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Honor Among Thieves

Chapter Text

Epilogue

Five Scenes in the Lives of Other People

 

1. Albrecht Detweiler

Mendel, May 1920 PD

 

As self-appointed genetic supremo of the galaxy, Albrecht Detweiler was not having a good year, for the third year in a row, and did not appreciate the experience one bit. Worse, he still did not really understand how so much could have gone so wrong with all his very careful plans, and so blindingly fast.

            It was partly, of course, that information flow was as crimped as everything else was fast becoming. The exclusion of all Mesan ships from the Manticore Junction and much sharpened eyes cast on all non-Alliance traffic had bitten deep ; as, however incidentally, had the purges of Manpower clients on Manticore, quite apart from the loss of agents there and elsewhere. The League had protested itself black and blue at such ‘extreme and unjustified commercial warfare’, with blustering threats, but found itself entirely unheeded, so even with a hundred work-arounds and false-flaggings the flow of data and control loops for remaining agents anywhere useful had been grossly disrupted. But it was also that what had demonstrably happened defied rational explanation in the first place. Once Saint-Just had been killed he’d never counted on getting Manticore and Haven back to full-out war, though for a while it had looked as if it would happen, but nothing beyond a sullen armistice had been projected to happen for decades yet, when it would be irrelevant. And the chance of immediate and active alliance had been so tiny not even the Mesan Alignment’s wilder contingency planning had factored it in.

            All that was bad enough, and a major nuisance, but it still shouldn’t have become the rolling disaster it had. A lot of that was down to the sanctimonious Beowulfans, who got Manticoran news in close to real time and from the first of Harrington’s explosive public statements had made sure League publics across the Core had a new favourite HD series. Even that should only have been another bloody historical costume drama, but Beowulfan ambassadors and oddly expert commentators on Manticore had popped up everywhere to hammer home its reality and — worse — insist on the probability of what was being said and implied about Manpower and Mesa generally. The figures they had on OFS budgets and payments were uncomfortably accurate, and though everyone knew Beowulfans had fanatical ideas about Mesa, they did keep making sense.

            And that sense had been underlined a few months later by rolling announcements, from Manticore and allies, including — ludicrously — Haven and the Anderman Empire, that in return for a laying down of arms they were decriminalising the Ballroom and recognising it as a legitimate representative of all still in slavery. There had been shock and apoplexy across the Core, and the League’s condemnation had been as savage a statement as it had ever issued, but there was also the undeniable fact, absorbed by an inconvenient number of people, that a longstanding galactic consensus had been shattered by a swathe of very different polities, whose governments all clearly thought they were doing the right thing and demonstrably had popular support. That alone was upsetting almost every Alignment plan there was, and the long, courteous, and funny statement by Jeremy X and L’Ouverture that had followed had done very odd and unwelcome things to figures that had been stable and predictable for centuries. Nor were some handy assassinations a viable option, much as they appealed, even if agents could have been contracted, for the few reports he had indicated clearly that the nanotech method was known, presumably through that idiot Giancola, and that anyone getting remotely close to any of the targets had to run a gamut of checks and tests, including repeated declarations before the never sufficiently damned treecats, serving as lie-detectors.

            He had of necessity become crossly resigned to the loss of Verdant Vista, but had not anticipated that the new Grand Alliance force that took it would have quite so many embedded Solly reporters beside their own PR machines. The Peep SS people they’d captured when they took out the mercenary guard squadron had come as a severe shock to a League public used to swallowing Saint-Just’s propaganda, and even he had to admit that conditions on Verdant Vista were terrible — which was why you used disposable slaves in the first place, of course, not that most would admit that basic and incontrovertible logic. Nevertheless, it had been a PR disaster for Manpower, strengthening belief in the general accusation, and quite apart from the very burdensome costs of exclusion from the Junction, every Mesan transstellar had found itself under severe pressure on most Core worlds.

            The one good thing in the whole clusterfuck was that once the so-called Grand Alliance had knocked off Verdant Vista, and wasted a drone or three through its wormhole that MAN forces took care of, they’d hung up on it. The freed slaves had bizarrely opted for a monarchy, and become the next new HD favourite across the Core. Some was just lunacy rolling along — like the choice of Zilwicki’s adopted daughter, not even a slave, as their queen, which had, he swore, on its own jacked viewing figures by an order of magnitude — but someone had made smart moves, including renaming the place as Torch. And the whole thing made a perfect platform for reality HD shows about the newly freed and their medical and psychiatric needs — another data stream that was doing nasty things to long-term stable numbers. It couldn’t last indefinitely, but while it did it was uncomfortable. More positively, one price of the absurd alliance had become plain when their fleet had gone from Verdant Vista to Silesia, which was welcome to it and would keep it occupied long enough to let him salvage everything that really mattered.

            Collectively, though, the whole thing had pushed him into a serious misjudgement, however understandable, in advancing Oyster Bay against the advice of several clone-sons. They’d agreed necessity but argued for a trial strike before a wider commitment ; he’d opted for a chance of maximal damage, and been truly shocked by comprehensive failure. Not a single missile had found its target, despite every TF achieving a surprise launch, and the few ships that had returned had logs showing a range of co-ordinated defences that unequivocally said the attempt had been anticipated. A recent report from Grayson had tentatively answered the question of where the heavy metal block-screens had come from, but that was nothing beside the capture, intact, of streak and spider drives.

            It shouldn’t have been possible, but at both Manticore A and B, and at Yeltsin’s Star, someone had flashed orders within seconds of the TFs launching, and Home Fleets with hundreds of other assets had responded instantaneously. Besides waves of jamming so powerful Colin had flatly said whatever had produced them had to have their own microfusion plants, preventing any refinement of missile aims, hundreds of predeployed missile-pods had launched, despite having nothing but an extrapolation to aim at. Misses had been numerous but kills had been brutal, and they had crippled without destroying seven ships ; worse still, five had not managed to scuttle before being boarded, and hard evidence of two unknown drive systems, confirmed over the following months by imported techs and endlessly reported by Solly media, had gone a long way towards confirming Mantie arguments about facing an enemy of unknown capacities that could only be Manpower.

            Captured crew had also been shown very righly lying their heads off — and being consistently called on it by treecats ; under which pressure a disgraceful amount of truth had emerged, even if believing it was another matter. The net result was that he’d had to spend a huge amount of time soothing a jittery Alignment council, and more working with every clone-son he had on containment, deflection, rebuttal, and distraction, none of which had stopped him making a cold-eyed assessment of where all this had to be going, and initiating preparations for evacuation through the secret wormhole to the Darius System. Alignment security came first, always, and though this particular wretched necessity had not been adequately foreseen in little more than a month they would be gone from Mesa, leaving a bloody puzzle that would give any number of people a huge headache. It set things back by decades, and was extremely irritating.

            With the hours he was working he was sleeping heavily, especially in the first hour or two, and the speckle of lights in the night sky didn’t wake him despite an open window. Nearly 20 minutes later, his bedside com did, and a grim-faced and slightly wild-eyed Colin looked out at him from Alpha control.

            “21 minutes ago tracking detected a shower of small craft abruptly on radar. 19 minutes ago everything in orbit went dead — ships, satellites, stations, the lot. So what’s happening up there I don’t know, but there’s trouble on planet too — multiple reports of attacks on police. With small craft it might only be Ballroom, but with MN ships taken out we have to reckon it’s a full attack.”

            “Shit!” His mind churned, cutting losses, reckoning necessities. “Whatever it is, Colin, I need an hour. Do what you can. Rendezvous Zeta when possible.”

            Logey with tiredness it took him precious minutes to access the command level on the master terminal, for any error would lock the system down, and more to transfer the most precious data to the portable store, wiping it behind him. Flaring lights and thundering booms told him there were indeed incoming troops, and he sighed relief as he started to enter the long, deliberately complex and multiply guarded sequence that would purge everything and start an autodestruct countdown for all control centres. But he was barely a quarter of the way through it when a fusillade of far sharper cracks from outside brought a rush of bitter-smelling gas through the window, and he stared with pure horror at the receding screen and his own paralysed hands before unconsciousness claimed him.

 

*

 

The armoured Grayson Space Dog who crashed throught the window eight minutes later took a brief look at the slumped body and a longer one at the pulsing comscreen before buzzing his captain. Less than a minute later a quite different, growling voice he had come to know well asked him to focus on the screen, swore, and issued sharp instructions. The unconscious Mesan’s hand was set to a palm-scanner, and used to answer a long set of prompts, and the Space Dog sighed relief as the autodestruct programmes obediently went back to sleep. The voice growled again.

            “Get that Mesan fully restrained before he wakes — if he could authorise that lot he’s someone we need to be talking to. And grab hold of that portable data store, will you, laddie? It’s the very sort of thing Her Grace is wanting.”

 

 

2. Rajampet Kaushal Rajani

Mesan space, December 1920 PD

 

The CNO of the SLN had also been having an awful year, for the third year in a row, and if it wasn’t really a CNO’s job to lead a fleet, even the biggest and most powerful ever assembled, Rajani didn’t care in the least. Nothing would have stopped him from the pleasure of finally stomping on the neobarbs as they so richly deserved, and once he’d done so at Mesa he had every intention of doing so again in their Home Systems. All of them. No-one, but no-one, got away with the kind of crap they’d pulled this time, and they were going down.

            It should have been done three years ago, when the neobarbs had the unbelievable gall to close their bloody Junction to Mesan ships, but Kolokoltsov and the other mandarins had dithered. Of course Mesa wasn’t a League member — how could it be, when the idiots who’d been ruling the League then had signed up to the Cherwell Convention? — but it had always been understood that it had SLN protection, and its transstellars’ merchie fleets certainly did. Yet the neobarbs’ seizure of thousands of vessels had gone unanswered, because Kolokoltsov had been sure they’d back down once they’d made their point, whatever it was, and because their ostentatious repatriation via Terra of the merchies’ crews, with documented exception of those caught with slaves or contraband goods and weapons, had made a public splash. Even the complete shock of the neobarbs’ recognition of the Ballroom had gone unanswered, Kolokoltsov pointing out that the League could hardly go after three major multi-system neobarb nations for a domestic policy decision. And by then cashflow had been almost restored to what it ought to be, albeit with a bigger deficit to manage from the disruption of wormhole traffic, while the graphic reports from newly conquered Verdant Vista had made — said the bloody mandarins — any intervention in Mesa’s defence ‘politically unsustainable’.

            And look where that had got them! Even Kolokoltsov had been white when news of the Mesan strike had come in. The orders to every Battle Fleet detachment in the nearer Core to assemble had gone out even before the ghastly stream of data started coming in from the traitorous reporters the neobarbs had managed to tote along. The sheer, iresponsible ruthlessness of the attack had been bad enough, with MSN ships destroyed in orbit and police and army barracks blown apart without warning. They’d even threatened to use KEWs, for fuck’s sake, on a city like Mendel! Shooting Manpower techs out of hand was only to be expected with Ballroom lunatics involved, but the swiftness of summary trials and the mass execution that had followed had been beyond words — except the newsies had found some, and had Manpower’s own documentation of exactly what phenotype technicians had done. Against that the incineration of those techs and a few thousand of their bosses crammed aboard a Manpower slaveship when its fusion plant was let go had somehow been made to seem acceptable.

            What had been far worse, though, was who wasn’t being put on show, dead or alive, for the most senior board-members of Manpower and Jessyk he’d always dealt with were nowhere to be seen, though their captures had been announced. But what they’d been saying began to become horribly clear as both the so-called Grand Alliance and their puppet Ballroom government had started to release centuries of data about exactly how what they called the Mesan Alignment had used the transstellars in co-operation with the SLN and OFS to exploit the Verge and Shell. They’d started with old stuff, naming no-one living, but week by week the story had advanced, always casting everything in the worst possible light, and the idiot public had been lapping it up, speculating about the contents of more current data. And Kolokoltsov knew as well as he that if the neobarbs did have it, which they must, its release could not be allowed. His concentration of SDs could not be concealed, and more than the Beowulfans had begun screaming, but there was no more time to waste.

            Even his own people had been gibbering. The crap pouring through from Manticore had implicitly asserted naval superiority over the SLN, with alphabet gibberish about new classes of warships and claims of FTL com capacity. That had to be nonsense. People had been trying for 2,000 years and no-one had ever come up with anything that worked at all, but various cowardly shits had been worried about the new classes — SDs adapted to lay pods, for fuck’s sake, and ships of SD tonnage for carrying LACs.

            He was willing to concede the Manties were quite sharp for neobarbs. The imagery from Mesa had shown a lot of very accurate if completely reckless piloting of small craft, and the ground assault had been as clinical as it was criminal, while the LACs they’d gone back to building were clearly fast and armed with a very heavy energy weapon as well as oddly effective missiles. But LACs were still only LACs, of not the slightest use against SDs. It was however true that if these pod-layers could put out pods of five or six missiles — probably bigger and longer ranged than anything tube-launched — they would be able to throw large salvoes. Records from Verdant Vista when an armada of their capital ships had taken out those ugly Havenite SDs did seem to suggest they had a missile range a good 10% greater than his own, and the yield meant they had to be big bastards, which coupled with the range advantage would mean he’d have to take some fire before he could bring the hammer down. But even the worst screamers agreed that to carry and launch pods in those kind of numbers the new classes had to have sacrificed so much internal armour and redundancy they’d be far too vulnerable to last beyond initial engagements.

            But — he had to smile — all the credulous worry had meant he could justify the enormous force he’d assembled as proper precautions given the reports of neobarb developments in design. 50 squadrons from Home Fleet had been joined by more than 100 from other Core Sector commands ; and nearly another 50 had met them en route. It was a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but it wouldn’t be when the Alliance force at Mesa was debris and he moved on to the Manticore system itself.  And if it had stuck in his craw to pretend caution, the kick of knowing that he controlled the greatest fleet ever seen and would order salvoes of more than 15,000 missiles was seriously worth it.

            Not that the lazy fuckers could keep station worth a damn, and the whole journey in hyper had been ragged. But they could by God fire well enough, and that was all that mattered. He had reluctantly agreed that coming back into N-space a full 20 light-minutes outside the hyperlimit was a sensible margin. Even an SD couldn’t argue with the gravity well of a G2 star. And it meant they could make a soft translation — no point in being nauseated by crashing down through the bands, however satisfying it was to think of the effect on the neobarbs as their plots went wild. More importantly, that mark was only minutes away, and he was really looking forward to the conversations he’d be having in another few hours with some brown-trousered neobarb piker. With any luck it would be Harrington herself.

            With every admiral he trusted allocated to oversize group commands he had only a small personal staff with him. His Flag Captain, Carrow Fleurmat, was no-one he knew but came recommended, and the choice of the SLNS Gregor Mendel was irresistible when Mendel was his destination. And the man seemed competent enough, taking on the surprising demands of organising more than 1,300 SDs into one hell of a wall of battle with some gusto, once he’d got over being flabbergasted at the opportunity. He also eased them down through the bands well enough, but N-space brought a surprise, for when the computers reported in the lead squadrons were only two light-minutes short of the hyperlimit, and even while Rajani mentally cursed the astrogator he remembered the uses he’d have for this bridge log and put on a wide smile.

            “ Wonderful precision, Captain. Others seem to have straggled a bit, I see. Launch the drones but let’s get in proper battle order before we head on in.”

            “Aye aye, sir.”

            Ranks and ranks of gleaming SDs slowly moved into proper array, and in half-an-hour were almost as they should be when Fleurmat acquired a very peculiar look.

            “We have a com request from the neobarbs, sir, asking for you by name.”

            “We do, do we? It’s not surprising that they’re shitting themselves already.”

            “Ah, the source of their request is very close, sir, but we can’t seem to find it. And they named the ship as well as you.”

            “What?” He thought it through. “It was no secret this was my flagship. Probably some damn reporter scooting ahead of us. Do we have a neobarb name?”

            “The request was from Grand Fleet Admiral Harrington, sir. But sir, we’re 23 light minutes out and it’s only 31 since we came out of hyper. So they really do have FTL coms. And the drones haven’t yet seen anything, though they’re more than half-way in, but gravitics are indicating only a hundred or so ships in orbit, with 12 about 50 million klicks out, and nothing anywhere near enough to be talking to us like this. I don’t like the implications at all.”

            He was trying to think it through, balking at the notion that neobarbs could have cracked FTL, when Fleurmat’s coms officer reported. “Request’s being repeated, sir, with a general band warning that any ship crossing the hyperlimit will be engaged and destroyed.”

            Fury overwhelmed him. “A warning! Put Grand Panjandrum or whatever Harrington on right now.”

            The face that appeared on his com screen was familiar, and scorn joined fury as he saw the comically mismatched tabs on the shoulders of her skinsuit, no doubt pandering to all the proud neobarb navies she’d wound up commanding — until his eyes came back to her face, and he met her cold, infinitely arrogant gaze. It was oddly unsettling, and so was the green-eyed animal on her shoulder. Which was also skinsuited. He blinked. And her voice flayed.

            “CNO Rajani. You haven’t yet bothered to introduce yourself, but I assume from your bumbling attempts to form a wall of battle with those obsolete ships that you intend to offer combat. Be aware first, that any SLN ship crossing the hyperlimit will be engaged and destroyed by the Planetary Defence Task Force, and second, that if any SLN ship so forces us to engage it will be taken as an Act of War by the Solarian League against every star nation in the Grand Alliance.”

            He could almost feel his eyes popping. Clearly, the mad had no limits and just didn’t see it coming. But this was going to be an even more useful record than he’d anticipated, and a more satisfying one. The phrases formed in his mind.

            “So noted, Grand Admiral Harrington, or whatever it is you’re calling yourself. But you have perhaps failed to notice that I have well over 1,300 SDs with me, while even someone as unobservant as you can’t have failed to notice that you and your ragbag forces assailed a sovereign planet and murdered thousands of its citizens. An act, Admiral, of terrorism as well as war, for which the bill is now falling due. If, and only if, you promptly surrender all forces, including the Ballroom terrorists you’ve chosen to associate with, I’ll guarantee fair trials. And if you fire a single shot against the SLN, you and the motley star nations you represent will find out what going to war really means. Captain Fleurmat, get us underway at maximum acceleration, if you please.”

            He was settling back, one eye on the plot as the gorgeous armada of his forces began to move in, the other impatient for the sight of her face when his words reached her, when she was speaking again.

            “An act of war against whom, CNO Rajani? Your grasp of law seems very shaky. Mesa was not a member of the League, and 47 League polities have made public their veto of any military action in its support. On what legal basis do you claim to be acting?”

            Amid the shock twisting in his belly the thought occurred that taking the neobarbs’ FTL away from them would add a tremendous bonus. And while law was irrelevant when you had power there did need to be a cover for this record.

            “League citizens died in your murderous attack, Admiral, made without any declaration of hostilities, and the SLN cannot allow neobarbarians to murder its citizens with impunity.”

            “Seven League citizens died, CNO Rajani, all employees of Manpower killed by slaves they had abused. Nearly 200 SDs per citizen seems somewhat excessive, especially when the complaint sent by the League has received a full diplomatic reply to which no answer has been made. And you lie. Manticore and Grayson informed Mesa that a state of war was presumed more than three years ago, and the Grand Alliance made a formal declaration of war before the attack on Verdant Vista. It’s hardly our fault the Mesans were arrogant enough to suppose we didn’t mean it. But as you are now less than 15 light seconds from committing an Act of War yourself, we have a more pressing problem than your threadbare attempt to give yourself a legal figleaf. Open the general channel, please, Abigail.”

            Drawing breath to stamp on her astounding presumption, his mind spun. Why in space did she intend to speak on a general channel?

            “CNO Rajani, I’m perfectly aware of the 1,368 SDs you have, and we finished confirming classes and names 15 minutes ago. My drones can read the names on your hull-plating, not that you have the least idea they’re there, and we’re speaking FTL by the way, in case you hadn’t noticed, from a drone less than ten k-klicks from your flag bridge. Which you can’t see either, because your equipment is as obsolete as your assessment of your threat environment. So I repeat, you’re now less than 15 light seconds from starting a war that you will lose. And as we will want you personally alive, both for committing an Act of War and to answer for the data about your perverted and murderous habits with children, fully recorded in Manpower’s confidential files, it will be other SLN personnel who will be dying because of your corrupt and desperate stupidity. Specifically, the ships targeted in the first salvo will be the 140 between SLNS Agarty Priajal, Richard Dawkins, Robert Boyle, and Wai-hei Leung. They and all SLN ships are advised that the missiles that will be fired at them if they cross the Mesa hyperlimit are far outside your anti-missile doctrines. They will close with a terminal velocity of better than 0.8c, and you will not be able to stop more than a fraction of them. In the event that CNO Rajani really is so stupid as to press this illegal and hopeless attack, made wholly unconstitutionally, without any declaration of war, you are warned to abandon ship immediately. I have no wish whatever to kill enlisted SLN ratings, non-coms, and officers whose only fault is criminal and criminally stupid superiors, and we will of course provide S&R. But those who stay at their posts will very probably die. The second salvo will target the 140 ships between SLNS Pythagoras, Werner von Braun, Mikado, and Santa Cruz. For the love of God, ladies and gentlemen, save yourselves while you can. CNO Rajani and other SLN admirals have taken billions of dollars in Manpower bribes. Do you want to die defending slavery? And though I do not want to kill even one of you, if I have to I will kill you all, to the last woman, to prevent the resurrection of Mesa. You now have 11 light seconds in which to stop. Do so or face the consequences. Harrington out.”

            He was still trying to assimilate the words, swinging between rage, shock, and sheer confusion, when the plot at last updated properly and he saw the paltry forces she had. 44 SDs were in orbit, with a clutter of lighter units, and eight ships labelled as the neobarbs’ oversize CAs hung 50 million klicks out, with four much bigger vessels behind them that CIC tentatively thought were merchies.

            “What the hell does she think those are going to achieve?”

            Fleurmat was as shocked as he was himself.

            “I don’t know, sir.” His face screwed up in concentration. “Perhaps those merchies are colliers. We knew they’d be able to put a lot of missiles into space, sir, and if she was telling the truth about their closing speed they’ll be very hard to stop.”

            He stared. “They’ll be ballistic at anything over ten million klicks, and no threat at all.”

            “Will they, sir? She has to be telling the truth about drones. CIC can’t find anything, but her ship names and numbers were right. And if they have FTL telemetry as well as coms … ”

            It wasn’t a happy thought, but even if the neobarbs had managed such a thing it wasn’t going to make any difference. It couldn’t. “Maybe we will take more hits than we’d like, captain, but I doubt it. Going to a general channel like that was no more than a colossal bluff. The fact they’d even consider it might work shows how little they know.”

            He was still trying to persuade the odd jumping things in his stomach when they crossed the hyperlimit, and he watched the vast arc of his ships sweep over it behind them. The last were just deep enough in Mesan space to be trapped in the gravity well when the plot went entirely insane, and an already awful year became abruptly and spectacularly worse.

 

3. Oravil Barregos

Shuttlesport, January 1921 PD

 

Governor Barregos prided himself on having a level head and taking a long view, but events had of late been enough to confuse anyone. A carefully planned secession from a hopelessly corrupt League was one thing, but hadn’t happened yet, and if he was in most ways entirely delighted that the new and terrifying Grand Alliance had punched out Mesa, they had to have known the SLN would respond. News of Rajani’s seizure of the planet was expected within a week or ten days, as was the result of the Beowulfan referendum on secession, and a full-blown war between League and Alliance seemed inevitable. It would be no skin off his nose save that, unfortunately, he was still officially the League’s Sector Governor and Luis’s forces, including his nice new Erewhonese-built BCs, were still, on paper, SLN ships.

            The staggering technical developments that had come out of the Manticoran–Havenite war had been a major basis of his planned secession, and he had had every intention of locking down Manticoran recognition before pulling the trigger. Besides making it easier to look at himself in the mirror, his strong stance on slavery and generous treatment of the freed had been aimed at Manticoran sensibilities, and the unbelievable effect of the titbit Luis had thrown the Ballroom about the Young woman — in conjunction with the equally unbelievable Honor Harrington — had been a marvellous bonus. And he’d done all he could to build on it, unilaterally recognising Torch and leaking to the Manties the blistering memo he’d sent Kolokoltsov, explaining that while the sheer number of freed on Smoking Frog made his action necessary it was also a step they should follow with all haste ; not that they’d even considered it. He’d also publicly lauded the Grand Alliance’s seizure of Kuy and several other Manpower operations not far from the Maya sector, while noting privately that they had not yet touched anywhere that had a permanent OFS presence, and surmising that that would not last.

            The long Silesian deployments of so many Alliance forces, swatting pirates throughout the Confederacy and summarily arresting assorted planetary and even sector governors while managing to split the SN into a small number of casualties and prisoners and a much larger number of cheering observers, had seemed to take the pressure off. The League had still been screaming blue murder about the continuing closure of the Junction to all Mesan vessels, but the price rises and supply disruption the embargo had caused throughout the Core had begun to be absorbed and to produce some awkward questions about just how much of the League’s enormous collective economy Mesa controlled. The astonishing but comprehensively foiled attacks on Manticore and Grayson, with the revelation of the Streak and Spider drives and the bludgeoning tesimony of PoWs under treecat observation, had also produced visible cracks in any number of League monoliths, besides raising a lot of very interesting questions he hadn’t considered, or even thought of. Some of the wilder things the ASL and even some Alliance governments had been saying abruptly seemed rather less wild. The Alliance had also been astoundingly clever in its PR, and the massive popularity of the endless shows pouring out of Torch with its riveting, whimsical queen and hideous history had had the interesting and welcome side-effect of boosting his own popularity as well as making a lot of people in the League — if not anyone who actually made any decisions — extremely thoughtful.

            He and Luis had concluded that while the Grand Alliance probably could take on the SLN and win, they’d decided not to risk it just yet and settled for posting a warning they hoped even the idiots running the League might notice. The systematic reduction of any and all Manpower operations not under direct OFS protection had to be biting deep, the stunning recognition of the Ballroom had to make anyone think very carefully about the kind of determination that was being attested, and the purging of Silesia amounted to a further declaration that wholesale galactic reorganisation was no barrier, and political power no defence.

            Then the stunning news of the Mesan strike had broken, and though he and Luis had been as dependent on HD programming as everyone else, they’d had superior analysis available, and could provide some themselves. And with hindsight, he acknowledged, several things had become very clear. Silesia had been, coldly, one enormous working-up exercise, and though a staggering number of ships had been involved in the clinical assault on Mesa, that was for the sake of their pinnaces ; much as the CLACs had been there only to provide LACs — though the personnel and lift capacity of capital ships and liners had also been needed for the waves upon waves of functionaries who had followed the overwhelming assault. Medical and psychiatric staff were first, but a whole government had followed in astoundingly short order, and the sheer political skill of the dance, PR barrage, and constitutional evolution that had been simultaneously managed, with the planet’s renaming as Toussaint, had left them both deeply admiring and seriously worried.

            The Alliance was after all going for the kill, now, using the enormous tech edge they undoubtedly had, and the proximity of the Maya Sector to Erewhon meant it might very well not be ignored for long. He had sent a private message to Queen Elizabeth, on Luis’s strong advice copied to Harrington, expressing personal satisfaction at the destruction of Manpower, and received bland acknowledgements, but nothing more. Until the appearance, half-an-hour ago, just outside the hyperlimit, of a Grand Alliance fleet entirely capable of annihilating every SLN ship in system without breaking sweat, which he found more than a little ironic. On the other hand, most of it was just sitting there, while a couple of ships were loafing towards Smoking Frog, and must have deployed one of their FTL drones because the com request had already come in. So there was at least a chance to talk, though he thought there’d be little chance to demur, and wondered again what on earth they thought they’d do with the League once they’d pulverised the SLN.

            The figures who appeared on his screen a few moments later were not in the least whom he’d expected, and it took him a second to recognise Walter Imbesi and Jacques Ramirez y Chou, flanking an unknown admiral in Havenite uniform with mixed shoulder flashes whose teeth were clamped around a large but unlit cigar.

            “Tourville” came a hiss from Luis before the Beowulfan spoke.

            “Governor Barregos, I am Jacques Ramirez y Chou, Third Director at Large of Beowulf’s Board of Directors, and I speak as an Ambassador Plenipotentiary of the Grand Alliance. As that may surprise you almost as much as it surprises me, I offer you in the first place several facts that will not yet have caught up with you. The first is that our referendum vote was 84% in favour of immediate secession, which Beowulf has now declared. The second is that that vote activates a secret treaty we signed with the Star Kingdom and others three years ago, and we are now full members of the Grand Alliance.”

            A hand waggled gently while Barregos’s world spun.

            “The legality of that treaty is perhaps disputable, as we really should have declared such a thing to the Federal Parliament, but I imagine you’ll understand why we decided not to, and don’t expect to be held to any account on that score. Which is helped by the third fact, which is what happened when CNO Rajani came calling at Mesa with his 1,368 SDs, and met the squadron of RMN CAs who’d pulled planetary defence duty against just such an eventuality. We’ve put together a special version, with rather more detail than the one that will be rippling throught the Core, that we thought you and Admiral Roszak would appreciate. It runs for quite a few hours — well, several days, actually — but we’ve marked about 90 minutes you might want to watch first. I dare say my frightening niece would reprimand me in her charming way, but I believe I’ll risk saying, enjoy.”

            Imbesi and Tourville both laughed before the live feed was replaced by the blurring signal of a compressed transmission, and a moment later the beginning of a record that it took him a moment to understand. There were parallel feeds, the SLN one of a standard SD bridge where Rajani was gloating over a threadbare plot as he headed in-system, and a vastly busier one, of a Flag Control suite that had Luis drooling, where Honor Harrington was coolly examining a crowded holotank.

            “Fuck me sideways. Oravil, they beat him. They must have, or they couldn’t have his bridge log.”

            It wasn’t easy to believe, seeing the grotesque weight of SLN SDs rumbling towards Harrington’s tiny forward force, but the two plots spoke volumes. Rajani’s drones, sweeping inwards, had yet to get themselves close enough to the planet to report on the forward Cas, let alone SDs, SD(P)s, and CLACs in orbit, but they had already failed to spot hundreds of Manticoran drones and LACs lining their way in, some at ranges of less than a light second. Luis was muttering inventive obscenities, and he couldn’t disagree. But …

            “Luis, why are the LACs out there like that?”

            “Best guess, S&R. Oravil, look at Harrington. She is completely confident that eight — eight — CAs controlling what has to be pod-launched salvoes are going to cream better than 1,300 SDs. She also has to have been right. And I cannot begin to imagine how in space they managed that.”

            The exchange between Rajani and Harrington that followed had Luis laughing, then frowning.

            “Hell on a pancake, Oravil, she’s baiting him. She wants him to head on in, fat and angry.”

            Luis fell into a fascinated, intent silence, until Rajani’s entire, ludicrous command was well inside the hyperlimit, and the largest wave of missiles he’d ever seen was launched at them, shortly followed by another. A sideways glance showed him Luis as white as a sheet, with a ferocious scowl of concentration etched on blanched features.

            “God fuck three ducks. FTL telemetry. Has to be. Oravil, those missiles are clumped. Look at them manoeuvre. The CAs have at least a hundred telemetry channels each, and every channel’s controlling a pod. Fuck, fuck. One bigass FTL capable bird, and … eight slaved to it. Those megatonners with the CAs are colliers. Sweet baby Jesus, the carnage is going to be godawful.”

            And it was, but Harrington’s general channel message had been heard, and even with ships targeted in only the second salvo a speckle of small-craft and bod-pod launches could be seen on both plots as destruction tore down on them. The unbelievable EW that ripped great swathes of jamming across the SLN plot while generating tens of thousands of decoys multiplied the hapless panic on Rajani’s flag bridge, and Luis made a flat-voiced observation that that was what you could do if you had the energy budget of a fusion plant for each EW bird. His conjecture about the LACs had been right, too, for they and hundreds of pinnaces they must have had tractored to their hulls were beginning S&R as soon as the trailers of the SLN fleet had passed — a rash of data on Rajani’s plot that had him staring and demanding energy fire be directed at them until Fleurmat, voice shaking, pointed out what they were doing. From the third-wave targets the volume of abandonment was very much greater, and in the fourth-wave targets ships began to strike their wedges — at which groups of missiles headed for them either swerved violently to new targets or blew up a few million klicks short ; so Luis had to be right about FTL telemetry as well, though how in God’s name the Manties had engineered the massive installations he’d seen in interior imaging of Erewhonese ships down to drone and then missile size was one for the ages. Then wedges began going down across the formation, and the combination of cool command from the Manties and screaming panic from the SLN was joined by an additional Manticoran broadcast, Harrington’s crisp soprano giving precise instructions to the captains of surrendered SDs. SLNS Gregor Mendel was the last, rushing on towards Mesa as everything else Rajani commanded fell behind, until Fleurmat, staring with a glazed look at his plot while Rajani screamed demands that he do something, abruptly nodded, took his regulation stunner from its holster, shot Rajani down, and ordered his wedge struck and a channel opened to Harrington. His ship was still over a hundred million klicks from Mesa, and a message appeared on the display.

            We suggest you jump to 05.10.00 for five minutes, then 07:21.00. Finally, 79:46:00 is worth a look.

            Luis was already tapping commands into the comconsole, and the image that came up punched what little breath he had left from his lungs. There were multiple feeds in a grid, and each showed a boatbay of dazed SLN officers and ratings being evacuated to small craft, but only after each had spoken an oath of parole, acknowledging their status as PoWs, swearing to take no further part in the war against the Grand Alliance begun by the Solarian League, and sealing it with a palmprint. It took him only seconds to follow the political calculus, and after watching three identical swearings he waved a hand.

            “Jump to the next mark, Luis.”

            His breath was harsh in his throat, for this scene showed a dishevelled, dazed, and security-cuffed Rajani being escorted by armoured Andermani marines into a boatbay where Harrington waited, beside her the immaculately suited, hot-eyed, and terrible, dapper figure of Jeremy X. The senior Andermani saluted.

            “Your Grace. CNO Rajani, as ordered.”

            “Thank you, Herr Kolonel. CNO Rajampet Kaushal Rajani, you are a registered prisoner of war of the Grand Alliance, but the Provisional Government of Toussaint has filed criminal charges against you, to wit, multiple counts of participation in enslavement and rape, and three counts of capital murder. It is alleged, with primary documentary evidence from seized Manpower and Mesan Alignment files, that you did on dates specified murder C–6b/21–4/5, a human being, then six years of age ; C–11b/19–1/5, a human being, then seven years of age ; and C–18b/61–5/5, a human being, then five years of age. The Deneb Accords both permitting and requiring that PoWs facing civilian capital charges in any non-belligerent polity be surrendered on proper request to the appropriate authorities, and the Provisional Government of Toussaint being at war with none and having made such a request, you are hereby remitted to their custody to face trial on those charges. Secretary of Justice X, your prisoner, CNO Rajampet Kaushal Rajani.”

            “Thank you, Your Grace.”

            Barregos tried to think if he’d ever heard a more complex human voice, and gave it up. Jeremy X was quivering where he stood, and if he’d started cartwheeling around the boat bay, juggling and shooting as he went, no-one could have been surprised, for it was all in his voice — an utter, cold rage that would see Rajani decanted and dead, and a blistering, crackling glee, the whole fried, with more side-dishes than anyone could count, in sizzling admiration of Harrington. And he could share all of that himself. Yes, the Grand Alliance had had a huge advantage, and yes again, the SLN hadn’t had a clue, but Harrington had still had to play out the hand events had dealt her and she’d done so pulling force multipliers by the dozen out of her apparently inexhaustible hat. The pure contempt of using one squadron of CAs to blow Rajani away, with her wallers not even bothering to leave orbit, was also a screaming propaganda multiplier. And though she must have killed a million or more SLN personnel, she’d had S&R prepositioned against Rajani’s incompetent and corrupt idiocy, and she’d captured five million, from every last one of whom she would have secured a sworn parole — and would doubtless have despatched them all back to the League. Why try to secure, feed, and oversee them when they could be turned into weapons every bit as deadly as those missiles of hers, and launched simultaneously against every world in the Core? While plucking out their supreme commander, more comprehensively humiliated than anyone in history, naming him a serial child killer, and handing him over — with complete legality — to the only single individual more notorious, galaxy-wide, than she was herself. It was beautiful.

            And there was the last time chop Ramirez y Chou had specified, which showed some 300 captured SDs departing under escort, 50 more in a tight group in Toussaint orbit, and the rest — more than 650 of them — being simultaneously scuttled. One single, huge, sparkling bang, and not only close to a quarter of the SLN’s capital strength but every last fragment of its reputation for invincibility was debris, and he was blowing out a long breath as the com blinked alive again with the improbable trio. Tourville’s cigar was now alight, and this time it was Walter Imbesi who spoke, voice soft but implacable.

            “Governor Barregos, you and Admiral Roszak will of course realise that as a result of CNO Rajani’s actions at Mesa a state of war obtains between the Grand Alliance and the Solarian League. The Alliance is already prosecuting that war vigorously throughout the Shell and Verge, and the task force commanded by Fleet Admiral Tourville has orders to take out the OFS and Frontier Fleet bases at Randal and Robert, and then to move on the Sankar–Lima sector. But Fleet Admiral Tourville being, despite his abominable cigar, a well brought-up Havenite, he declines to leave an SLN sector fleet such as yours and Admiral Roszak’s in his rear, and I must confess I see his point. Then again, if it weren’t an SLN sector fleet but the System Defence Force of that newly seceded polity, the Republic of Maya, there wouldn’t be a problem at all.”

            Launching a revolution three years early wasn’t usually a good idea, but if Harrington hadn’t provided the perfect cue he didn’t know what one was, and it wasn’t as if he had any choice anyway. He didn’t hesitate.

            “As it happens, Mr Imbesi, I was drawing up a unilateral declaration of independence this morning. The chance that any former SLN force under my control will do anything to annoy Fleet Admiral Tourville is nil. Director Ramirez y Chou, I won’t strain your plenipoteniary status by asking for any immediate decision, but I do formally ask, as, ah, President-soon-to-be-elect of the Republic of Maya that you convey to, um, the power of which of you are a plenipotentiary ambassador that the Republic requests the convening of talks that might lead to its membership of the Grand Alliance. I would imagine that you could use all the resources you could lay hands on, and many here would love to support Toussaint however they might. And in the meantime, if Admiral Roszak’s, er, RMSDF forces can be of any use to Fleet Admiral Tourville, they are of course at his disposal.”

            He hadn’t even looked at Luis, whose answer was smooth.

            “I await any orders, Fleet Admiral. And should you prefer me to remain here, inactive, I would ask you to take an observer of mine with you. The Sankar–Lima sector includes the Mfecane System, which I must suppose a primary target. Solarian Marine Lieutenant Thandi Palane is from Ndebele, and would, I believe, have some personal satisfaction in witnessing your liberation as well as an interesting credibility there.”

            It was Tourville who replied, smoke spouting harmlessly but impressively from his mouth.

            “By all means, Admiral, and Mr President-soon-to-be-elect. Fire her along.”

 

4. Innokentiy Kolokoltsov

Old Chicago, June 1921 PD

 

The Senior Permanent Secretary and de facto ruler of the Solarian League had been having a worse year than could be imagined, even though it was happening. He’d always known the League was profoundly inefficient — the basic unworkability of its constitution was, after all, what had forced the Permanent Secretariat to the control it had exercised for centuries — but that the SLN could be so overwhelmingly outclassed by a bunch of neobarbs was still beyond his comprehension.

            In the wake of the unbelievable report that had come back from Mesa with more than five million paroled prisoners — far too many to contain, even if the newsies with them hadn’t already had the whole thing — a reeling Deputy CNO Kingsford had dug up a Captain al-Fanudahi, who’d spoken crisply of reports dating back a decade or more that suggested a range of surprising military developments driven by the neobarbs’ endless wars, and surmised a combination of multi-drive, pod-launched missiles with FTL telemetry and evident EW abilities that he said explained what the report showed. Al-Fanudahi had been as shocked as everyone, but there’d been professional admiration for the neobarbs in his eyes, and a bitter scorn for what he’d openly called the ossified complacence of his superiors, who’d not only ignored those reports utterly but frozen his career for insisting as loudly as he could on the unwisdom of that.

            Kolokoltsov still didn’t really understand what the neobarbs had done to the realities of space power, let alone how they’d done it, but he had understood the political side of their operation as soon as it had begun to unfold — and there had been nothing whatever he or anyone could do to stop it. The return of paroled PoWs to their home worlds — which given their numbers meant just about every system in the Core — in captured SDs with slagged battle computers that had then been scuttled in full view of everyone, had been a deadly and very shrewd blow ; backed up within a fortnight by the comprehensive destruction of the entire SLN reserve outside the Sol system itself. The neobarb admirals who’d done it — destroying the pointless picket forces, giving just enough time for any tech work parties to evacuate, and hitting each and every ship with exactly one missile, a massive nuke into the unprotected centres leaving a useless collection of ragged hammerheads spinning and shattering one another still further — had magnified the effect with their icy politeness, blisteringly clear statements of exactly why they were at war with the League and would not rest until it was destroyed, and painstaking care to ensure that the vast swathes of orbital debris they were leaving behind posed no threat to any planet. And the almost daily reports that kept coming in of further annihilating defeats of Battle and Frontier Fleet detachments, increasingly bloodlessly and producing further mass arrivals of paroled PoWs, had gone on relentlessly underlining the League’s complete vulnerability.

            So too had the unbelievably swift seizure of wormhole termini, closed to all League traffic except newsies, but used by floods of neobarb merchies and despatch boats by the hundred that delivered streams of hugely damaging data. Most Solarians had never known — or taken care not to know — just what went on in the Protectorates, and where the revenue streams that kept their Federal Government going came from. But now their faces were rubbed in it, violently and repeatedly, and many of the images had been a shock even for him — he had known the facts full well, of course, but found he hadn’t quite imagined what those facts looked like on the ground. The terrified blathering of so many captured OFS and Gendarmerie commanders had made any kind of claim of unfortunate aberrations unworkable, and as the fact that for the OFS mass enslavement, mass murder, and every brand of abuse were SOP sank in, public rage fuelled by terrified realisation that the war Rajani had started was already lost found a target. Paroled OFS people had to be taken into protective custody on arrival, and hasty trials were already underway on hundreds of Core worlds ; not that the worst of them had been paroled. Time and again neobarb admirals handed them over to the planets they were not only liberating but immediately recognising as fully independent polities and offering mutual defence treaties with the Grand Alliance — on the solemnly sworn condition that all prisoners receive fair and properly conducted public trials ; a condition ensuring that still more detailed evidence of exactly what had been going on, from local as well as captured Mesan sources, began to form more streams of utterly damning data.

            What had not been public — at first — was the effect of the pattern of the rolling strikes against OFS operations. The major hubs in the near Shell that had gone first had at a stroke reduced cash flow to a trickle, and there had also been clinical strikes against the hubs of the Solarian transstellars most entangled in the Mesan network, sending shares and market values into freefall. Nor were the panicking and gibbering banks in any state to pick up the tab, even in the short term, so within weeks paying salaries became impossible. There was a certain justice in knowing the SLN were hardest hit, but the sight of the Federal Government very obviously falling apart as furious juniors spoke to newsies of not being paid and ceased to turn up for work was another disaster.

            The neobarbs had also, he had to admit, been very clever in giving the vast numbers of transstellar merchies they were seizing to the polities they were liberating and recognising, along with lighter SLN units as planetary defence forces. Kicking the OFS to death would have been enough to make the neobarbs wildly popular across the Shell and Verge, of course, but the political calculus they were running, and the limited but very intelligently targeted aid tens of thousands of Alliance envoys and consultants were providing was generating not just adulation and gratitude, but something like intoxicated love. All the senior neobarbs he’d seen seemed to be ferociously competent as well as stringently courteous, and with their various exotic uniforms, strange accents, and clear, consistent grasp in outline of the new galactic order the Grand Alliance intended to create, they were riveting figures. The political tenor of their actions and manners in addressing the ‘utterly shameful and criminal oppression’ of the OFS, the ‘profound and unacceptable hypocrisy’ of the League in paying lip-service to the Cherwell Convention while nurturing Mesa, and the duties properly owing between citizens or subjects and governments of whatever form, were also — though the thought was alien — a moral declaration, not as the usual irrelevant intellectual chatter but backed by overwhelming force ; and although he didn’t understand how it worked he knew a sense of shame was joining the seething shock, fear, and rage dominating life on every Core world.

            And behind the neobarb admirals and envoys, often mentioned but rarely seen, was the towering figure of Harrington. The combination of sheer contempt for Rajani and Solarian complacence with active, direct concern to minimise casualties among junior officers and ratings that she had shown at Mesa had set the tone ; and the long, formal statement that had accompanied the first paroled SLN personnel, listing the string of neobarb polities from whom she held plenipotentiary powers and stating that every one of them considered the League to have committed an Act of War against them that would be answered, promptly and in full, had been capped by the treecat riding her shoulder. The Clans of Sphinx — or so the soft Grayson voice providing a voice-over translation had said while the treecat waved its paws — were not formal members of the Grand Alliance but were assisting it as they could, and while they didn’t understand all the odd mindblind behaviour involved, whatever that meant, they strongly advised all the bad two legs to do everything and anything Dances on Clouds — their incomprehensible name for Harrington, apparently — told them to do. Opposing her was very stupid, as hands of hands of hands of two legs had already found out, and if they didn’t agree to dance with her, they’d find she danced on them as well as on clouds. Somehow a trace of amusement in that soft Grayson voice had conveyed that the allusion to the language of the Ballroom was deliberate, the staggering implications about the depth and range of Treecats’ intelligence no surprise at all to anyone who knew them. And the exasperated, laughing love that had flickered in Harrington’s eyes as she’d turned her head to give the treecat a look eliciting a bleek had given her abrupt depth as a commander across species as well as polities.

            Thereafter, though Harrington had Solarian as well as other newsies aboard her flagship, she was little seen except working like all her subordinate admirals with a fleet detachment, rolling up the OFS and Battle and Frontier Fleets across the Shell and Verge. Kolokoltsov didn’t understand why she wasn’t exploiting her personal celebrity status more, but it hadn’t made much difference. Tens of billions of League citizens had at least known her name from her escape with all those PoWs from the Havenite prison planet, and the HD of her more recent activities on Manticore and at Verdant Vista had given her startlingly high public recognition figures even before her appearance at Mesa. Now he doubted if there was a single League citizen in the Core who couldn’t have recited her entire history — as he could himself. No individual had so dominated a moment in human history since the Diaspora, and while she wasn’t giving the interviews everyone wanted, plenty of other people were. The Manties and Graysons had severe restrictions in place to prevent her kin, friends, and steading from being overrun by ravening newsies, but to do so they had to make controlled access available, and a steady stream of Casimir rescuees, Hades escapees, liegers and officers of Harrington Steading, personal friends who weren’t serving with her, RMN and GSN admirals commanding Home System fleets who’d worked with her, treecats who in some strange way remembered her ancestors over several centuries and found their ‘mindglows’ very strong and attractive, and eventually even her parents, saying little except that of course they were desperately proud of her and hadn’t named her Honor for nothing, had generated a picture as detailed as it was incredible. The qualities had all been there at Casimir, Basilisk, Hancock Station, and Yeltsin, almost a quarter-century ago, and Protector Benjamin’s extraordinary action in making her a Steadholder with autocratic powers, fuelled by the Manties’ crazy prize-money system, had been like throwing hydrogen on an already roaring fire.

            It was hard to know how to begin to describe her — warrior, ruler, stateswoman, billionaire, pioneer, heroine, machiavel, killer, icon ; and in all of those roles, and seemingly everything she did, a leader of people. That she commanded fierce loyalty from those she led was as evident as the implacability with which she destroyed those who opposed her, and on an ever-widening scale those who practised, condoned, and protected slavery ; and though Solarian fear of her as she ripped through the League was a qualifying current, there was also both a wide certainty that those not in SLN uniform and sincere in their detestation of slavery — which was a vast majority of ordinary citizens — need not fear for their lives or prosperity, however intellectually and philosophically traumatic events might prove, and a growing, open, and fervent admiration for Harrington. The Federal Government had never been much liked and always widely reviled, and a shrugging, self-protective agreement was developing that it had always been clear that only an outside force majeure could do anything about it, and it had been high time one did, if one was honest. The abrupt, ghastly exposure of the incompetence and obsolescence of the SLN, with the rolling revelations of what Frontier Fleet and the OFS had really been doing all this time, made it possible to add that despite the terrible loss of life at Mesa and elsewhere — casualties that Harrington was doing everything she could to minimise, as all the paroled could and many did attest — the forcible dismantling of the League’s bloated and worse than useless military was a necessary step. Kolokoltsov’s only real admiration was for the way the data was being managed, and the successful presentation of an enemy neobarb leader inflicting trillions of dollars of losses daily as a principled reformer, assisting honest citizens, was a classic for the books.

            And now Harrington was here. He and everyone had known she was coming, but to see the unbelievable hyperfootprint that had appeared outside Sol’s hyperlimit the day before yesterday and the inevitable surrender, evacuation, and destruction of Home Fleet, the useless reserve, and Hyperion One was to feel a new, singing hollowness in the gut, and to know it as pure fear. The several million new parolees accounted for the delay, which had brought the entire Terran population to a state of nervous exhaustion, staring at HD feeds hour on hour, but with the last now on planet and the captured SLN units that had transported them scuttled, a group of SDs and lighter units moved into orbit directly above Old Chicago, and — addressing the President on a general band — Harrington’s scalpel voice stated the legal and military conditions that had been met, and required the unconditional surrender of the Solarian League to the forces of the Grand Alliance.

            It was, God knew, the only real political decision President Yeou kun Choi had ever made, but if he was far whiter than any sheet and visibly shaking, he made it all the same.

 

5. Benjamin Mayhew

Austin City, August 1923 PD

 

His Grace Protector Benjamin IX was finding it hard to keep a smile off his face, and didn’t see why he should. Irrespective of time zones, the entire planet was awake and watching, because for the first time since departing for Verdant Vista, Her Grace the Steadholder was coming home, and they were going to welcome her with proper ceremony and then have the biggest party since her return from the dead.

            It would be Benjamin’s third such party in as many weeks. He’d been on Beowulf with Elizabeth, Eloise, Gustav, and almost all Alliance heads of state (including a dozen steadholders he’d dragged off planet for the first time — to Beowulf of all places) to welcome her back from Terra, give formal thanks for rearranging the galaxy, and begin the process of ratifying the thousands of treaties she and her scores of admirals had signed in their various names. Beowulf’s citizens had seemed just about recovered from the political whiplash of finding themselves an Alliance member on the day they had seceded from the League, if not from their incredulous perusal of seized Mesan Alignment records, nor from the more recent discovery of the Alignment’s secret wormhole and the now liberated Darius System. That was a concern for everyone : every Alliance navy had tech crews examining the captured streak- and spider-drive vessels, and what the 1.9 billion Mesans and 2 billion unusually well treated former slaves would do once they had digested the galactic facts and hideous truths of which they had been kept stringently ignorant was anyone’s guess. But in the meantime the rolling sequence of the stunning assault on Mesa, the intense interrogation and eventual execution of the monstrous Detweiler clones, and the ongoing convulsions of justice against Mesan agents, clients, and parasites throughout Verge, Shell, and Core, including the so-called Renaissance Factor heads of state, had created on Beowulf a state of mind Benjamin could well understand because it was much what Grayson had felt when Admiral White Haven had completed the conquest of Endicott and ended 600 years of civil war.

            In the moments before Honor’s shuttle had touched down he had been standing with her parents and uncle, and though Jacques Benton Ramirez y Chou was one of the most urbane and controlled people Benjamin had ever met there had been something wild in his eyes and tears on his cheeks. Alfred and Allison had been quivering where they stood, and if some of it was not having seen their daughter for most of three years, rather more was a shock that remained raw at what their little girl had done, and become. That he could understand — but in Jacques and Allison there had been something more and other, a purely Beowulfan exaltation at an unhoped for delivery and (the words had forced themselves into his mind) sense of atonement. Mesa had in so many ways been Beowulf’s dark twin, the stain on its conscience that had driven its immense generosity with its bioscientific discoveries ; and though Honor never thought of herself as a Beowulfan, and not one in a hundred of the furiously proliferating biographies of her made any more of her ancestry than an opening chapter, that was not what Jacques thought, nor any other Beowulfan Benjamin had met. To them it was a Ramirez y Chou who had brought a mountain down on Mesa’s head, slaying the devil and all its works, and the planetary veneration of the whole family had a new and ultimate icon.

            But if the massive crowds had cheered and roared Honor until they were hoarse and Nimitz’s eyes glazed with the overload of emotions, it had still been less complex than events when the whole circus had moved on to Landing. 1919–20 had not been altogether easy in the Star Kingdom as flat-out naval building continued at breakneck pace and staggering cost without any obvious enemy to fight except the Silesians, already proving no obstacle. Manpower or Mesa, whichever it had truly been, had been heavily punished by the loss of Verdant Vista and scores of depots, the RMN fleets guarding the Junction wormhole termini were back to acceptable strength, the attacks on the R&D stations had been soundly beaten off, and there was a healthy reserve even before ships already in construction were factored in — so surely the time had come for this crushing financial burden to be eased? There had never been a real political problem, Crown Loyalists and Centrists being solid, and Cathy Montaigne having made it very clear to the True Liberals that they were giving the policy one full term of five years, and that she would accept their judgements at the end of that time, not one day sooner. There had also been a lot of pointed and very helpful support for continued expenditure from a variety of people who rarely spoke to such matters, at least in public, that Elizabeth had with a wry headshake told him was down to her Aunt Caitrin, apparently recruited to the task by Honor in the aftermath of the Parliament Square executions. But a lot of people had still been hurting financially, not only from taxes, and for the first time since Janvier’s fall a genuine and popular opposition had begun to emerge, while with the roll of victories in Silesia it had been increasingly obvious to even the least thoughtful that the real target of the new construction flooding into service could only be the SLN — a thought that scared almost everyone silly.

            Then news of the Mesan strike had broken, and besides fascination with a stunning victory, stupefied outrage at the captured data that had flooded out in the following weeks and months, and the riveting spectacle of Jeremy X and W. E. B. Du Havel creating the polity of Toussaint, with an army of dancers, freed slaves from across the galaxy, and loaned functionaries, there had been the steady terror of the SLN’s massive assembly of what could only be a crushing force. With Honor herself unavailable it had taken every bit of Elizabeth’s and her Space Lords’ steel determination to hold the line, and the repeated reassurances that, however it could not be discussed, all necessary defensive policies and strategies were in place and fully functioning, had produced as much fretting puzzlement as uncertain comfort. On Grayson the fear had been tempered by faith and appreciation of a Test, but Manticore had by all accounts become really quite febrile when images of Rajani’s departure for Toussaint had hit.

            Since those of his arrival there, of course, everything had changed utterly, and it had been profoundly fascinating to watch both the Manticoran public and his own Graysons slowly realise what they were privileged to be watching — not merely a senile, frail, and viciously mad polity they had supposed invincible being put down with unanswerable might and absolute skill, like a vet coolly dealing with a rabid dinosaur, but an entirely new galactic order very largely purged of slavery being raised from its ashes. They all had experience of seeing Honor stand up to intervene radically in their own star nations ; now they saw her do it yet again, on the greatest possible scale — and neither he nor anyone would ever forget the image of her gravely accepting from President Yeou the unconditional surrender of the Solarian League, Nimitz and Samantha on her shoulders, Theodosia Kuzak, Alistair McKeon, Alice Truman, Aivars Terekhov, Michael Oversteegen, Mike Henke (on whom Honor had forced a long-overdue promotion), Alfredo Yu, Judah Yanakov, Jonas Greentree, Tom Theisman, Lester Tourville, Shannon Foraker, Chien-Lu Anderman, and a score of other admirals around her, then crisply declaring the surrendered, misconceived, malfunctioning, and inimically overlarge polity to be utterly abolished with immediate effect, and every last one of its officials and employees out of a job.

            All sovereign powers (she had continued, implacably, as Terra reeled) therefore reverted to the 851 former full members and 1,411 formerly associated members or so-called protectorates. The latter were mostly their own business, besides being overwhelmingly victims of the defunct League, but the former (saving those that had already seceded or were still holding secession referenda) had allowed war to be waged against the Alliance in their names, however incompetently, and so were now her business. Barring a small number of individuals who would be militarily prosecuted for war crimes, and a rather larger number who must be prosecuted, under their various polities’ own laws, for participation in slavery with associated rapes and murders, the Alliance had no quarrel with the citizens of those 851 polities, and certainly no wish for any further loss of life, but the polities themselves, including Terra, inherited from the League a state of unconditional surrender. They therefore had certain obligations to meet before entering into mutual defence treaties with the five major partners in the Grand Alliance — to whose navies now fell the general galactic obligation of enforcing the Eridani Edict, Deneb Accords, Cherwell Convention, and the protection of other sapient species needing it against the ways of humanity. Former delegates to the Federal Parliament were therefore directed to return immediately to their home governments bearing her order to each to send to Terra, arriving within 60 days, a delegation of no more than five persons, at least one of whom must hold plenipotentiary powers to reach a full and permanent settlement. Support staff were allowed, entirely at their star nations’ own expense, but five only would be allowed at negotiations, and latecomers would not be admitted, but dealt with unilaterally after treaties with the competent and punctual were signed.

            And God said unto them, Go, and they went. The line had occurred to many Grayson commentators, and it wasn’t blasphemy, just wondering wisdom. Benjamin had watched the process that subsequently played out with rapt enjoyment, shared with Elizabeth, Eloise, Gustav, and others in admiring exchanges. The ships that took former parliamentarians home all had aboard at least one polite but utterly intransigent Alliance officer, at Captain (SG) or above, who gave regular reminders of the relevant deadline for despatching a delegation and — always publicly — explained what would be required of it. One might have expected screaming, squabbling chaos — and there had been a certain amount of that at first, among politicians, anyway — but the Beowulfans had been out and about in very large numbers, with others they trusted, and the continuing streams of news from Torch, Toussaint, and the wilder parts of the Verge, where fleeing OFS and Frontier Fleet units were still being pursued, had been another persistent stimulus.

            There had been some real horror stories among the streams, too — isolated smaller Manpower or OFS operations that had inevitably had lower priorities, and as news of what was happening had hit them had torn apart into desperate slave uprisings with huge fatality rates or escalating abuse from terrified owner-operators. But even with those appalling cases another strand of Honor’s strategy emerged, for news heading in for Terra came to other polities first, and depending on sector those intransigent Alliance officers immediately suggested — in a tone very like Elizabeth requesting and requiring — that medical and other relief be despatched at once. This was League-sponsored mayhem coming home to roost, and every former League member had an obligation to help as best they could. Between natural compassion at suffering, shame at what had been revealed about the late League, and an eye to the trivial costs and likely benefits of doing as the Alliance suggested, it had worked marvellously, hugely increasing the general flows of assistance outward from Core worlds to Shell and Verge, and giving particular Core worlds strong interests in specific sets of League victims.

            At the same time, for every horror story there were 50 more positive ones as treaties between liberated ‘protectorates’ and the major Alliance polities were concluded in outline. Benjamin had despatched a score of Steadholders and more of their close kin, including wives and daughters, to be gracious and sign things, and had been perfectly delighted, at the request of the Conclave of Steadholders, to make all such limited grants of plenipotentiary power extensions of the grant to Honor, rather than direct, so every Grayson signature was technically in Honor’s name, under his authority. Nor had the ships she had concentrated on Terra stayed idly in orbit, but spent the 60 days assiduously visiting Core worlds with reach.

            There was no point attempting to conceal the true facts of pod-layers, MDMs, CLACs, fission-plant LACs, and FTL capacity, and as well as stark reminders of the sheer depth of military superiority the Alliance enjoyed, by way of sticks, governmental and system defence people could have sight and smell of dangled carrots. The new LACs could be invaluable to small federations, providing improved local security at far lower costs, CLACs offered a means of projecting limited power within regional volumes ditto, and the contingents of breezy, devil-may-care LAC crews among the hundreds of thousands of Alliance personnel given limited local leave did no harm. He and Rachel had been in stitches at the record of a private warning Honor had delivered to all her ships before any had left Terra, promising most faithfully that anyone under her command who (a) embarrassed her and/or (b) put a spoke in a diplomatic wheel, would be left praying for a lifelong place on Hades ; and even Wesley, who’d brought it to share, was heard to chuckle. Nor was the threat an idle flight of fancy, for the growing problem everywhere of nausea with mass executions had been solved by Eloise, who had said that any and all persons properly convicted of participation in enslavement would be hosted at cost on the revamped prison planet. There would be frequently changed Manticoran, Grayson, Andermani, Erewhonese, and other observers to make sure there were no abuses ; but it had to be admitted that Hades’s conditions did make it eminently suitable for keeping large numbers of profoundly malign people in safe and punitive inactivity.

            Senior Manpower and Jessyk people were already there, as well as a growing number of OFS and Frontier Fleet muckety-mucks who turned the stomach but weren’t quite bad enough to pitch wholesale into trials that almost invariably produced capital sentences. And it had been an answer the Ballroom would accept, as well as the most liberal among the freed, not least because, even before Honor herself had endorsed Eloise’s offer, her personal connection with Hades had given it her implicit imprimatur. When Eloise had privily proposed it among senior Alliance heads of state Benjamin’s one hesitation had been what Honor’s own feelings would be, and her long, ruminative answer to his formal question had been troubled but in the end as ruthlessly pragmatic as ever.

            “You know, Benjamin, it doesn’t really seem wrong. Only harsh and distasteful, besides something closer to just than not unjust. And Stinker thinks it’s hysterical, as well as something there isn’t a two-leg word for that involves the sharpness of claws and teeth and the joy of laughter. I’m guessing at what Chien-Lu calls schadenfreude with an extra dose of whatever passes as Treecats’ sense of irony. And God knows I’m sick to death of executions, so discomfort for adequately fed and exercised life seems a decent bargain when something permanent continues to be needed.”

            Nimitz had independently, following Honor, expressed approval of the scheme. What exactly the ’cats felt about it had become a hot topic in many fora, not least because any who were asked said that Laughs Brightly had earned his name and had many new meanings for laughter besides, including this one, which every Person was still thinking about. Punishing people in ways other than a cuff to an over-rambunctious kitten or defensively necessitated death was a new issue for the People, and what did the questioner think of c-u-s-t-o-d-i-a-l s-e-n-t-e-n-c-e-s? Alliance newsies had gained some experience with ’cats, not that it did them much good, but most Solly reporters had been left as high and dry as landed fish. Some really interesting interspecies conversations had ensued, and while there had been a small if vocal set of protests in many polities, the vast majority of humankind seemed content with the idea of those who had enslaved spending their lives with heat rash and a tedious diet somewhere a very long way away.

            In any case, the net result had been 851 punctual five-person delegations, an efficiency in itself a huge step away from the shadow of the League, and Honor’s private communications had dwindled as she threw herself into an enormous repeat of what she’d trialled at the Bay House. It had taken 20 months rather than three, and he with everyone else had been fascinated to see her work it all. He’d signed, with the unanimous consent of both Conclaves, a second exemption allowing the HSG to be further expanded with unarmed personnel, and she had hundreds of, overwhelmingly, youngsters from her Steading, smartly uniformed, extremely polite as well as intelligently courteous, and liable in answering any question to ride an airbus through the questioner’s assumptions. Every one of them sincerely believed Her Grace was beloved of the Tester, demanding as He did that everything be Tested, His own word not excluded, and once Tested acted on with consistent honour. Very little in any Solarian’s experience had prepared them for the practicalities of such a faith as Father Church’s, and the HSG were not alone.

            He and other Alliance heads of state had nobly resisted temptation, but all sorts of people from every Alliance polity had been drawn to the riveting spectacle, some able to command Honor’s personal attention — Klaus and Stacy Hauptman, Hamish Alexander, an increasingly frail Howard Clinkscales, Cathy Montaigne and Anton Zilwicki, Queen Berry, Du Havel with a formal question that could perfectly well have been sent by courier and, when he returned to Toussaint, Jeremy X with another. He stayed more than a month, and the legion of roughly polite if flat-voiced dancers he’d brought with him had given some splendid impetus to several strands of the talks. They also interacted with a delegation of treecats from Sphinx, who signed questions and answers with slow, careful dignity, and brought to proceedings an unflagging insistence on a comprehensive answer that precluded two legs doing things that might kill planets by accident. Besides their intrinsic fascination, and vital nose for lies, Benjamin and Elizabeth had both strongly suspected them of what she called emotional management, and the length of time everything had taken was more down to the sheer volume of work involved than any real intransigence.

            Honor’s starting-point was that the League had inevitably become the deadly failure it had been because it had been too large. Haven too had until now been more damaged than nurtured by its size, and there were excellent reasons the Andermani (with Grand Alliance help) were actually annexing very little of Silesia, while breaking up the rest into polities that could function. Federations of up to ten Core worlds were therefore invited, which divided the unwieldy mob of 4,255 delegates into manageable streams, and what really took time was for them to make their various decisions about workable federal governance and who got what bits of it — matters to which Honor was indifferent. But she insisted on immediate individual signatures to the Cherwell Convention, a no-brainer that produced an early mark of unity in a mass ceremony, while Alliance ships around the Core prodded governments into setting about any necessary housecleaning.

            She also dealt superbly with the issue of reparations, not to the Alliance but to Shell and Verge planets that had been victimised by the OFS. The polities of the Alliance were doing all they could, in honour and common sense, for besides the crying needs of many liberated planets most were potentially very wealthy markets. The OFS had, after all, seized them for a reason, and as protectorate tithes vanished and wormhole transit fees reverted to their proper owners almost all had the wherewithal to pay for at least some of the help they genuinely needed to get back on their feet. During the period of wormhole network closure to Solarian vessels, Manticoran, Grayson, Havenite, and Andermani merchant lines had leaped for the new markets, bringing an enormous and very welcome economic stimulus on top of the peace dividend in greatly reduced naval construction. But there were far greater needs across Shell and Verge than the Alliance could possibly meet in a timely fashion, and Honor had combined the break-up and distribution of Solarian transstellars that had been active parasites, giving small emergent federations their own merchant lines, with a programme assigning to each group of former League members a swathe of OFS victims to receive generous favoured nation trading status and direct governmental and economic assistance with rebuilding and restructuring.

            Building on the aid for the real disaster spots, the process set up what were in effect reparations payments that also wove a new galactic mesh of political, cultural, and trade links. Introverted Core worlds were forced to look out, and more isolated Verge and Shell worlds given a specific conduit into what remained the densest volume of human settlement. He had spent a fascinating evening with Elizabeth (on a second and much happier state visit to Grayson) analysing schematics of the patterns Honor was creating, and seeing the interlocking structures that would bind the new mosaic of small star federations in ways calculated to promote individual development and differentiation. Core polities and Verge or Shell systems were not linked on an astrographical basis that might have encouraged political re-expansion, but according to particular needs and capacities. And even while the talking went on, ex-SLN personnel not being absorbed into small system defence forces were shifting into devolved merchant marines, as SLN dockyard and building capacity was transferring to civilian use, to serve the new trade routes.

            It had Beowulfan fingerprints all over it, but over and above the mix of reparations and trade there was defence. Honor was very clear that the Grand Alliance was a tool needed for this job, not a permanent political institution, however certain specific responsibilities would be shared between its various navies, and that meant treaties of mutual defence had to be with the major constituent members. Nor was it necessary for every new polity to have a treaty with every Alliance member, and Manticore, Grayson, Haven, Erewhon, and the Andermani each found themselves with a carefully distributed scatter of new treaty partners — ensuring that any misbehaviour by any of them would bring in at least two Alliance partners to squash it. There were also responsibilities for the lesser members of the Alliance, contenting Alizon, Zanzibar, Candor, Minette and others.

            Honor had kept him and other heads of state informed by the simple expedient of regularly sending records of the briefing sessions she held with her team of executive deputies in the huge Flag Conference facilities on GSNS Benjamin the Great, chosen as her flagship for that very reason. The many admirals who’d been assigned to Grand Fleet, from every Alliance nation, had been welded into a superbly efficient command team, and though many were still in the Verge and Shell Honor’s first team were using their staffs to push everything along as fast as may be under her leadership. Ops briefings were held daily, and a review board once a week, where discussion was lively and opinions of some of the pricklier and less realistic delegates scathing — but decisions about particular logjams were made promptly, often with considerable foresight, and once made acted on. Whatever else they might be these men and women were admirals — the kind who fought battles, not paper pushers — and used to wartime workloads and efficient despatch ; they also had a very high degree of camaraderie, knowing they had together done a mighty historic deed. And as Elizabeth had agreed, there was even with these powerful people what Lucien Cortez at BuPers and Wesley had identified years ago, the Harrington effect that made subordinates — and every one of them took Honor’s ultimate military command entirely seriously — not only want to do their best, but deliver it in abundance.

            And so it was all marshalled and chivied, pushed and pulled and manoeuvred into place. There was no singular grand ceremony — as Honor had tartly observed, the monumental was precisely not the point — but last autumn completed polity arrangements and treaties had begun to be signed, delegations leaving to submit them to referenda, and by the time the first votes of hugely relieved approval began rolling in the last few problem children had been threatened with economic spankings and, however grudgingly, accepted arrangements they still didn’t like but agreed were workable — as their subsequent public approvals showed. And the circus was finally over.

            The military trials of the League’s mandarins, Mesa’s placemen, and transstellars’ boards were also wrapped up, with most despatched to Hades, and the resurgent Terran government, long suffocated by the vast federal parasite it had hosted, had taken over basic civil functions. But for all sorts of reasons, symbolic as well as practical, it did not want the cluster of Old Chicago towers that had hosted the bloated League and SLN buraucracies, and Honor’s final act had been to remove them. Demolishing countergrav towers was notoriously hard, but with the sort of energy equipment navies had (and a large exclusion zone) it was perfectly possible to cut them through at the base ; and while they were immensely heavy, the whole point of countergrav was that neither mass nor weight intrinsically mattered. The transatmospheric lifter-tug built for the job at the Blackbird Yards — at, he discovered with a mix of amusement and exasperation, Honor’s personal expense — had looked very strange, a ship version of Anton Zilwicki, but it had worked well enough.

            The spectacular show took several days, punctuated by the biggest firework displays anyone had ever seen as plascrete grudgingly yielded to lasers, and the truly peculiar sight of towers being drawn like rotten stumps out of the cityscape and rising offplanet to be assembled in high orbit. The Terrans, sensibly enough, threw a blowout party for the duration, and though there was a lot of optimistic excitement about the future there was also real regret at seeing Honor go, which considering the circumstances of her arrival said a great deal. And then she was gone, the flagship SDs of her most senior admirals tractoring the buildings onto courses for Sol and without waiting to see them immolated vanishing over the hyperwall for Beowulf.

            By the time the Beowulfan party had spilled through the Junction to Manticore, some smart artist-entrepreneur had combined an image of those buildings as they had begun to melt with the fiery salamander of the Protector’s Own, doing the melting, and sent it to Stacey Hauptman and the ASL — so it was everywhere, a perfect icon of the incredible that had to be believed. Even the crustiest, sourest Gryphon peer could find no possible quarrel with comprehensively defeating and dismembering the Solarian League ; and as those among the wealthy and powerful who had been less than sincere in condemning slavery were mostly dead, despatched to Hades, or in prison elsewhere, there was also a universal, bone-deep (if stunned) satisfaction at its mass eradication. Cathy Montaigne had for months had an enormous display outside the Honor House showing the daily precipitous fall in the ASL’s estimate of those still in slavery, with tallies of the freed, and the sense of more than one impossible achievement was strong, with a concomitant national pride that had been building over three years but had as yet found only limited expression.

            With the Manticoran economy booming in overdrive, the previous year’s general election had been almost as peculiar as the last one, and Willie had increased his majority to a point he not only found embarrassing but thought unhealthy. Prodded by Elizabeth he had responded by drawing a much wider range of people (and a permanent treecat observer) into his new cabinet, a process echoed in the diplomatic appointments of hundreds of new ambassadors, most needing to establish their embassies. More or less everyone had been tracking news from Verge and Shell polities where Manticore had been the primary aiding power, as well as news from Old Chicago, and citizens’ groups of many kinds had become involved, some on the government’s dollar but many voluntarily, contributing resources. Elizabeth had seen it long before Willie — the Harrington effect at work across a whole, usually fractious polity, because they were in awe of her, in love with her, ferociously proud of her, and wanted to live up to her example.

            But it also gave them a collective headache, because at some point she was going to come home, and they would need to say something. It was far and away the biggest political problem Willie had faced, and there was enough time for a number of people to be heard, including a ruminative Elizabeth who had pointed out that (a) even she had run out of toybox items and (b) she wasn’t going to risk another scold like the one she’d received for mousetrapping Honor into becoming a Grand Duchess. As Honor’s refusal of the PMV after Hades and resistance to being rewarded were common knowledge, Her Majesty’s further point that something imaginative and sincere rather than grand was needed was a cue for a lot of extremely interesting discussion ; and though Benjamin didn’t know how much of it Honor herself was aware of, she had shortly thereafter dropped a large rock by letting it be known that whatever else anyone might be contemplating she would herself, on the day of her return, be attending a Mass of thanksgiving and then, with CNOs Caparelli, Matthews, and Theisman, with small RMN, GSN, and RN delegations, plus representatives of other old Alliance navies, dedicating the joint memorial to their dead.

            It hadn’t of course stopped the population from turning out and celebrating, but it had absorbed thanking Honor into thanking God, and induced a certain solemnity. The two tributes Willie and Elizabeth had between them agreed were a new and unique award, a Kingdom’s Thanks rather than a Monarch’s, with a spectacular quintuple gold chevron and double crown, that Honor accepted with only a mild look of resignation ; and — a mayoral suggestion seized on, when a very interesting bit of news had broken — the renaming of Landing Square as Treecat Square, with an oversize and very good statue not only of Nimitz, but of Sam, with their new litter. The bronze treekittens were a generic ball of sleeping paws and tails, but the adults were genuine portraits, sitting on either side of their young and echoing their appearance on Honor’s shoulders. It made Honor laugh and moved her, though she said it would do Nimitz’s ego no good at all, while Nimitz and Sam were very smug, bleeking and signing with all the other ’cats who had inserted themselves into events ; and as the kittens could hardly be excluded the whole thing became a disorderly interlude between the solemnities of St Michael’s Cathedral and the Memorial Gardens. And that had been perfect, for they stood at the junction of past and future, old grief and new hope.

            The design eventually chosen for the Memorial combined the ’cats’ preferences for sinuous waveforms and geometry. An undulating semi-circular wall bore the names of ships, navy by navy but without distinction beyond their prefixes, curving around a large part of the extensive garden ; at its centre it squared up to display simple words, that we might live, that yet had a twist, for one could say that even StateSec personnel had died that others might live, though not in the obvious way. And around the garden were terminals where every ship could be called up, with names of its crew. Families across the Alliance were still supplying images of their dead as they would like them remembered and the database was updated constantly. But for all the stone, it was the garden’s verdure that dominated. Treecats liked trees, and their garden was a place of play and relaxation however it might be hosting a two-leg memory singing, so while they had been respectfully silent and still while the solemn navy delegations and heads of state heard Wesley, Thomas Caparelli, and Theisman, as the senior CNOs, formally dedicate the memorial to all the dead, and offer Honor brief but blazingly sincere thanks for its conception and commission, solemnity had not lasted. The undulating wall made far too good a perch from which to examine the oddity of two legs to be ignored, and quite a few ’cats seemed more than a little dazed with the emotions that must be battering them.

            Before the HD coverage ended Honor had spoken once, standing before the centre of the memorial but addressing the camera more conversationally than oratorically.

            “If I have learned anything as a commander it is that no resource should be wasted, and your attention in this moment is a potent resource — so I will say two things. The first is to thank you all for your trust while it was still not possible to reveal the depth of our military advantage. I have sought always to requite it. The second is more complicated.” She had gestured. “This used to be the North Hollow’s garden, of course, and you won’t be surprised that to me that name represents the very worst of which human beings are capable. God knows the data we recovered on Mesa shows our wars really were planned and prodded into starting by others, but that does not absolve us of our own share of the responsibility. And we remain as frail as God made us, however purged for the moment ; yet now, for a while, it is we with our close allies who are dominant, and to whom others look not only for help but as a model. We may rightly be proud, and rightly enjoy it. But do you realise just how easy and insidious a process it would be for us to become as bloated and complacent as the League was? As smug, and callous, and carelessly extreme? I do, and while I am frankly delighted to be surrendering the powers and authorities delegated to enable me to do what I have done, I remain a member of the House of Lords, as of the Chamber of Steadholders, and will as an independent here and Protector’s Champion there be keeping a very watchful eye. So if you really want to thank me, then in years and centuries to come, make your decisions that matter consciously considering how not to be like North Hollow or the League. This place will remind you of exactly why it matters, even though the slave and Solarian dead aren’t here, nor Silesians and Andermani. And its name is Sorrow Singer.”

            Honor had never had a formal party affiliation, despite becoming a major opposition spokesman on naval affairs, but reasserting an independence from government, however closely aligned, was a necessary move Benjamin wholly approved. She was now and for ever far too great a figure to serve in any government directly, and a role as her nations’ conscience as safe a containment for her as could be managed ; he also privately thought the care steadholdership had taught her with its personal autocracy had been the Tester’s hand preparing her to be a safe custodian of the astonishing power and potential power she now commanded across thousands of star systems. And he knew her regret for the Solarian dead was real, the burden of Rajani’s destroyed SDs, sacrificed as the least cost in a manner calculated to save millions of other lives, one she felt daily and was haunted by. What she needed was a few long months on Sphinx, gliding and sailing and doing ordinary things, but that still had to wait on required visits to Grayson, Erewhon, New Berlin, and eventually Nouveau Paris. In the meantime Elizabeth, who knew it too, had unilaterally kept the evening meal to family and the major heads of state whom Honor liked, with those she wanted to invite, and dialled down the formality as far could be managed.

            It had still been a large gathering, but like that memorable night at the Bay House one where much was set aside. Then the purpose had been decision ; now it was celebration, but of safe return more than achievement, and with personal rather than political talk. There were children as well as ’cats, Crown Princess Rivka’s new daughter as well as Faith and James, grown out of all recognition since Honor had last seen them and far less interested in their big sister’s achievements than in Nimitz’s and Samantha’s ’kittens. Outside, of course, the entire city had been one giant street party, with sporadic outbursts of singing and cheering among the crowds around Mount Royal, loud with Honor’s name. When one had died away she’d caught his eye and come over.

            “How bad it is going to be on Grayson, Benjamin?”

            “Severe, I’m afraid, though not as bad as it might be.”

            “Oh?”

            “Handing over treaties and returning your plenipotentiary powers will be solemn but cheerful, followed by a service of thanksgiving Reverend Sullivan’s agreed to keep as short as he can, which won’t be very. But everyone understands you wanting to get back to your own steading for a while before you have to slog off for Erewhon, so you’ll be able to get away after that and see people you actually want to see.”

            It had been enough to forestall further questions, though she’d given him a fish-eye as she’d sensed his emotions, but as he stood in the summer sun, seeing the distant glint of the descending shuttle and thinking how few even of the visitors now bothered with breath masks, he wasn’t at all sure quite what was going to happen. Of all the Alliance nations that found themselves bestriding the galaxy, Grayson had come farthest and fastest, from neobarb desperation to unprecedented power, security, and influence in only 20 years ; and that journey was overwhelmingly the work of Honor Harrington. From the moment they’d seen the bridge record from HMS Fearless, most Graysons had known her, as he had himself, to be a daughter of God like none they’d ever met. After Burdette, Hades, her second North Hollow, High Ridge with his entire, godless crew, Mesa, and the Solarian League, he doubted if there were a dozen adults of any stripe who didn’t believe she was the chosen instrument of the Tester’s grace — and one other thing she’d done had seared it home, for among the clauses in those many, many treaties she would shortly be delivering for ratification was one that in insisting on mutual religious tolerance gave all faiths a quasi-constitutional right to organise on Grayson, recognising a growing reality among its increasingly diverse population, and reciprocally gave Father Church guaranteed access to an unconverted population in the trillions. Moreover, a defining annex specifically listed the Masadan Faithful among a small number of religious groups explicitly denied recognition and freedom of worship, on the grounds that their doctrines amounted to enslavement. And when that had got out, something had happened deep in the Grayson soul.

            They had all had enough time to learn to live with the fact that despite everything Honor was still not a communicant of Father Church, though the Champion of its Protector and when on-planet a regular attendant in the Strangers’ Aisle. And even the stickiest traditionalists had admitted long ago that she really was a good and godly woman, not least — though it stuck in Benjamin’s craw — because she so obviously still mourned Paul Tankersley that the fact they hadn’t been married really did seem unimportant, even to the stern, who whatever their faults understood and respected both love and atonement. They had even, mostly, managed to accept that she more than rivalled Isaiah McKenzie, though the Tester’s purpose in raising such an utterly formidable warrior elsewhere and bringing her to Grayson as its saviour twice-over was even more than usually inscrutable. But the radical effects of the gravfilters, combined with Allison Harrington’s genetic work, had daily and intimate implications for all, magnifying everything. And then there was Masada.

            More than a decade of occupation had achieved little beyond a nominally ‘moderate’ government that took responsibility only for basic civil services, and still needed a very substantial occupying force to keep the lid on ; and besides the continuing danger of any male Faithful who managed to get off-planet — terribly demonstrated in the StateSec sponsored assassinations — the issue of basic human rights was a constant thorn. The schismatics remained utterly opposed not only to Prolong but to almost all modern medicine, which was their privilege, but also denied it to their wives and children, which wasn’t, any more than their adamant refusals to countenance the notion that a woman had any rights at all ; but doing anything about it had proven impossible, until with the Havenite War over Honor had despite everything somehow found time to turn her industrial muscle to the problem.

            Sky Domes had paid for two things – cheap, small, and simple coms distributed free by the tens of millions, and a quartet of satellites that gave planetary coverage to a dozen channels, including Grayson, Manticoran, Havenite, and Solarian newscasts, a first-rate children’s science primer, a couple of more adult stations explaining what medicine could now do — including Prolong and preventing the frequent miscarriages of male foetuses with which Masadans as much as Graysons were burdened — and a theology channel on which members of the Sacristy patiently and carefully explained the history of the Church of Humanity Unchained and its schismatics, including the sacred texts the Faithful repudiated. The Masadans had been livid, foaming their displeasure, but though several hundred women and children had been killed by husbands (subsequently executed) who caught them watching the coms, there was nothing they could do to stem the flood of information or its radically transformative effects.

            And then a further channel had been added, for Honor had persuaded the ASL, Ballroom, and Allied governments that all women on Masada, and minor children, counted as enslaved, entitled on liberation to the same support as any of the newly freed — Prolong where still possible, necessary medical and psychotherapeutic treatment, housing and social support — until they could find their own feet. It also meant that nothing done to an owner-abuser was regarded as criminal. Moreover, given the particular issue they had faced, a second domed city was under construction in Harrington Steading where local authorities and services would be exclusively female — and an address by Honor, first privately to the Keys and then Grayson-wide, had appealed for competent women to augment Harrington Steading’s own resources in staffing the new city of St Barbara, should the number of Masadan women seeking asylum reach the numbers she hoped for. The smarter among the Keys had seen just how dangerous a precedent Honor was establishing, but the move was unanswerable, and Benjamin, Kat, and Elaine had laughed themselves silly as the request had been unanimously approved and the public response had gone from positive to wildly enthusiastic.

            And the Masadan women with their minor children had come, by the Tester, a trickle becoming a flow and then a flood. A fair few left male corpses behind them, and battalions of additional ground troops had been needed, but a great swathe of the capital had been cleared of men and served as a reception and holding area, while Harrington and Hauptman Lines merchies shuttled women and children to Grayson, Manticore, and beyond as fast as they could turn around. Some refugees were very happy to leave all theocracy behind, but many were not apostate, just sick of the Faithful’s vile ways, and thought an all-female dome on Grayson with a Father Church that honoured women a wonderful proposition. And as the numbers grew into the millions and tens of millions, even the dimmest members of the Keys realised that the huge boost to Grayson’s female population, just as Allison Harrington’s genetic fix for the lethal embryonic mutation was equalising male and female birth-rates, was going to cushion the change they most feared and preserve a traditional family structure for at least another generation. It was a severe (and to Benjamin purely beautiful) irony of Honor’s crafting that gaining that benefit for their own steadings meant establishing female domes that gave public authority and political experience to women, but needs must. Only four steadings had yet to start such domes, and besides the direct practical effects, the HD coverage of traumatised and incredulous but triumphant women, and above all slowly relaxing children learning to smile and play without fear, had been a planetary balm. Between that and the stream of triumphant galactic news Grayson’s feelgood factor was through the roof, to a degree that actually had people worrying about it.

            There had also been the grim yet deeply satisfying spectacle of the Faithful realising that their schism was doomed to dwindle away as the demographics of their population skewed more and more wildly to the  adult male. It would take a while yet — there had been more than two billion women on Masada, and some were too cowed or indoctrinated to flee, even now — but the percentage of women of childbearing age was already at a level seen only on the road to extinction, and their own denial of Prolong and medical interventions meant both that they had no way round it and that their death rates were far higher and average life-span far lower than either needed to be. The Tester made very sure your sins came home to roost, and His justice was rightly severe.

            And then Honor had put yet another nail in the Faithful’s coffin by making each and every male who maintained the doctrine of female enslavement persona non grata in most of the galaxy, and simultaneously won a reciprocal formal acceptance of Father Church. The only possible valid comparison was St Austin himself, and no-one Benjamin had heard — not even the stiffest conservative patriarch — was prepared to deny that Her Grace at least might be a living saint of Father Church : which was not anything anyone had any experience of at all, unless, of course, they had been acquiring it without realising these last 20 years.

            Feeling the spiritual crisis swell, Benjamin had asserted Protector’s Authority to command a special meeting of Sword and Council, both Conclaves, Sacristy, the full clergy and congregations of every steading cathedral, all linked by HD, to hear First Elder Sullivan, who had a marvellous, pragmatic view with a paralysing sting in its tail. He had no doubt whatever that Her Grace was a beloved instrument of the Tester and so a most paradoxical saint of Father Church — but the paradox must command attention. How could one not of Father Church be its second saint? And why would the Tester so bless them when those privileged to know Her Grace personally could have not the slightest doubt that any attempt by Father Church to acknowledge her as such would cause her the greatest distress? Every communicant’s conscience was their own, but under his leadership no formal discussion of canonisation would ever be held, for amid it all one thing was entirely and abidingly clear to him. As an instrument of the Tester, Her Grace was herself, in her nature, a great Test, for Grayson, for every Grayson, and for Father Church. To understand this new and wonderful and terrible Test, they must live with her, speaking to her as its embodiment, as a teacher and example, and besides the gross insult to her feelings, which he took to be a warning, formalised veneration could only inhibit that understanding. The Book was never closed, and none could doubt that a further portion of the New Way had been opened to Father Church, and to them all. And of course a very special respect for Her Grace was proper and necessary. But formal liturgical thanks to her would be restricted to the existing annual service in memory of the Martyr Julius Hanks, who had died that she might live and could again in his own great grace stand between her and those devout communicants who would, convinced of their own righteousness, do her harm.

            There had been a great deal of soul-searching, and some of the sermons Testing the First Elder’s advice had been as tangled as he had been clear, but the ruling had been very widely accepted with a curious sort of relief. Quite how not acknowledging a living saint walking among them was easier and better than doing so remained a mystery, but there had been a synergy with the parallel problem of Grayson’s increasing number of respectful non-communicants that had begun suggesting interesting answers. The freed in Harrington Steading, including those now admitting to Ballroom membership, had been especially vocal, as for them a saint was one who Did Right, and the proper response was helping them, not getting mystical. It was a view resident ’cats had emphatically endorsed, amid disclaimers of understanding this religion business at all and an intransigent insistence that they did understand Dances on Clouds, who while extremely painstaking was not one to fuss. Besides, didn’t the two legs think she’d done more than enough for them already?

            All in all, Benjamin was reasonably sure no-one would do anything quite so crass as prostrating themselves, but beyond that he wouldn’t have bet a single Austin on almost anything except gross emotional overload. As the shuttle came in, the ranks of the Conclaves and Sacristy assembled in welcome were quivering, and he had a distinct sense that the sanest Graysons present were his assorted children, Rachel in her new GSN uniform to the fore with an arm around Honor, both at least as impatient to see the mentor and godmother they loved and had missed terribly as overawed by what she had done. Rachel had found her Saganami curriculum dominated by a rapidly shifting understanding of galactic events, with what sounded like a weekly dose of near-chaos when new data were discussed, but Hipper — a very active participant — had kept her and others firmly grounded. Of course Her Grace was amazing. She also flipped a mean frisbee and wasn’t called Dances on Clouds for nothing.

            Benjamin was inordinately proud of his eldest daughter, who had used her natal rank exactly once in four not-so-easy years — to wangle an invitation to learn to hang-glide out of the SFS, and spend her second summer vacation taking it up, Hipper in harness and her Armsmen having little choice but to nominate two among their number to learn as well, while others hovered about in aircars looking dyspeptic. She’d had the terrifying sense to take along a single embedded reporter as well, from the Church Times, while effortlessly recruiting the SFS and much of Yawata Crossing to stymying all others, and the helmet-cam images as she’d meticulously obeyed instructions and achieved a swoop to skim a cloud-top and be hurled aloft on its updraught, laughing her glee as Hipper bleeked his own, had struck Grayson hard. There had also been the images of Abigail Hearns, blooded on her Middie cruise to Verdant Vista, promoted to Lieutenant (JG) on deployment to Silesia, giving exemplary service as an ATO, and appointed as one of Honor’s many Flag Lieutenants in advance of the Mesan strike. It was nurture, not nature, as the equal employments of Harrington Steading and Sky Domes had long declared, and the swelling ranks of female officials and workers in the new domes underlined, and Grayson’s most hardened patriarchs had shivered where they stood.

            The shuttle touched down, settling as the engine whine faded, and the hatch hissed open. Benjamin had anticipated that Honor would let the guardian treecats (with wriggling ’kittens) disembark first, Grayson protocol notwithstanding, but not that when she did appear she would have both Nimitz and Sam on her shoulders, and a sleepy, cranky Faith in her arms. Nor the squad of Flag Lieutenants led by Abigail but representing every major Alliance navy who bore the trays arrayed with thousands of data wallets, and enumerated their contents to him, on Honor’s behalf, with rapid military clarity. But however fortuitous it might be, he understood exactly what Honor was doing when she interrupted her soothing of Faith, handed off with a look to Abigail, to kneel and surrender back to him the scroll he’d given her long ago in the hope that she could save the GSN from combat with the Andermani, rise again, and roll her neck and shoulders in obvious relief.

            Cast thy bread upon the waters : for thou shalt find it after many days.

            So he had, and so he had, by the bakery, and he rejoiced with his people as Honor, careless of protocol, congratulated Rachel warmly and knelt again with simple happiness to embrace her impatient goddaughter, who squeaked as a cold treecat nose was touched to her own.

 

* * * * *

 

Very much later he found himself with Kat and Elaine, Rachel, Honor, her parents, Wesley, Reverend Sullivan, and an assortment of ’cats, the humans savouring glasses of an ancient vintage and the ’cats a liquidised celery beverage MacGuinness had concocted that had much the same effect. Honor was stretched out in a comfy chair, sleeping ’kittens draped about her, and replied to his soft query without opening her eyes.

            “Erewhon, New Berlin, Nouveau Paris, where they are duplicating Sorrow Singer in Napoleon Park, and then at least three years without anyone asking me anything, Benjamin. I’ll be on Sphinx for a while, and not only because the ’kittens need to get to know the picketwood. Daddy’s going to try the new therapy for Nimitz, and he’s waited more than long enough.” There were bleeks of agreement, including Nimitz’s own. “But after the Steading the most pressing backlogs are San Martin and the duchy on Gryphon. Hector Sanchez and Richard Maxwell have done wonders, but they can’t make formal policy so I have months of rubber-stamping to do.”

            “Honor, you have never rubber-stamped anything in your life.”

            She still didn’t open her eyes.

            “I know. So I have to read all the stuff they’ve worked out properly. I have kept up, sort of, but only skimming, and there’s a full quarter’s reading waiting in each duchy HQ. And the city my poor Sky Domes techs have been bullied into building on San Martin as a demonstration of lower-altitude viability. Which reminds me” — almond eyes snapped open, though she didn’t move — “of two things. One is that San Martino mountaintop machismo doesn’t take especially well to dome discipline, I gather, so I need a bevy of sturdy Grayson housewives to rap their knuckles until they acquire some common sense. Are there any still available?”

            Kat and Elaine, both listening, laughed, assuring Honor recruits were still coming forward in droves, but gave her speculative looks her mother echoed ; and it was Allison who responded.

            “What’s the second thing, dear?”

            Honor’s eyes glinted. “Personal. Do you remember Tom saying that learning to ’glide was top of his personal peace dividend?”

            “Vaguely. The night President Ramirez turned up and you took that picture of the poor condor owl?”

            “That’s the one. Well, he was serious, and intends to resign as CNO of the RN. He hasn’t had any leave in decades, so while Eloise and others will scream he doesn’t think they’ll actually stop him. Javier Giscard apparently wants to retire as well, because having been Acting CNO all this time he says it isn’t a job he wants at all, and he thinks Eloise needs more domestic support, so Tom’s scheming to get Lester installed with Shannon as his deputy.” Honor had a gently amused look Benjamin hadn’t seen on her face since news of Paul Tankersley’s murder had arrived. “It’ll be interesting to see. Anyway, Tom asked me if I’d teach him to ’glide, on Sphinx, and I said I could think of nothing I’d like more.”

            Her eyes had a challenging warmth that stirred Benjamin’s soul, and both Allison’s and Alfred Harrington’s eyes were daring him to object to anything he might surmise. He had wondered a bit, too, seeing on Beowulf and Manticore the easy affection between Honor and Theisman, and the back of his brain considered briefly what Father Church would make of its probable living saint marrying an avowed atheist, and then, sweet Tester, what any children of those two might be like. Haven would have some adjusting to do as well, which should prove entertaining. But mostly he found himself filling with joy as he realised the warmth in Honor’s eyes was a hope of personal happiness, as well as a knowledge of peace to enjoy it in. The Tester Tested hardest those He loved best, and Honor’s many Tests had been brutally hard, but He also rewarded them, and if He had managed to give her something beyond the power of the most grateful ruler or generous people Benjamin would offer sincere thanks.

            He listened to Rachel telling Honor enthusiastically about her own experiences of learning to ’glide on Sphinx, with interruptions from Hipper and interested questions from Nimitz, and thought life very good.