Even with the latest generation of communications buoys, there was an unavoidable time lag between Honor's flagship and Manticore, just enough to make the normal flow of conversation inevitably awkward. It was also significantly further into Honor's scheduled sleep period than she would have preferred, but it was hardly like she could have refused this call.
Nor would she have wished to. Honor was long past the point of being awed by her Queen and Empress, but a deep and genuine respect persisted.
Elizabeth Adrienne Samantha Annette Winton was finally starting to look older than her formal portraits these days, more from the burden of her position than anything else, Honor suspected. There was no sign that burden was weighing on her now, though, and she addressed Honor with the usual dangerous cheer.
"So are we going to have a war, or not?"
"They are not being hostile at the moment, Your Majesty."
Her Queen flashed her teeth. "That's not quite an answer, Honor."
"It's the best I can give," she replied. "Right now, we can only respond to what they do. Since they initiated contact, they must feel like they can do that while also continuing to have enough control over the situation to feel safe. Which means they probably have plans in place in case we respond in a way they don't like."
"What sort of actual risks do you think we could be dealing with?"
"We have barely any intelligence. We know they can disrupt the Junction. They are presumably in control of at least seven alternate termini, which means they could use a simultaneous transit to bring nearly one and a half billion tons worth of warships into our system. It's implausible but not completely impossible they have some other method they could use to attack us as well."
Elizabeth tilted her head. "You seem more worried about this than I thought you might be."
"I am," she replied bluntly. "Think about how the war with Haven a hundred years ago was going when Miles left. Think about the wars we fought since. There's no way they could know they'd find us here instead of McQueen, or worse. Transiting with their tech on board was an extremely questionable tactical move if they knew we were waiting for them. It's insane given the risk that we weren't."
"They would never have been able to cut us off forever, though. We know enough that we'll eventually be able to reconstruct their wormhole technology." Elizabeth observed.
"Eventually," Honor said. Some progress had been made, but working Necklin rods were still perhaps fifteen years away, and had been for the last sixty-five years running. "I still think it's merely prudent to assume they have capabilities they aren't revealing and goals they aren't being fully honest about."
"Quite," Elizabeth said. "I do apologize for calling this late, but it seems like there might be some political micromanagement headed your way and I thought I'd warn you. It's about the Junction closure, of course."
Honor wasn't precisely surprised. It was one of the hazards of a command so close to Manticore. "We're following the exact closure plan the Cabinet approved," she observed. "Isn't it a little early for them to try to back out of it?"
"I will be making that point," Elizabeth said. "I have some political capital I can spend if you think it prudent. This may not be the only fire that needs to be put out on the home front, though, and I'm inclined to let them have this one if you don't think hostilities are imminent."
Honor's lip twitched. "There's an alert state we can put the Junction in where low volume commercial transit is technically permitted but insurance won't cover transit mishaps. I think that would be the way to go if they insist. Let them eat the risk." She'd noted over the years that Manticoran shipping vessels often took the Navy for granted but were much more careful to stay on the right side of their insurers.
Elizabeth smiled in agreement. "I like that. I suppose it'd also clarify the situation immensely if a ship or two ended up vanished."
"It would, but not necessarily in a good way." Honor said. "We haven't truly been in control of the Junction for a century, but we've been able to pretend we were. If they start regularly sending traffic through or disappearing ships, that pretense will collapse. I can't even begin to predict what the economic and political consequences of that would be. Astro Control at all of the outer termini is under orders to let us know if any unauthorized transits occur, but since we can't trust that we control the Junction, we can't necessarily trust that their dispatches haven't been intercepted. Haven hasn't missed a transit in their treaty windows, but I'm not confident we'd be informed if anything happened at Trevor's Star."
The Empress winced. The last peace treaty with Haven had returned the planet of San Martin to the Star Empire, but not the associated wormhole terminus in the Trevor's Star system. Losing Trevor's Star had been the greatest territorial insult Manticore had suffered in quite some time, and in Honor's opinion the indefensible position San Martin had been left in would likely spark the next war.
"I don't mean to be too alarmist," Honor continued, watching the broodingly hostile look that often accompanied mention of Haven settle over Elizabeth's face. "There is a good chance everything will go smoothly. They certainly have the capability to create catastrophic outcomes for us, but there's no obvious upside for them. It's hard to judge what their culture has become, but Miles and Captain Thorne always showed a general preference for sleight of hand over brute force of arms. Collectively, they don't seem to fight conflicts in the same way we do."
"That's not necessarily reassuring."
"No, it's not. At least not until we have the ability to force them to fight on our terms. Everything else is a distraction."
"How soon do you think we can get to that point?"
"Regrettably, I don't think we're looking at a very fast resolution here. We can't afford to rush any part of the analysis of what they've done to my ship. Diplomatically... we have Samantha, a large number of very sick treecats, a message from Miles that unfortunately ended up with Liz, and Lord Thierry Vorkosigan. Samantha is barely conscious most of the time and Vorkosigan admits he has no actual authority to negotiate on behalf of anyone in their Nexus."
"If he's the only person they sent, I'm sure there was a reason for it." Elizabeth said. Her tone turned curious. "What's he like?"
"He's..." Honor wondered how to accurately describe Thierry Vorkosigan "He's not very military," she said. "But he doesn't have the... I don't know, cunning I'd expect of a seasoned diplomat either."
Her monarch looked skeptical. "Remember whose grandson we're dealing with here. I looked over the transcripts. He seemed fairly practiced."
Honor shook her head. "He's not like Miles at all."
"What do you think his angle is?"
A difficult question. "It's hard to categorize this approach to reopening relations as anything but a diplomatic insult. I don't think that's his fault personally, though, he seems to be simply the messenger. The problem is that he hasn't given us the actual message yet."
"Yes, I did hear he wanted to talk to me," Elizabeth said.
Honor kept her face expressionless, though she thought she knew where this was going. "He wants to see you, and seems perfectly content to wait as long as he has to to make that happen. Until we decide what to do with him, he's going to wait, because I have no interest in letting him dictate terms."
"Reading between the lines of the reports, wanting an audience with me seems to be his only major sin. Is there a good reason not to give him one, or are you simply making a point?"
Empress Elizabeth's tone was suspiciously mild, but there was a rebuke there. Honor sighed inwardly. She'd been hoping not to involve Elizabeth personally - of course, the problem with that was that her monarch rather liked excuses to get involved personally. "Your Majesty, I would recommend against it."
"Noted," Elizabeth said, "As your Empress, I'm ignoring your advice. Bring him out to Hephaestus Three. My security doesn't want him to come planetside, but I am coming up there. If nothing else, it'll annoy the Cabinet." She flashed a grin.
Honor inclined her head in reluctant acknowledgement. "Very well, Your Majesty."
"Don't worry, Honor. I'll practically be shrink-wrapped. After all the horrors we went through with the Mesans we're got contingency plans ready for almost anything. We're not even going to be sharing the same air circulation."
Honor let a skeptical expression cross her face. "I haven't seen any indication they intend to employ Mesan-style tactics, but I'm not sure how solid our defenses would truly be if they did. Between all the military personnel exposed, the treecats, and the people who haven't seen their families in a hundred years, any attempt at total containment is going to slip... and that's not even considering Liz."
Her concerns were dismissed with a slight finger wave. "The Queen's Own will handle things. You haven't exactly avoided exposure yourself."
She had to admit that was true. "I'm too personally entangled with all this to do so. If I keep Nimitz from Samantha right now, I think Samantha might die, and I can't exactly quarantine myself from Nimitz."
Elizabeth gave her a sharp look. "She was certainly an instigator in all this, from your own reports. Have you gotten any intelligence out of her?"
"No. Other than the item Liz stole. She's frail and very subdued." Honor said. It struck her that Ariel was not perched on Elizabeth's shoulder. That was unsurprising, given the hour, but she wondered if it was also intentional. It might actually be the first time they had ever had a conversation without their respective treecats, since Nimitz had taken to sleeping with Samantha in her secure enclosure. "I have her locked up under medical monitoring, with Nimitz visiting more often than not. I'm not entirely certain what to do with her otherwise."
The Empress looked thoughtful. "I assume you're keeping her isolated from the other treecats?"
"The ship's not large enough to put her in the telepathic equivalent of solitary. But she's in no shape to mastermind anything." She'd sensed no more than the occasional flash of treecat communication between Samantha and Vorkosigan's treecat Baiyun. "The Forestry Commission will be moving the other treecats off the Paul Tankersley soon, which will let me send it to the yards for BuWeaps analysis and either disassembly or refit."
"Do you think she'll recover?"
"You've seen orphan treecats," Honor said. "She recovered before. But you know that's not the usual way of things."
"Samantha is an unusually stubborn treecat, though. And we might yet find Miles." Honor frowned and decided to change the subject. "Speaking of military research, I may end up having to turn Lord Thierry over to BuWeaps as well. He has one of their brain implants, so he must be the jump pilot of their vessel. All of the control circuitry for their wormhole technology is in those implants. Depending on exactly how the situation progresses, we may have to take his head apart."
The Empress raised her eyebrows. "Can that be done safely?"
"I don't know. And I wish the situation wasn't presenting itself like this. But he's set himself up as the only human obstacle between us and the security of Manticore." She shrugged, betraying only a small amount of discomfort. "That wasn't very intelligent of him, but I didn't make him do it."