought that she took in Commander Quinn, the "associate" he had asked to bring with him. She looked tall beside her commanding officer, but was no more than average height for a woman. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, Commander Quinn had the kind of astonishing beauty that was almost universally paid for, too regular for nature. She was lean and well-muscled, with a grace of motion that told Honor she was more bodyguard than associate on this trip. Quinn did not look happy.
DuMorne waited in the hatchway behind them for her nod of dismissal. "Thank you, Stephen," she said. "That will be all." DuMorne nodded and departed, letting the hatch slide shut behind him.
Honor stepped forward, offering her hand to the odd mercenary admiral. "Admiral Naismith," she greeted. "I am Captain Harrington of the Royal Manticoran Navy. Welcome aboard HMS Fearless."
Naismith took her hand, his clasp warm and dry. "Captain Harrington," he said. "It is a privilege. I am Admiral Miles Naismith, Commander of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet. This is Commander Elli Quinn, my assistant."
"Commander Quinn." Honor shook the woman's hand as well, alert for the wariness in Quinn's eyes. She clearly did not approve of her admiral's voluntary foray onto a military vessel. "Please, let us sit." She gestured to the table, and the three of them arrayed themselves around it. Naismith's eyes seemed glued to her face.
Once she was seated, Nimitz sprang up from the floor to the arm of her chair, and flowed from there onto her shoulder. He bleeked a laugh at the diminutive mercenary, who colored as if understanding the humor. "Is that a treecat?" he asked, studying Nimitz now with open interest.
"Yes," Honor said simply. "This is Nimitz." She did not volunteer extra information, waiting for the mercenaries to come to their point.
Naismith had a kind of lopsided smile as he studied Nimitz. It fell away as he turned his attention back to Honor. "Captain Harrington," he said. His voice was earnest, as if preparing for some sort of wheedle or con, and her jaw tightened. He paused, then deliberately placed both hands flat on the table and leaned forward, his voice hardening. "I understand that the role of the Royal Manticoran Navy in Silesian space is generally anti-piracy, Captain Harrington. And it must be very comfortable for Manticoran citizens and your merchant marine to have the RMN available as a tool and a weapon. Not everyone has that sort of weapon available. Some planetary governments lack strong armies of their own. Some private individuals lack the support of their governments when they need it. 'Pirate' may nearly always mean 'mercenary,' but 'mercenary' does not always mean 'pirate.' We are here as a courtesy to you."
Honor's eyes flashed, and her hand tightened on the arm of her chair. Nimitz reared up and placed a true-hand gently on her head, bleeking in her ear. It kept her sitting. In the few seconds she had to respond to this, she breathed deeply and tried to absorb the words. Admiral Naismith watched her reaction with unwavering attention, his expression neither approving nor afraid of her. Commander Quinn had one finger touching her lips, and Honor had the irritating impression that the other woman was trying not to smile. She took a moment to think about the odd admiral's words.
Naismith seemed entirely willing to give her that moment. He returned her regard steadily, as if accustomed to far more powerful persons than she, although he had to know her ship was the most powerful thing for light-years. He was, she thought, far younger than she had first assumed; the deep pain lines that cut his face marred an age far less than thirty. Jackson's Whole did not, she thought, have prolong.
"I understand, Admiral Naismith," she said finally. She considered and rejected a few additional replies, but finally said only, "Shall we discuss your reason for being here, then?"
One corner of his mouth twitched, but the smile did not quite form. "I think perhaps we should." He reached for his pocket, and Honor automatically tensed. He saw the motion and flicked an eyebrow up at her. To her intense annoyance, she could feel herself flush at it. It was the sort of expression she would sometimes get from her instructors back at the Academy. When he pulled only a folded flimsy from his pocket, she felt distinctly foolish. He pretended not to notice. Commander Quinn was nearly poker-faced, but with laughing eyes.
Honor was beginning to understand why people would follow this odd little man. He had a sort of intense personal magnetism, and her responses, she knew without question, were being drawn by that magnetism.
Naismith unfolded the flimsy and laid it on the table. "Captain Harrington," he began, "we are in Silesian local space at the request of the Ars Astra Corporation, registered out of Escobar. Ars Astra is a galactic tourism company, providing luxury-class yachts for interstellar trips. They offer guests berths on routine tours, or charter services. They've been in business for just under twenty years, and their reputation matters crucially to them.
"Three weeks ago, an Ars Astra ship chartered for a conference here in Silesia was hijacked. The conference, with delegates from thirty-six separate planetary systems, was held entirely on board the ship. The organizers were from Escobar, which is why Ars Astra was contracted, but the bulk of the delegates were from various Silesian polities, which is why the conference was held in Silesian space. The Dendarii were contracted to retrieve the hijacked ship, with all delegates safely returned to civil authorities who could obtain them passage home. We have successfully done this."
Honor listened to the recital with some interest. Naismith spoke with the firm, no-nonsense patter of a salesman or an officer. The description of their assignment was delivered smoothly, but she thought from the nuances that it was not, in fact, rehearsed. Naismith was a good talker, and if his story was true – which she did not by any means accept on faith – then he could deliver on his promises, as well.
"This is certainly a very interesting assignment, Admiral Naismith," she said after a few seconds' pause. "But I haven't yet seen how your visit here is as a courtesy to me. It does not seem as though your assignment in any way impinges on Manticoran interests."
"Even if one of the delegates was a Manticoran citizen?" asked the mostly silent Commander Quinn. Her eyes were amused as she looked at Honor, who narrowed her eyes back at the mercenary woman. She intensely disliked the feeling that this mercenary was laughing at her, aboard her own ship and from a place of decidedly inferior power.
A little knot of honesty at the back of Honor's mind noted dispassionately that she wouldn't be quite so upset with Quinn if the woman didn't look quite so much like an idealized version of Honor herself: lean and athletic, without Honor's excessive centimeters of height, dark hair and eyes, slightly exotic features. This was the kind of woman the shallow part of Honor's childhood had always longed to be.
"Were they?" she asked coolly.
"Elli," Admiral Naismith said, with a faint warning in his tone. Quinn bit her lower lip and subsided, still seeming faintly amused by the entire situation. Naismith turned to look at Honor again. "Yes," he said. "One of the delegates, Dr. Edmund Winchester, was Manticoran, and should be on his way home shortly. However, the situation is more complex than that. Winchester was questioned under fast-penta, as were several of the other delegates, but his interrogation seemed to have a slightly different tenor than the others. There was more intensity to it."
He paused, as if expecting a reply, but Honor just motioned for him to continue. After a moment, he did. "Our investigation of the crew that hijacked the yacht showed that their commander was an expatriate from the Republic of Haven. When I am going to operate in a region, Captain Harrington, I always familiarize myself with the major players in that region. I am aware of your kingdom's recent difficulties with the Republic of Haven."
Honor sat frozen, her mind churning this over. After a moment, she asked, "Have you any evidence of this?"
"I cannot, unfortunately, make my mission log accessible to you," Naismith said, with what felt like genuine regret in his voice. "When your delegate returns to Manticoran space, your government will, of course, be able to speak to him about his experience, and my client on Escobar will have my full report, including complete interrogation logs of the hijackers. I imagine they would be willing to share it with you."
He leaned forward again. She was already beginning to identify his signals, she thought, and read this as a gesture of increasing urgency, a trick to command attention. It was effective. His voice grew subtly quieter. "Captain Harrington, we have not been traveling the major trade routes, and we have noted a distinct increase in the number of Havenite vessels in this area, compared to the numbers we were told to expect. Now, I have no horse in this race, so to speak, but if there is to be war – and I think you expect it as much as I do – I think I would prefer to see Manticore emerge on top. You would, I suspect, be better for trade." He smiled, almost ruefully. "I don't know exactly what is happening here. But I offer you, as it were, the courtesy of advance information. If this is all coincidental – well, then I have wasted my time. If not, then you are positioned to be ready."
He laid the flimsy on the table. "I have charted the locations where we have spotted Havenite vessels in the last week. I offer it to you as a courtesy." He slid the map over to her in offering, his fingertips resting lightly on it.
Havenite ships. Honor had seen no more than the usual Havenite ship traffic, but if they had been avoiding the Manticoran traffic, that would not be surprising. Typical traffic had certainly not been following its normal patterns over the last week or so. She studied the flimsy for a moment, under Naismith's fingertips, then reached over to it. As soon as her fingers touched the map, he moved his hand away, as if some ritual had been concluded.
"And what do you benefit by offering me this information, Admiral Naismith?" she asked.
He opened one hand as if in a shrug. "What do I gain by not offering it?" he asked. "I hadn't thought much of reward. Goodwill, perhaps? A smile? There are contracts, and then there are contacts, Captain Harrington. Mercenaries are not totally without honor, and no man is without his own personal convictions, separate from the drive for profit. Perhaps I gain self-respect."
Honor did not, somehow, think this odd mercenary was at all lacking in self-respect to begin with. He was looking at her now with an odd intensity. She lifted the flimsy to study the map: pinpricks coded to ship types speckled the map. "This spans the time period of one week, you said?" she confirmed.
"Yes," Naismith answered. "I cannot tell you our exact course or the times we saw these ships, for which I apologize."
Honor nodded her understanding. "I appreciate the information, Admiral Naismith," she said formally. "I understand one of your ships was damaged recently. Do you require any assistance with repairs?"
Naismith's eyes lit. "No, but thank you, Captain Harrington. Our repairs are all minor enough for us to handle on-ship."
Honor, sensing the end of the business side of things, pushed the com button to summon her steward with dinner. Mac was his usual efficient self, and Naismith provided a fascinating dinner guest, discussing topics from strategy to literature to ancient Earth philosophers. They spoke of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz and the Battle of Midway, and of Gustav Anderman and Edward Saganami and Lord Vorkosigan. He did see her smile, three times.
A little under an hour later, as he left the room, he turned to Commander Quinn and said, sotto voce, "I think I want to add one of those berets to our uniform. What do you think Tung would say?" The hatch slid closed on whatever answer Quinn made. Honor smiled at the empty room, then rubbed Nimitz between the ears and reached for the com.
"Andy," she said when her exec responded, "I need to talk to senior officers at 2200. I've received some unpleasant information."