Survivor, Reject, Courier, Conqueror
A/N: There is much to love about the Honor Harrington books by David Weber. (If you haven't read them, the series publisher makes the first two ebooks free on their website. Google 'Baen Honor Harrington Series.')
On my most recent read-through, I became unhappy with the style of combat he insisted on using, which is Napoleonic-era tactics (for wooden ships) loosely translated into a space context. I would hope future weapons and defense systems might be a bit smarter than what these novels suggest.
The following story is very much an alternate universe. Honor and a small group of survivors are stranded on an unknown planet where they discover one piece of advanced alien technology. Everything in the balance of power throughout hundred of inhabited worlds begins to change.
The HMS Trenchant was twirling madly through space as if a child-like God had demanded it 'spin' and 'twist' and 'tumble' to her every whim. Much of what was happening to the ship had never been tested under any circumstances, which was why the ship was beginning to crack and rain debris and break apart.
The command deck was sealed from the vacuum of space, but it was devastated in other ways. Everyone had been battered or killed. Instruments had exploded or toppled onto people.
Lt. Commander Honor Harrington, the executive officer, woke from her unconsciousness. She didn't see anyone else moving and couldn't move much herself. She had to free herself from her safety harness, then unpin her leg from some fallen wreckage. She paid no notice to the pain as she stood and began working as many manual overrides as she could remember.
She also tried to remember what had happened to cause this. One moment, they were preparing to enter a wormhole junction in transit to a repair depot and the next...well, they were spinning. Something about that wormhole, which hundreds of ships might use in a day, had set all of this in motion. Had they been attacked when entering? Had the wormhole become unstable?
Those were questions for later, if she lived.
Honor calmed her mind and set to work. She couldn't pay any notice to the unconscious, dead, or dying around her. She couldn't worry about her companion Nimitz, a Treecat from her home planet of Sphinx. She noted that, with Commander Givens bisected by fallen ship components, she was the senior officer on board. Perhaps the only surviving officer.
Honor was able to determine that the ship was moving at what seemed sub-light speeds while shedding its plating and components. It was very few steps from commencing irreversible break-up. She worked harder than any ten people trying to slow the ship, end its twirling and tumbling, and halt its self-destruction.
This she managed, not that she could say how or remember which were the vital steps and which had been wasted effort.
The ship had slowed, but then it sped up slightly but noticeably. The hardened parts of the nav system, which was about the only sensor system still functioning, warned her that the Trenchant was caught in the gravity well of a planet.
Here Honor cursed. From one crisis to the next and no time to wipe off the sweat...
Honor did what she could to continue to slow them. Few of the ship's systems were still even attached to the ship, let alone operational. The landing was anything but gentle. In fact, the crash sent horrific shudders through the Trenchant as it halted.
Honor smashed into a bulkhead and fell to the deck plating. She rested there a moment but found she hadn't lost consciousness a second time. She got up and checked on her condition. She would be hellishly sore for the next days, but she hadn't broken anything.
She feared others wouldn't be as lucky. Many of those who might have survived the first disaster had just perished from the second.
She checked the status of the HMS Trenchant through the computer systems that still functioned. Nav was no help. The readings for a few sections suggested they were still sealed from whatever planet they were. Many sections reported differently. They'd long been exposed to the vacuum.
Honor checked the planet's atmosphere as best she could. She thought that the smashed instruments were showing the presence of oxygen. She couldn't repair the systems or wait any longer. She needed to begin searching for survivors.
She stalked to the command's deck hatch. She couldn't open it, even with her physical strength. Her quarters were just a few days past this door. She had to stomp on her fear of what this meant for Nimitz. She hoped for fallen debris blocking this hatch.
She would have to go outside to get back inside. She had no atmosphere or combat suits available to her. She had to hope that the oxygen readings were correct and that the sensors detecting for harmful compounds had still been operational.
Honor emerged outside and drew a breath, then another.
She wasn't choking. She wasn't melting from some acid in the air. She didn't feel like she was suffocating so that meant that the carbon dioxide was at a safe level.
She felt short of breath, not starved. The oxygen content here was low, not non-existent.
She could survive in this, she thought.
She closed and sealed the hatch behind her. There was a lot of water where the ship had landed. She'd prefer to keep the ship dry if she could.
It was a silly impulse, of course. The Trenchant would never fly again, not even in her wildest dreams. But she thought like a naval officer thought.
She tried to get a sense of where the Trenchant had 'landed,' but there wasn't much at all on the horizon, just ponds and low green areas. No trees or bushes or signs of civilization.
Honor took a considerable amount of time to find a way back into the ship. She tried various holds and other areas that were missing their plating. Eventually she found an open hold with a hatch that gave her internal access.
By the time she was inside the Trenchant again, Honor had no doubts that the ship was broken beyond any possibility of repair. Not on a planet where all she had seen were streams, ponds, and algae.
She walked quickly from where she entered the Trenchant to where she was most likely to find surviving crew members. It was a disheartening walk. There was no medical bay anymore. One of the stores of food remained, but the galleys and the dining hall were gone, along with all the ratings who worked in those spaces.
She heard noise ahead. Honor ran. She cleared out the fallen remains of the Trenchant so she could open a passage that led to the crew quarters.
There, finally, she found living people. Five of them who had been asleep when the Trenchant had its disaster at the wormhole. They had minor wounds which were already patched up. She knew none of them personally.
Honor asked if any of them could help with the search. A man called Willem and a woman called Olivia joined in. The others Honor vowed to remember as people who couldn't be trusted in a dangerous moment.
Honor sent Willem and Olivia through to more crew quarters while she made her way to the officer quarters. She needed to know about Nimitz now that the most immediate danger had passed.
She had a little more hope for him, given that some who were locked in crew quarters had survived.
She arrived at her own quarters and saw the mess of material that had kept her from moving directly out of the command deck. The senior officers had quarters directly behind the command deck, after all.
She listened for a moment at her door. Then she knocked and opened it. She heard a bleek, then another.
Honor, in the midst of all this horror, couldn't help but smile. Nimitz was bloodied but alive. She checked his wounds, which seemed like now-clotted nicks from flying debris, then cradled him until he was too heavy for her strained arms. She settled him into place on her shoulder.
"I'm never leaving you behind again, Stinker. Never again," Honor promised.
Nimitz bleeked, which Honor took as an acceptance of her apology. They sat and eventually Honor's breathing leveled off as she fell asleep.
Honor woke up still cradling Nimitz when the survivors came to find her. They seemed unhappy that she was exhausted and had fallen asleep at a time like this.
Honor kept her sometimes-sharp and usually impolitic tongue to herself.
Willem, Olivia, and some of the less-willing others, had searched all the protected parts of the ship. They'd found just one more survivor.
She walked down the hallway and saw him laid out, getting some rudimentary medical attention for his leg. Their last survivor was named Caleb Offitt.
In total, they were seven people and one Treecat. Seven survivors from a crew of over nine hundred.
"We also found some, well, remains," Willem said.
"How many?" Honor asked.
"Not many so far. Eighteen."
"Where is everyone else?" Olivia asked.
"Somewhere between that wormhole and here," Caleb said.
Honor pursed her lips. The comment was accurate, but more than a little cruel.
Honor looked to Willem. "We'll need to do right by all of them. Outside will be tricky though."
"You've been out there?" Willem asked.
"Until I get the wreckage cleared away from the hatch to the command deck, it's the only way back to our surviving comms."
The survivors got quiet for a moment as their new reality began to take home. They were on an unknown planet and would be until they were rescued.
"Med bay's gone. At least one pinnace and cutter are gone. We'll need to know what we do have...," Honor began to say.
"Why are you in charge?" Caleb asked.
"I am the executive officer and a Lt. Commander..."
"The Royal Manticoran Navy is way out there somewhere." His voice had a pained, groggy quality. He barely made the jabbing motion he seemed to intend. "We're here."
"You're still in the navy," Honor said.
"What navy? I don't see a functional ship. I don't see a captain or an admiral. I don't see men with weapons reminding me that this a navy. This isn't a navy. This is a disaster. The day the navy comes for us is the day I'm back in the navy."
Honor knew better than to push just this instant. She marked Caleb Offitt as a possible troublemarker. She wouldn't forget, even if he did.
Nor would Nimitz.
Day seven. Military discipline was all but forgotten since they'd finished the temporary funerals. The dead had been sealed into containers until they could get longer, safer access to the outside. Digging graves in low oxygen conditions was just asking for trouble.
Honor had put her and Nimitz on three-quarter rations even while everyone else was trying to eat their way through their depression. Honor would be considerably more nervous, but her own explorations of the holds had revealed more stores of food. Not enough for a truly lengthy stay on this planet, but better than Honor had feared. She returned the debris blocking those hatches and just made a note to herself.
Aside from Willem Saddler, who had taken it upon himself to try to repair some of their comm gear, everyone else was laziness and sloth, even the other survivor named Olivia who had initially been helpful. Sure they were coping with something horrible, but all of them were. If they didn't start working together...
Honor could not let these broken people die out here, not if she could prevent it. They might not be willing to help themselves, yet. But Honor could.
She and Nimitz had restored access from the quarters area to the command deck. They could move around the wreckage more safely now, but that didn't solve their other problem. They still needed to survive outside. There had to be usable supplies of some resource out there, water if nothing else.
She was even firmer now in her belief about the damage to the Trenchant. There was no hope of complete repairs, she thought, because they had neither spare parts remaining to them or the infrastructure necessary to hold the ship to install them. She had seen to resetting the air scrubbers and replacing damaged internal lights. They had months or more of internal power to handle the few systems they were using.
Her verdict on the Trenchant? The ship was no longer a ship, but a shelter where they would wait in the hope of a rescue. Perhaps they could repair their comm gear and send a message? That seemed to be Willem's plan for the future given his resolute efforts.
Beyond that, Honor couldn't envision any possibility beyond a rescue or a life trapped on a planet with too little oxygen and poorly developed vegetation.
For the first time in her life, Honor felt truly helpless. There was no bit of training to tell her how to handle this, no self-sacrifice on her part that would ensure that the others survived.
All she had was her training and her ability to get things done. She would have to learn quite a few new things to turn this disaster into something else. Diplomacy was top of the list. She would have to bring the other survivors back into the fold otherwise it would be two working and five...doing nothing.
Diplomacy she could do a different day. She'd been sitting, thinking, for too long. She felt the need to move around.
"Let's see what there is, eh?" she said to her companion.
Nimitz was just as eager.
She and Nimitz had done this many times, some sojourns to survey the ship's condition. It was, unfortunately, often quite a work out because the ship's interior was in terrible shape. It might take them a few hours to clear the way to where she knew various hatches were.
On previous trips, she and Nimitz and often Willem discovered what they had remaining. They'd tallied their stores. They had food, not enough water, and unfortunately plenty of combat suits and not enough living people to wear them all.
They assessed what remained of the Trenchant. Willem might be able to jury rig some comm gear, but it was a guess whether the range would stretch to where friendly ships might hear the messages.
"It's ready," Willem said when Honor walked into his workspace.
"You fixed it?"
"I think so. You want to record the message, Lt. Commander?"
He was joking a little as no one used her formal title these days. Humor was good at a time like this and in short supply.
Honor just stared at the device. It looked a mess with spliced-in wires bursting out here and there to bypass the truly destroyed parts. It tested out okay Honor could see. But Willem had gotten close three times before. This was the fourth attempt and there were equal parts of hope and despair on Honor's face.
Honor nodded and stood up straight and tall. Willem pushed a button which started recording Honor's message.
"This is a coded distress call from the HMS Trenchant," Honor said. It was beaming into space now and recording for continued transmission as the planet rotated. They hadn't yet ascertained where they were relative to Manticore. They had to hope that the scattergun approach would get them heard, somehow.
"We are damaged and crashed on an unidentified planet. We are currently unable to repair our ship. We have eight surviving entities, seven human and one Treecat. We are unable to fix our position because of the heavy atmosphere and damaged astrogation records. Please triangulate our location and send a rescue party for the survivors of the HMS Trenchant."
"It went," Willem said. "We'll send it ten times per hour for as long as the equipment serves."
They couldn't independently verify that the message was going out, but it was better than no message at all. It was all hope. All that they had left.
"Thank you, Willem," Honor said.
"I just hope we get the messages close enough for someone friendly to hear them."
Honor nodded. She and Willem were aware of the possibility of pirates catching the message – or Havenites – or another unfriendly. Still...they had chosen to start the broadcast.
Day twelve. Honor was concerned about food and water. The ship had a stock of hardened suits. They were meant for use during combat in case a compartment was damaged. The automatic helmet would protect the occupant for some time, long enough in theory for a rescue.
So they had a lot of these suits for now, but not enough water and food. Honor needed to explore the outside environment.
Honor wanted to scout out their swampy surroundings a bit more. She pulled on a suit then fitted a breathing tube to her suit that Nimitx could use. She had tried to find a suit that might fit him, but his physiology was vastly different from even a petite human woman. He seemed more pleased to use the breathing mask than for Honor to manhandle him inside one of the suits. At least he had use of all of his arms.
"Let's keep our eyes on sources of water. I found some cups we can use to bring samples back. Maybe we can figure out how to test the water... I hope the liquid out there is water. We're in trouble if it isn't..."
They exited through a hatch and began the survey of the unknown planet. What Honor had done almost two weeks earlier hadn't been scientific in any manner, more hurried and desperate.
Honor had also brought along some grease and a section of fallen plating. She intended to make these materials into a map. Ship, pond, stream, algae bloom, pond, mud.
There wasn't a lot of variety in this part of their new home. She got Nimitz to fill the little sample glasses from each pond. She marked each glass with a number and tried to coordinate back to her rough map.
She wished some datapads had survived. She'd keep looking, but they were extremely low tech right now.
She returned to the wreckage with water and algae. Which looked, respectively, like slimy water and watery slime. This would hopefully be what would save them until they could be rescued.
Day forty seven started as a black day. All the comms that they had juryrigged together were dead.
All of them.
The one Willem first got working, which died after two weeks. Then the one he stole out of a wrecked pinnace. Last of all the one he borrowed from the still-functional, if trapped, cutter.
The power supply they had cobbled together must be pulsing somehow, doing more harm than good to sensitive pieces and the workarounds that held them together.
Being cut off from sending any more messages felt horrible. Being cut off from receiving them...was worse. They had received no return messages as yet and, because their equipment was down, never would.
All three systems were down now and there weren't any easy ways to fix them, not with what they had discovered on board. They had looked in every compartment, but they hadn't yet searched every compartment.
The possibility of a miracle was vanishing.
The cutter had almost felt like one... Almost. The discovery of that working cutter had sent a burst of joy through everyone when it was discovered. The survivors largely though their problems were solved.
Just fly home.
Honor had had to remind everyone of its speed limitations. If they were within manageable distance, yes, it would suffice. If they were light-years from any commercial course...they would exchange life on an unknown planet for a shorter life stuck and starving in a cutter.
Since then, the workforce situation had been getting better. People had given up on their dreams of a rapid rescue. The food situation was still not as Honor would like. She was still on three-quarter rations and in okay condition, if a little thin. Her metabolism was so high, though.
Caleb was looking fatter these days with all his lethargy.
He would be the hard nut to crack.
Even though the cutter wasn't a miracle, it was still useful. Today, by chance the day they lost the comms, they were also beginning the process of getting the cutter outside the wreckage. So they lost one form of communication and began trying to get a limited form of transportation.
The problem was that the hatch between the ship and the exterior was now partially obstructed by the ground the ship had crashed upon. They'd have to fashion another opening, another hole in a ship already riddled with them.
Five of the survivors, not counting Nimitz, were gearing up for the maneuver using more of the dwindling number of protective suits they still had available. Honor had once not cared how many there were. But they weren't very reusable or rechargeable with air. Whoever in the Navy had decided on single-use suits should be stuck here and the survivors should be back on Manticore.
If the fates were just...though they weren't.
Honor set to work, muscle-taxing but mindless work, which was good because her mind was still on suits and oxygen and mobility. Honor or Willem or someone would have to devise something for the future so they could breathe without consuming any more of these suits. They couldn't recharge them with the tools they had available. They'd have to find something else entirely.
The next best option was still in the planning stage. Willem was considering how to create a concentrator, taking oxygen from the external air and getting it up to a reasonable concentration for human use. That system he hadn't even begun to construct, but perhaps it could allow them to save on these suits.
There was nothing dangerous in the outer atmosphere other than a lack of oxygen.
Her mind turned again to their food stores. The exploration of the planet took on new urgency now that almost everyone agreed they were truly stranded. They needed this cutter free so they could figure out a better, more permanent residence.
Willem hadn't been able to make them cutting lasers or anything. All that equipment from the Trenchant had been lost, at least the most critical portions. Willem had fashioned them saws and the suits would act as protection from the fumes and sparks.
Twenty minutes on the makeshift saw had her through the plating, she had made a hole twelve centimeters wide. They estimated the entire opening would need to be one hundred seventy-two linear meters. This was going to take a long time even if they had more volunteers working on the problem. The plating was thick and cut resistant, of course, as any armored plating should be.
Still, it had to go.
Honor powered on the saw again and set to work on another twelve centimeter section.
They needed more saws and more people wielding them. Honor wanted to be able to see the rest of the planet. There had to be more than swamps and algae.
Day ninety-eight. Honor had put in her hours behind the saw and was ready for a different kind of adventure. She and Nimitz walked out of the improvised airlock and stood by the oxygen concentrator. Honor filled up a canister that had two masks, one for her and one for Nimitz. This setup allowed them to breath the surface air, supplemented with a puff every minute from the oxygen tank.
Their disposable suits were reserved for work crew right now. Even if they weren't, they were finite.
Honor got them both through a hatch and sealed it behind them. It was odd to walk in the low-oxygen environment then take in a big blast of oxygen. Honor supposed it was like taking some kind of drug. Her body seemed to enjoy it. Almost suffocating, then swimming in too much oxygen, then back to almost suffocating. It was like a perpetual high-low swing.
Nimitz was surprisingly helpful in this alien world. He could get into some of the holes they hadn't noticed at first and hunt down small animals. Yes, this watery underdeveloped planet had some mammalian-type inhabitants – which raised a bunch of questions. Namely, where did they come from?
Honor thought they had to be transplants somehow. This planet didn't have trees, but it had mammals?
While the diaspora from Old Earth had populated hundred of planets, some other event had brought these rabbit-like creatures to this place.
They didn't have a lot of meat on their bones, but a little was better than nothing. They were acceptable to eat after being roasted, assuming the horrifying smell they began to emit when they died actually dissipated because of the flames. Sometimes they were roasted and reeking at the same time, very unpleasant.
She was well into her consideration of this question of rabbit-like mammals when Nimitz took off like a shot. He'd detected something.
Or maybe Nimitz was hunting a new source of safe water. They were surrounded by water, but most of it was contaminated by native algae. If the Trenchant were in fighting shape, they could use filtration systems to make any of the water usable. That was not the case. Most of these water sources were quite toxic, causing hallucinations and abdominal pain at a minimum.
Nimitz had found all of the sources they used that were uncontaminated.
Honor ran along behind her Treecat.
Nimitz stopped at a small depression in the ground. Honor caught up to him and looked down. It was water, a deep-looking well of fresh water.
"Well done. Now take a hit from the canister before you keel over."
Nimitz eagerly took the mask. Honor knelt down and took a handful of the water. Tasting it before testing it was a bit of a danger, but Nimitz hadn't led her wrong yet.
The water was clean. Actually, it was cool and wonderful. It had none of the taste of that algae. It was as pure as they'd yet found on this planet.
Nimitz handed back the mask. Honor accepted it absently. Nimitz bleeked then. Honor nodded to the treecat and took her own hit of oxygen.
They had come this far in life by nagging and protecting each other.
Honor pulled out the cloth that had replaced her earlier efforts. Cloth, from unused uniforms, they had in excess.
Honor looked at the landmarks she could see and tried to estimate where this pool of freshwater was. They'd need to bring tanks or something to drain it. Hauling them here wouldn't be too bad, they'd be empty. Hauling them back through swampy areas wouldn't be fun.
It was necessary, though. Already three of the freshwater sources they'd used had been overrun by the algae. They were tracking it in on their feet and destroying the one thing they needed most desperately.
It was hard to be absolutely clean in a wet environment like this.
Honor returned to find Willem standing outside, looking into the sky. 'Uh oh,' she thought.
Willem say he had Honor's attention. "Those three stars."
This planet, somehow, strangely, had an elliptical orbit that handed the planet between the three stars. It was yet another thing, like the rabbits, that suggested some civilization far older than any human civilization had tweaked the planet in significant ways. The oxygen and atmosphere might even be such a gift.
"The sensors are telling us enough, finally. It's bad."
Honor nodded, she was following.
"We can't wait it out for a rescue. In a very few years, perhaps five or six, this entire planet will be blasted with solar radiation from that third star, the odd one. It'll kill us unless we take to living underground like some rabbits Nimitz likes to hunt."
"We wouldn't be able to do water runs or walk around," Honor said, grasping at the edges of the problem.
"Nor would we be safe sheltering in the wreckage of the Trenchant..."
Their semi-hostile planet would rapidly become extremely hostile to them.
"Do we know more about that third sun now?" Honor asked.
"It's pouring out emissions. It has to be the same age as the other two, but it seems billions of years older. Three stars lined up like this – with planets transiting back and forth between all three – it's unlike anything we've ever confirmed."
The entire star system had once been someone's experimental laboratory, Honor felt again. Star Lab or something.
"The old-seeming star will pelt this planet with a ferocious bath of radiation."
Honor started thinking about what came next. They had long known something was odd about this planet, algae and no trees, but mammals. An atmosphere that was mostly hospitable to humans. Now they had more of an answer why: what had survived here, algae but not trees, were things that had adapted to periods of intense solar radiation. The rabbit-things could hide, Honor supposed, though she wasn't clear on what they might eat while hiding.
They had a few years to get themselves off this planet, whether by rescue or otherwise, before they would be trapped – in the wreckage or in holes in the ground – without any means of getting fresh water or food or algae they could dry and burn.
They were like the survivors of a ship wreck of old, when wooden ships transited blue oceans. Only they knew that a fresh disaster was lurking and would destroy them unless they got away.
"Who knows?" Honor asked.
"Me and you."
"We'd better break it to everyone else. We're going to need new shelter. We need better information on where we are. We need comms and food and water."
She felt overwhelmed.
Day two hundred nine. The radiation levels were increasing and the Trenchant wasn't fully protecting them now. The problem was increasing like a tiny but constant crescendo that would last for the next few years, not that they would survive unless relocated very soon.
They had to finish freeing the cutter and locate safer shelter. Alternately, they could try covering the Trenchant in feet of mud and stone to create additional radiation shielding. Either option would be much easier when they had the cutter available to them.
Today or tomorrow should see them completing the hole that would allow them to remove the cutter from the Trenchant.
The news starting that afternoon began coming in waves of good and bad.
Good. They had finished the hole in the Trenchant.
Bad. The cutter was going to require some finesse to get it out that hole. They might have to disassemble the ruined pinnace in order to get the cutter out.
Good. Old-fashioned block and tackle allowed them to pull the cutter free.
Bad. The cutter's power system was more depleted than anyone had suspected. Getting up in the sky with low power was not a good idea.
Good. A quick swap with the pinnace and the cutter had power. They could work out a system for recharging the power stores.
Bad. It was too dark to do much exploring.
Good. The next morning, Honor, Nimitz, Willem, and Olivia had found mountains, genuine mountains. With mountains came the possibility of caves.
Bad. They took detailed readings of the starscape visible above the atmosphere. The cutter's nav system almost threw up trying to tell them where they were. It still failed.
Not good. Very not good.
They'd known that the Trenchant's records has been compromised.
But the cutter had been powered down. It had a clean astrogation database. It just didn't know where they were or how to get back.
Honor quashed her doubts and her fears. She took the cutter and began a terrestrial search for new shelter. Caves and that sort of thing.
Hundreds of feet of rock would be far better shielding than ten centimeters of plating or less.
Day three hundred forty. They'd fully completed the move. The survivors had gone into the cave system almost immediately, returning to the Trenchant weekly to turn its remaining structure and components into things they would need. They couldn't afford more frequent trips until they had a stable system for providing for the cutter's energy needs.
Plating had been slowly turned into water tanks. The food stores had taken up residence in the caves. Anything that might be useful in the future had been collected up and moved. They still felt like and acted like hoarders of the worst type.
They had taken to hunting the rabbits and smoking the meat or sun-drying it.
Today, though, Honor and Nimitz were free. They were now exploring the mountains in the way they had done around the swamps where the Trenchant had crashed. What new and useful things might they discover here?
Okay, exploration was one motivation.
The other was getting out of the caves for a while. The situation inside them was tense and uncomfortable so Honor spent as much time as she could outside. The caverns gave them more space than before in total, but the survivors now felt like they'd moved from being star cruisers to being cave dwellers.
Two hours after they set out with a fresh canister of oxygen, Nimitz bleeked and ran away from Honor.
Honor turned and followed. Nimitz really was moving quickly.
He stopped at a depression in the stone. Water. He always was on the lookout for water. Honor was grateful, but she'd secretly hoped for a rabbit or something similar.
He made a bleeking noise when Honor turned away. She turned back and saw that two of his truehands were pointing down to the bottom of the water.
There was something there. Something shiny.
"Alright," Honor said. "This might be useful."
She could hope, at least.
Honor started pulling things from her pockets. Since she lived in a cavern system now, she always carried rope with her. She was now trying to find something among her possessions that might serve as a hook. She was going fishing, of a sort.
In the end she found some broken rivets she had picked up off the cavern floor and carried away lest someone step on them.
She was able to bend one of the already broken rivets and make it into a very ugly hook.
It took her many tries to hit the shiny objected and hook onto it.
After she did, she pulled slowly and evenly. She didn't want to lose the tenuous connection.
The light metal broke the surface of the small pool. It was all curves and smoothness, not a sharp corner to be seen.
It almost glittered in the sun.
"I wonder what this is," Honor said. She touched it and discovered it was already completely dry, although she'd pulled it from a pool of water. It felt cool to her fingertips for a moment then began to warm.
She turned it over. It was quite large, perhaps the rough dimensions of her torso, but it weighed almost nothing, less than Nimitz.
The warmth of the of the strange metal increased. It became hot to the touch.
What was it? How did it come to be here on this planet? Honor continued to examine the object.
Then she noticed something emanating from the metal. A wisp of energy.
She dropped the piece of metal.
The wisp of energy remained attached to the metal. She got down on her hands and knees to examine it while not touching it.
The energy was firmly attached to the metal – and stable. Honor thought it resembled plasma from when she'd had classes in chemistry and physics.
Nimitz came over to the object and began observing it.
"Not too close, Stinker. I could have lost a hand – or an eye."
Nimitz wasn't listening. He used his an extended claw to poke at the plasma emission.
"No," Honor said, reaching for her Treecat.
But Nimitz was faster. And he didn't lose his claw or anything else.
"What is it?" Honor asked, staring at the wisp of energy.
Nimitz bleeked. He didn't know.
For the first time in quite some time, Honor had found a puzzle that interested her. What was this? How had something like this wound up on a planet that had no obvious technology?
Day five hundred eighteen. Honor was working on her secret project again. She had never mentioned it to anyone. She also had done much with it because she didn't have much free time to devote to a curiosity, of course, not when survival was most critical.
What she did know was this: the piece of metal wouldn't produce the plasma if it were dark outside or if it was inside Honor's part of the cavern. It would produce that frightening plasma emanation if she were outside during the daylight hours.
She had fashioned a large pack from unused Navy uniforms for collecting things on her ramblings. That day the light metal object went into the pack before Honor and Nimitz filled up an oxygen canister and left.
No one argued with her about the radiation. It was increasing, that they all knew. The others, Willem included, stayed mostly in the caverns. Honor couldn't just lay around pretending she was already dead.
She walked for a few hours before settling down to experiment with the light metal.
This time it responded quickly to the sun light. The plasma surrounded it and the metal began to float in the air.
She had wondered if it was a generator or something. She was sure that it was converting energy into this plasma. And that this plasma could be very useful.
None of the physics she had ever studied discussed what she was seeing now. Metals that were far lighter than they should be. Energy translators that could make plasma and float.
The evening was even stranger. The end of the sunlight caused all the plasma to dissipate. Honor took out dried algae and light a fire with it.
Nimitz sat at the edge of the fire and collected ash into one of the sample cups Honor carried with her.
Honor tried asking her Treecat what he was doing, but Nimitz didn't even reward her with a bleek. He had his own secrets, it seemed.
The next morning, Honor woke to find the metal generator creating plasma – which flowed away from the metal and toward the several cups of ash.
The plasma extracted ash.
The plasma constructed something from the ash.
The plasma took up residence inside the little black pillar it had constructed from algae ash.
When Honor returned to the caverns, the metal energy translator still had power. It had gotten Nimitz, somehow, to collect the ingredients for a battery.
Was Nimitz able to understand this device? The thought thrilled her, then horrified her.
"Can it talk to you, Nimitz?" Honor asked.
She took that as a yes.
"Well, what does it want?" Honor asked. "Beyond a battery?"
Nimitz lifted a true hand to the sky.
"Up?" Nimitz glared at her. Then he made a different gesture with two of his true hands.
"It wants to fly?"
The three-way conversation in Honor's section of the cavern went on for some time in low tones of voice. Honor spoke to Nimitz and the metal object. The object spoke to Nimitz somehow. Nimitz then had to wait for Honor to ask the right yes-or-no question to get at the answer.
It was hardly efficient.
Honor wound up with the following information. The object was an energy translator, as she had expected, but it also had limited communications protocols. It had been trying to speak to Honor or anyone else since she had rescued it from its watery grave, but had only just managed to make a connection to Nimitz that day. That battery for storing the plasma had made all the difference.
It had once been installed in a ship as a generator for its weapons systems. The plasma it generated was plasma, but it was also more than plasma. It was also the lowest form of energy it could produce, mainly as a shield or storage protectant for higher forms of energy. Unless it could construct something far more sophisticated than carbon-based storage from ash, it wouldn't be able to generate those forms of energy.
Last, while its primary use had been providing energy to weapons systems, it had been designed to be wholly compatible with the shielding systems, propulsion systems, and other systems within its ship. It had also been equipped with the limited communications and intelligence gathering capabilities that had allowed it to revise its programming until it made contact with Nimitz.
"You want to fly? How can we do that?" Honor asked the tech.
Then she had to run ideas past Nimitz to get bleeks (yes) or yowls (no).
This conversation took parts of three days to complete. The tech, which Honor now thought of by the name Silver for its luster and color, could create a plasma bubble that would protect them in what it said was like hyperspace, but not hyperspace. It was safer and faster than hyperspace as Honor was able to describe it.
It was an enormous amount to take in. This hunk of metal was talking to Nimitz somehow – and had promised to rescue all of them.
"Why?" Honor asked, after considering all of it for some time.
Then she struggled to guess. She basically had to ask yes-or-no questions.
Nimitz didn't wait for her to reformulate. He put his true hands back up in the air again.
"It wants to be in space?" Honor asked.
Day six hundred three. Honor, Nimitz, and Willem Staddler were ready for a trip in the cutter. The others all knew this was happening, but none wished to be involved.
The cutter had a few additions. There was a carbon pillar strapped to a bulkhead to provide continuity of power. The alien technology called Silver was also aboard.
They had tested this in atmosphere before. Now they were going to test this outside the atmosphere. They were going to see if this would work.
The solar radiation was getting worse faster than expected, much faster.
They could camp out in their caverns, of course, but the estimates suggested that the surface water might boil and all the algae die. The rabbit-mammals would hide and some of them survive.
Honor didn't start the cutter's propulsion system. "Silver, let's have this Bubble."
"Honor, let's do it from spac," Willem said. He was nervous. He'd been through the trials in-atmosphere. This set were a little nerve-wracking, especially with Honor changing the plans.
She didn't want to just test the Bubble once they were in the air. She wanted to see if it could replicate all aspects of the propulsion they'd need. From sitting on dirt to returning safely to their destination.
"If Silver can do what it says it can do, we can get off this planet and return home. It's either leave now this way or return to the caves and starve to death during the solar storms."
"The cutter could always get off the planet," Willem said.
"But could it get us home before we ran out of supplies? No, even if we were extremely close. I have a sense that we're quite far from home or we'd have been rescued already."
A glasslike strand of energy emerged from the alien technology and made it way to and then through the cutter's hull.
Then strands emerged from the carbon pillars and exited the cutter.
Honor just make out the effect outside the cutter through the forward window. There was a thin film of energy forming up a few inches from the cutter's outer hull.
The shield was up. Then the cutter, with engines powered down, was rising through the sky.
It was time to see if Silver could do as it had attempted to explain to Nimitz. Use the shield to somehow propel them faster than the cutter would be able on its own. A cutter wasn't hyperspace capable by any means. It was designed to take people or cargo from a base to a ship, or from one ship to another. It wasn't designed for transstellar travel.
This promised to make the cutter far more useful.
"It's working. I don't understand any of this," Willem said. "The plasma just exits right through a solid hull."
Honor nodded. "It phases, I believe. I'm still baffled by all of this, too, Willem. But I'm willing to try and willing to take the risk."
She had long ago explained how she found Silver and how she'd discovered what it could do. It could talk directly into Nimitz's mind somehow. That still made Honor jumpy.
"Okay," Willem said. What else could he say? "Let's see what it can do."
"Silver, hold for a few minutes."
Honor worked the cutter's controls to take a detailed reading of the starscape. If they were about to successfully travel somewhere fast, she wanted to make sure they could return.
"What did you turn on?"
"I want a full plot of where we head, so we can be sure to get back."
Then, if this worked, she'd set the astrogation protocols to figuring out what, if anything, it recognized from the star fields. They needed just a few oddities to make themselves visible and the software should be able to take things from there.
"Alright, Silver, let's see what you can do..."
Before she finished speaking, the starscape out the window blurred. If she hadn't been looking out, she couldn't have known. She felt no acceleration, no movement, no vibration. Nothing. It felt like they were perfectly still.
But the plot was working off the starscape and it suggested that they were rapidly accelerating. Rapidly, as in approaching 1C, or the speed of light, in a vessel not rated anywhere close to that.
Silver had done exactly as promised.
Nimitz seemed inordinately pleased.
The plot was overcome from the speed. It was no longer tracking their position.
"Let's slow and stop, Silver. We'll replot and see if the nav system can tell us where we are," Honor said.
She had something similar to a smile on her face. It wasn't pleasure she felt, though, rather a measure of hope delivered, which was even better.
Honor now felt that they could leave the planet, assuming they were able to figure out how to get home.
The console in front of her chimed as the star scape resolved clearly once more. They were stopped.
Honor looked down. "The astrogation has a record of where we are now. It knows how to get us back to the planet of rocks and algae."
"We still don't know how to get home?" Willem asked.
Honor shook her head. "We know it's possible now. We may need to do a few more of these trips, even longer ones, to let the astrogation system figure out where we are and where home is."
Nimitz couldn't have been any more content than if Honor found a field of celery growing for him to eat.
Day one thousand seventy. Finding out where home was had taken well more than a year. Negotiating and preparing for the return voyage home had taken all the rest of the time.
The survivors apart from Willem, Nimitz, and Honor were nervous and fearful. Alien tech. FTL travel using unknown means. A distance of 50,000 light years (!) they needed to travel.
The survivors were miserable here, but safe and complacent. They didn't go outside, they didn't fear the radiation storm, which was now on a massive upswing. All the surface water was gone. The algae was a series of brown stains encircling most of the planet. The cutter's sensors had detected a few hundred huge burrow system filled with the rabbit-things. That was all that had survived, as best as they could tell.
A leak in two of their water tanks had begun to swing fearful minds.
There was still sub-surface water and water vapor in the atmosphere, but extracting water from those methods was tricky and required building things that might or might not work.
Honor could have just left them – but she had long since vowed she would save them all.
The biggest sticking block once everyone decided to go with Honor was finding more ash for bigger carbon-pillars, the plasma batteries Silver relied upon. Honor also did test flights to ease worries – and to figure out exactly how fast they might be able to travel.
Every test had found Honor looking for more ash. A three year trip was impossible. A three-month trip would be uncomfortable. She had almost pulled the trigger on a six-day trip. But another carbon-pillar had shaved the travel down to about one day.
More pillars allowed for a thicker Bubble which allowed Silver to move them faster. In theory, if they had the space, Honor could have taken out more seats and shaved the time down to a few hours. But one day was an acceptable compromise.
The day they left, the pale and thin survivors squeezed into the cutter with a little food and not much water. Most of the space was taken up by carbon pillars thrumming with plasma which would help protect them during their shockingly fast return journey.
Honor did realize that their journey to this planet, with much whirling and tumbling, had been even faster. She still hadn't worked out how it had happened.
Honor took them into orbit and let the plasma Bubble absorb some additional radiation from the three stars, as in the Old Earth phrase 'topping off the tanks.' Silver could translate any energy (or matter) into plasma, but this was the safest way to prepare for the journey.
Honor wondered if that damaged third star had once played fuel source to the ship Silver had once been part of. She didn't ask. Silver wouldn't be able to remember as it had no memory stores from its early history. It only knew about itself and its capabilities – and how to expand them a little. It didn't know history or culture or any of the other big questions Honor would have liked to ask.
Nimitz gave the prearranged signal that indicated that Silver was fully fueled, as it were.
"Silver, let's head for home."
With that, the grid of stars in front of Honor seemed to blur, then turn into stripes, then vanish altogether.
She knew to turn off much of the functionality of the cutter because otherwise its astrogation systems would shriek in pain and turn themselves off.
Behind her, the other survivors were looking around, sensing nothing. They had participated in practice runs, but they hadn't expected the long trip home to actually feel like nothing.
They knew that they were progressing, but they had no sense of it.
It was far smoother than any trip Honor had ever undertaken in a hyperspace-capable craft. Everyone was nervous, of course, going as fast as they were in something as flimsy as a cutter, even if it was shielded and propelled by technology that none of them understood at all.
"We'll be back tomorrow, then?" Caleb Offitt called forward.
"Seems so," Honor called back to him and the others.
"How's this going to go for us?" Caleb asked.
Honor shrugged. Even after all the work she and Willem and others had put into this plan, some of them hadn't believed it was going to work until long after they'd gotten underway.
Honor had considered what might happen. She had no firm conclusions. She didn't even know how many T-days they'd been gone. It was unlikely their planet and the standard day would mesh up perfectly.
"I don't know." They'd probably all been declared missing or presumed dead.
"It'll be okay, won't it?"
Honor couldn't promise that. She wanted to, but she couldn't. It all depended. "We're alive," Honor said.
They received an answer to the question soon enough. After they arrived in Manticoran space, Honor retracted the plasma Bubble back into its storage blocks. They used the cutter to close with Manticore before they just waited for a response. They had no comms, but they were obviously in a Manticoran cutter.
They watched all hell break loose in short order. Someone must have scanned the hull number off the cutter and realized it belonged to the lost Trenchant. A tractor beam pulled them inside a battlecruiser before the interrogations started. All of them were separated from each other, even Honor from Nimitz.
There were no parades. There were no parties. There were no smiles or congratulations or friendly interviews with tame newsies.
No one in the wider world knew that Honor and the others had returned, no one save a few higher ups in the Navy, a few government officials, and some ratings and officers on a battlecruiser that found itself rapidly redeployed to Basilisk Station for a year.
There were, however, questions. First shocked, then confused, then skeptical, and finally brutal as the days passed. These were asked in quiet rooms in Landing on Manticore. When Honor wasn't answering questions, she was tucked into a small, but comfortable room with a single bed. She hadn't seen Nimitz in some time. She should have figured out that this would happen.
This craziness. This butt puckering craziness.
She supposed someone had smelled the possibility of scandal from the presumed dead returning safely – and had gone berserk. The kind of people who Honor had met with were experts in little but sniffing out scandals that might harm them – and defusing them or redirecting them.
The crisis-handlers' brigade continued and continued. And worsened. Captains who specialized in cutting orders gave way to admirals who would never be trusted to command a fleet then civilians who bore no ranks and offered no names.
That afternoon, the truly awful questions started, questions that implied the survivors might have deserted – or mutinied. There were questions of murder and dereliction of duty.
Their ship had encountered an accident, but these people who had barely ever made it into the space had spun the circumstances into various charges they might level.
Honor expected worse the next day. However, the rude men with their unthinkable questions did not reappear. She spoke to captains and admirals again.
Honor was told a single thing as she left that day's questioning. The next morning she would face a court martial. 'It was required and standard.'
The outcome, however, she dared not to think of.
The next morning Honor woke and dressed with some care. It was the first time she had put on her dress uniform in a thousand days. She knew as the only officer she would have to stand for the loss of the HMS Trenchant. As Commander Givens was dead, the responsibility for the loss fell to her.
Honor was escorted from the building where she'd resided for the last few weeks. Her guards dropped her into a meeting room which contained, to her surprise, all of the other survivors except for Nimitz.
Where was her Treecat?
She hadn't have long to wonder. Three captains Honor had never met entered the room and the court martial began...for all of them. Ratings and an officer in the same court for the same charges. Honor might be a number of years out of the Academy, but that was against any of the rules she had learned then.
Everything about the proceeding was against the rules, it seemed.
The captain in the middle read out the charges, which were horrible to hear. The only minor courtesy was that none of the charges were for murder or mutiny or anything of that sort.
Otherwise it was the shortest and strangest proceeding Honor had ever heard of, let alone been party to.
The captains read out several statements, called no witnesses, and delivered their verdict within twenty-five T-minutes. The statements concerned the ship, its course, its orders, then the search ordered for the ship that was presumed lost. Honor hadn't heard about that part before.
So they had searched, just not far enough away. Fifty thousand life years was too far for anyone to search.
Basically, they had lost the ship, that was all the court established. They didn't care about the circumstances or the aftermath, namely what they discovered and how they got back. They didn't ask about or look at Silver though Honor had had Silver with her every moment. In every interrogation, even now in the court martial. No one stopped her. It was like they had chosen to pretend it didn't exist.
Honor didn't speak at all nor did any of the other survivors.
Three T-weeks after the presumed-dead returned from their thousand-plus days stranded on an unidentified planet, the captain in the center read out their fates. Honor lost the promotion to Commander she'd received as she sat on that unknown planet. She was released from the Navy as a Lt. Commander, though the five T-years' of back pay was forfeited. She would have no pension rights or half-pay or any other possible relationship with the Royal Navy. The ratings were similarly dismissed, deprived of their pensions, and deprived of their back pay.
It was clear that the court martial hadn't believed anything they were told by Honor's debriefers. Or that they had just received an order from some Admiral or other and hadn't even read the interrogations or anything else.
Honor wondered what scandal they were trying to hide from.
Everything about this court martial was non-standard. When had one gone so quickly, asking no questions? Someone who mattered here on Manticore felt threatened by the survivors of the Trenchant. They had become inconvenient.
"Dismissed." The three captains stood and left the room.
Honor shook her head and made for the door she entered through not much earlier.
As Honor left the room with her stunned fellow survivors, she tried to guess where the political pressure had come from and why? Commander Givens hadn't been connected to the nobility as far as Honor knew, so this wasn't a revenge thing for his death. What else could it be? Was there a known problem with the ship that the builders didn't want known? Was there a problem with the search party?
Raoul Courvosier was waiting outside the court room. "Are you breaking already?"
He looked at Honor a moment. "Oh, no, Honor, what did those fools do?" the Rear Admiral asked.
He was one of her teachers from the Academy and knew how hard she'd worked to get where she was. Her career, until that odd five T-year interruption, had been exemplary.
"I'm alive and free," Honor said.
Raoul applied a warm look he probably wasn't actually feeling then. "Yes, I see. I'm glad you're back, alive, and free, Honor. What a thing you've survived."
"They didn't even ask us any questions. They just wanted us gone," Honor said. A little bitterness snuck into her voice.
Even after they'd thrown her away, she still harbored some affection for her one-time employer. She didn't like being forced out, but there was nothing she could do.
Raoul took her hand. "I heard the rumor a week ago that you were back. I've done nothing other than look into the matter and try to see you since. Blocked at every turn. I guess the Powers-That-Be don't care what a Rear Admiral wants." He shook his head.
"Honor, let me get you out of this building. Maybe lunch? You still look like a gaunt sapling, not the strong woman I know. Did they feed you in between all the questions these last few weeks?"
Honor didn't think she could handle being in public just now. "Lunch sounds...nice. Perhaps tomorrow? I have my parents to get in touch with and a bunch of confused former-ratings I feel responsible for..."
She pointed to the stunned people milling around outside the meeting room. Even Caleb, who'd fought her harder than any of them for a thousand days, looked broken and lost. He'd once said he wasn't a part of the Navy. His little bit of prophecy had turned out true, to all their surprise.
Raoul nodded. "That's what a good officer would do, Honor."
"I'm not, not anymore." Honor looked at her fellow survivors. She realized that some of them she wanted to help, like Willem Staddler, although he could probably take care of himself fairly well.
Others she owed some help even though they'd obstructed her as much as they could along their path to returning. It was a duty she could perform, maybe her last for the good of the Navy.
"You are a good officer, even without the formal rank. You're still a fine officer, Honor."
Honor said nothing. Her mind was already on how to help them. She could grieve for her own loss later. Although she needed to find Nimitz before she left this distasteful building.
What could she do for these others? They were all in a similar, unexpected situation: cut free from the Navy after years of faithful service. She had to find those that needed it housing, maybe employment. She'd need those things herself. Then she had to put together a plan to help all of them, at least the ones who would accept her help.
The farce they had just been through in that room might bind them together more tightly than years of being stranded, she thought.
What to do?
Raoul handed over a chip. "Do you have someplace to stay?"
No. "I'll get a room somewhere."
She could tell Raoul wanted to offer her a room.
"I'll need rooms for all of us."
Raoul nodded then. He would let her do her self-imposed duty. "Call me tonight. We'll set something up. I think we have a lot to discuss."
"Thank you, Admiral."
He grunted and walked away. She watched him walk past the captains on the panel who were now also in the hall. If looks could kill...
What could she do with this 'freedom?' She wasn't wealthy in any sense. Her father had been a doctor for the Navy before he retired back to Sphinx. It had probably been his connection to the service more than her qualities which had allowed her into the Academy at all. She had but a speck of prize money from her earlier voyages. It was captains and admirals who became wealthy off their war exploits, not lieutenants and commanders.
She knew she wanted to continue flying. Maybe she could go into the merchant marine, piloting a ship or something. Or she could return with Nimitz to Sphinx.
Nimitz. Stinker. She wondered if she'd need to go and beg for her treecat's return.
Humiliation on top of pettiness on top of short-sightedness... Which did sum up the Navy as she had known it, come to think.
She walked toward where some Marines stood, readying herself to ask, then plead, then beg. Tears might be necessary.
Instead, a door opened and Nimitz bleeked and Honor turned a bit to her right. Four Marines brought out a sturdy cage then opened it. Nimitz took his time climbing out, as if they were servants who'd carried him here rather than captors.
Honor beckoned her Treecat and smiled at what might be her best friend. She put Nimitz on her shoulder, picked up Silver, and walked out of the corridor.
She turned to look at the lost and confused. "Are you coming or what?"
The other survivors got it into their heads to follow her.
Now she got think of the first call she had to make. Had the Navy even informed her parents she was still alive? Probably not, the craven, secret-obsessed fools.
Honor and Nimitz were up early the next morning, having not slept in rented rooms. Raoul had never been one to let moss grow. When Honor had called him the prior afternoon to set up their lunch, she'd been told to leave whatever rooms they'd found. Raoul had set up something better.
Honor, Nimitz, and the other survivors had arrived last night at an estate just outside Landing owned by a retired admiral. Admiral Bestwood had taken it upon himself to help a wide variety of former Navy and Marine personnel who were in troubled situations. He didn't take their dismissal from the service as anything other than political bunk.
Hiram Bestwood insisted everyone call him Hiram when he came to breakfast. Everyone still called him sir or Admiral, of course. Old habits and all.
Honor didn't want to tie up the retired admiral's home longer than necessary. She needed to get something together quickly. She knew she would have to go to Sphinx before she did much else. Her parents basically demanded it. But she didn't know what to do with the others while she was gone.
So, while they eating, Honor explained her immediate next step and suggested it made sense to stick together for now until they were all readjusted and in safe situations. Did they want to go to Sphinx? Some debated the question, some mulled it over in silence.
Honor returned to her room. Willem stopped by to ask some questions. Then Olivia.
Honor lost sense of the time, but Admiral Bestwood pulled Honor from the conversation and sent her on her way in his air-car.
At twelve thirty, Honor and Nimitz arrived at what turned out not to be a restaurant. Rather it was a small home that belonged to Raoul. Honor had never been here before.
"Come in, take a seat," Courvosier said. "Hello Nimitz."
The Treecat extend one true hand to shake Courvosier's. Raoul seemed surprised by followed through on the ritual.
"Thank you for the invitation. And for telling Hiram Bestwood about our case."
Honor not only seemed distracted, she was. Her mind was weighted with hundreds of things, big and small. She wasn't even allowed to feel happy at being back on Manticore, which might be the most horrible thing that the Navy had done to her. Well, maybe not the most horrible, but it would be among the top items on a long, long list.
The Admiral had celery ready for Nimitz who acted like he hadn't had any for years, which was pretty close to the truth. His secret stashes on the Trenchant had been exhausted within the first weeks of their stranding.
"I'm so glad you're back, Honor. I'm also deeply ashamed for how the Navy, or its upper echelon, decided to treat you and the others."
Honor supposed she had to put up with all of this, now and later on Sphinx. She just hoped all of this attention would end, eventually.
"You're heroes, each of you, making it through five hard T-years, then we pepper you with three weeks of questions. The court martial was disgusting."
"Now you've seen the wretched part of our service. The short-sightedness, the politics..."
"It sounds like you've been busy asking questions," Honor said. She would rather hear the results of his investigation than more examples of his pity.
"I checked into those captains. Taught one of them, never expected him to make captain, of course, no mind for tactics," Courvosier said. "I was trying to figure out who all three of them owed favors to. I'm still looking on that front. Who called in what favor, determining that can take time. Had to be one or more of the Space Lords, but I'd prefer to know which one and why. I hope it wasn't just to avoid some general fear of a question in Parliament that might lead to an hour of hard prodding... Though it might. Pettiness, morass, the evil of people exchanging favors rather than admitting something had gone wrong, all that rottenness. We see the vileness of Parliament then decide it makes good sense to import it into our Navy. The Queen damn them, if she could."
Honor thought back to those few minutes. Nimitz climbed into Honor's lap and then onto her shoulder.
The only smart thing they had done was to separate her from Nimitz. Her 'cat would probably have had all three Captains on the panel for a snack. He was smarter than she was when it came to evaluating people.
"I'm still looking around and asking for details."
"Don't get in trouble."
"I leave the trouble for others, like you."
Honor summoned up a smile.
"Are you hungry?" Courvosier asked.
"Stinker has finished his celery, but I could eat."
The admiral rang a bell and a servant brought out food. She didn't know he had servants – or that they'd been talking in front of other people.
She calmed a little after she started eating. The food was warm and plentiful. Honor didn't inquire as to what it was, but it was all vegetables, she noted. She hadn't known Raoul was a vegetarian.
"What will you do?" the Admiral asked after he pushed his plate away.
Honor set her fork down and wiped her mouth with a napkin. "After a visit to Sphinx, I was thinking of the merchant marine. Hiring on, not as an officer. There is nothing for me on the surface of Manticore."
The admiral considered what she'd said. "I don't think you'd like the merchant marine."
"They aren't usually kind to former members of the Navy. They'd be less so to a Lt. Commander who had been tossed out, politics or not. Perhaps a totally private cargo ship or something. It'd be a pity if you didn't fly at all."
Honor nodded. Raoul was always better on the politics of any situation than Honor had ever been. If she'd had more connections as a young officer, well, maybe she wouldn't now be a former officer. Too late, but also a lesson she wouldn't forget.
Private cargo shipping.
Ships that weren't part of the merchant marine tended to do the less official cargo hauling. Not necessarily smuggling, but things that were less legal. It was considered barely a step above smuggling or piracy, but...it might work.
She disliked this option, but getting back into space was more important than her discomfort.
"Consider it," Raoul said.
He seemed to pick up on her hesitance. "There are other options. After you come back from Sphinx, perhaps I can introduce you to a few people."
"Thank you, sir. But you're spending a lot of time on me..."
"Time is what I have now, Honor. I submitted my resignation in protest over what happened to you."
She couldn't have heard that right. "No. You can't."
"I can and I did."
"I've spent most of my life attempting to train fine officers and what does that idiot-layer of useless captains do? Follow stupid orders tendered by the Space Lords and cashier the best young officer we have. I will no longer waste my time on people devoid of sense and morals."
Honor mourned both their careers, then.
He explained his own plans, which sounded somewhat similar to what Hiram Bestwood was doing. Courvosier intended to help people who had been hurt by the Navy. He had apparently been thinking about it for some time.
But something he had said earlier began taking root in Honor. She still had Silver. It could move her faster in a little ship than any hypercapable ship could manage. If she found a ship, if she installed Silver in it... What about a high-speed courier service, with ultra-high security and rapid beyond comprehension?
If Silver could work inside a cutter, then it could fit inside a larger vessel. "Maybe you can helped me at a scrapyard," Honor said.
"One of the ones the Navy uses?"
"For a stripped ship?" He seemed doubtful.
"I just had an idea."
Raoul nodded, willing to be convinced of her plan, whatever it might be. "I need something bigger than a dispatch boat. Maybe a LAC or a frigate if I couldn't swing the hull of a destroyer."
He was confused by then. "A fully gutted ship, Honor? What would you do with it? You'd need a generator, impellers, something."
"Can you help me get one? Even though I've been dismissed?" And he was retiring.
He nodded hesitantly, then more definitely. "I'm owed more favors by more people than you've ever met." He grinned. "I try to only use them for good projects, not saving face or protecting scum. I think getting you set up in a new career – that I do not yet understand – qualifies, Honor."
"Why not just buy a fully kitted ship, though?" he asked.
Aside from the cost? Honor thought she could do much better with a clean hull, environmental controls, and Silver to run most everything else. "I have a story for you, Admiral."
"No, not Admiral, not for long. It'll be a few weeks, but soon enough my name will be Raoul with no fancy titles."
Honor nodded and began her story. Perhaps her mentor would believe her. That would add one more to those who'd flown in the cutter, plus Nimitz.
Honor realized she'd been gone from Manticore longer than she expected. Those one thousand-plus days there meant she'd lost five T-years here.
Her parents had left her accounts intact and they had continued to accrue a little interest, not much. But she had more money to buy an empty hulk from a wrecker's yard than she'd expected.
Walking through the shipyard was like walking through a garden of failed love affairs, Honor thought with some discomfort. All of these ships had once been some commander's love, plus total shelter to hundreds of ratings, and now...now they were stuffed here awaiting more complete disassembly.
Raoul had arranged for Honor to have the run of the place. Retired Admiral Bestwood had come with her, to offer his opinion.
Honor found a packet, which was much smaller than she'd first wanted but seemed more in line with her budget. "How much?" she asked the rather spiffed attendant.
The man quoted a figure. An insane figure.
"I don't think this will do," Bestwood said.
"Why?" Honor asked.
"It's not big enough for cargo runs."
Honor shrugged. For the kind of courier work she had in mind, it would be acceptable. If Bestwood thought she was trying to do commodity runs, well, maybe that's why he was confused. She was not about to explain all of this in front of the sales representative, though.
"Raoul knows people. He trusts you. So, I'll trust you. Let me help you find something better. I can also supply some of the financing. Well, me and Raoul and a few others."
Backers? She hadn't even thought about backers... Now this couldn't be a failure, could it? Not if there were people she might just disappoint.
In the end, she settled on the fine hull of a former frigate. She'd have to convert many of the living quarters into more storage bays. But, yes, it would work. She also purchased five cutters for handling the ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore portions of the work. Having a retired admiral with her had smoothed many possible problems.
Later, she probed for details on the deal. Honor would give up a percentage of her business to them along with her promise to provide jobs for others that Courvosier and Bestwood sent her way.
The barebones frigate with Silver installed got her to and from Sphinx in record time. The other survivors were staying on with Bestwood for a while longer. Some of them would join up with the courier ship when Honor returned.
The ship was vast for just one human and one treecat and less than comfortable. But once Honor had some success in her work, she could embellish the inside and give herself a bed more comfortable than a hammock.
"What about weapons, I wonder? Can the shield withstand a missile? Should we have something to fire back?" Honor knew that she would eventually run into unfriendlies if she was known as a courier. Going around in such an unarmed vessel went against her naval training, of course.
Nimitz bleeked. Honor hadn't asked him a question so they could play twenty questions.
Instead, one of his truehands pointed at Silver.
Honor went over to Silver and looked at it. There was now dark writing on its otherwise silver surface. "The shield, propulsion, and weapons are integrated."
How had it learned to communicate in words? It hadn't been able to before...
Honor wondered if this was a trick. Could Silver actually respond to questions now? "When the shield is up, the weapons are available?" Honor asked.
The writing on Silver blinked to nothing. A flicker later was the response: "Yes."
This was strange, but no trick.
"You couldn't write to me before. How have you managed this now?" Honor asked.
"You did not have reference words available before in a written form. I have been scanning everything available to me since we arrived on your planet of Manticore."
True, they'd been short of everything when they were stranded. Silver had arrived on Manticore and taken it as an opportunity to learn.
Six weeks after returning from Sphinx, Honor's ship Grayling was more comfortable and had more carbon pillars set up in out of the way spaces. She also had a contract with the Hauptman Cartel arranged by Retired Admiral Courvosier, They were giving her business a test run, from Manticore to Erewhon of all places, double quick.
She had a crew of twelve, which included herself, Willem, Caleb of all people, and several scientist-types found by the Courvosier-Bestwood group. The scientists were there to begin uncovering Silver's secrets as best they could – or, at least, understand what their instruments could and couldn't reveal.
The former naval ratings were there to make this appear to be a normal ship. Honor was there to keep order and make a good impression on the small Hauptman delegation, one middle manager and his three guards.
A guard came to what Honor had designated as the command deck. "Mr. Geller would like to know when we are leaving port."
"We departed seventeen minutes ago," Honor asked.
"I don't feel any motion." The guard wasn't good at masking his curiosity.
"That is correct," Honor said.
Honor enjoyed his confusion for a second. "Tell Mr. Geller we'll arrive above Maytag in forty-nine minutes."
"What? How is this possible?" the guard was well beyond curious now.
"Mr. Geller signed on for a high-speed courier run. This is high-speed."
"That would be faster than anything anyone has ever delivered before."
"Correct," Honor said.
And Honor hadn't even put the Grayling into its highest velocity. Silver was explaining the process of creating the next-generation plasma storage medium. No longer made of ash for its carbon or (as was on Grayling now) of purer carbon, Silver wanted pillars engineered from a specific crystal of carbon, silicon, tin, and lead.
Honor slowed and put the Grayling into orbit. She accompanied Mr. Geller to Maytag. She had never been anywhere on the planet before, though she thought at least one of her duty legs had brought her close to this strange planet.
Geller's own people weren't ready for him. After all, Mr. Geller had arrived at least a week earlier than expected. Honor watched the local office of the Hauptman Cartel scramble.
Honor arrived back on the Grayling fourteen hours later with three signed contracts in hand from different Erewhonese businesses. Her test run had impressed a number of people. The Hauptman Cartel would tender a far longer contract when Mr. Geller and his cargo returned to Manticore.
Honor made it a point not to comment on how they could achieve the speeds they did. Some wondered about a new wormhole, not widely known. Others wondered about other possible methods. None were even close.
Several months later, when Honor was next on Manticore awaiting the start of a delivery run, she had a message. Her old friend Mike Henke, who was a Commander now, had made it back from a duty rotation. She was on Manticore and wanted to chat.
Honor and Michelle had been roommates at the Academy even though Honor came from humble stock and Mike was nobility related closely to Manticore's Royal House of Winton.
Honor commed over and Mike picked the restaurant.
Honor turned up to find Mike was wearing civvies, sitting at a table. Honor almost felt she was having a day of leave back at the academy, finding some place she could afford and leaving the stress elsewhere. They were older now and in vastly changed circumstances...
The waiter set down menus and vanished.
"I can't believe they did this," Mike said. "To you, to all of us. You spent so many years trying to get back, then...this. I yelled at my mother for not stopping it. I yelled at my cousin, too."
Mike's cousin was the Queen, not that Honor had ever met the woman.
"You in any trouble over that?" Honor asked. "Yelling at the queen..."
"They promoted me. That's how I made Commander early."
"Not that early," Honor said. She had been out-of-the-loop for some time, but she still remembered how the cogs worked.
"I just can't believe it."
Honor shrugged and smiled at Mike. She had been in a state of disbelief some months earlier, too. Now, Honor didn't mourn what had happened. She had a business up and going. She had contacts with former Navy admirals who were helping. Best of all, she had people she was responsible for. Bestwood and Courvosier and several others of similar temperaments kept funneling people to her. Two more of her fellow survivors had signed on when they couldn't get back into space any other way.
"I could raise hell over this."
"Don't. It's done," Honor said. "Don't wreck your career." Don't make enemies you don't need, Honor didn't say.
"You're a Commander now, but you're not just a Commander," Honor said. Some of the noble houses of Manticore insisted on serving in the Navy. Mike's was one of them, but that fashion seemed to be waning.
"Exactly. My mother and my cousin can apply ungodly amounts of pressure, if I pushed them to..."
Honor shook her head. Between giving the waiter her order and starting to snack on the puppy breads the waiter brought out, she explained what she was doing now. She explained the kind of peace she'd found. There were still political considerations in what she did, like having to decline some of the courier runs that the Hauptman Cartel offered, but they were different. If she didn't like what a prospective client was asking, she could refuse the contract. That was hard to do with an idiot superior in the Navy.
Honor took the time to reflect. All that doubt, and stress, getting the Grayling going...but it had worked so far. She was busy and felt needed and, well, found herself happy now. Nimitz enjoyed all of this, too, even if he hadn't come to the restaurant. He had little interest in things Manticoran these days and had remained on the Grayling. He was actually learning to type, as in write with his true-hands. Honor would love to really be able to converse with Nimitz, but it wouldn't be fast.
"So, Mike, don't start horse trading favors over me."
"I have people who depend on the jobs I'm providing. The clients could find other couriers," Honor said, omitting the detail of the speed that Silver was able to provide. "But the people working for me are mostly others who got flung out of the Navy for some reason or other."
"I suppose you wouldn't want to come back if you could," Mike said.
"Correct," Honor said.
"Under the system in place? No."
Mike scowled and tore a piece of bread into slivers.
"You want a quest?" Honor asked.
"Sure." Mike wasn't eating the bread she'd torn up.
"Point your mother and your cousin at the mess that pushed me out in the first place. Our old tactics intructor..."
"Right. He discovered why all of this happened."
"I assume I'm cleared to know?"
Honor nodded. "I don't remember the name of the individual, but he'd just made rear admiral."
"Not qualified?" Mike asked.
A good assumption considering how things had turned out. Honor shrugged. "The Space Lords had decided to repay some favors by not skipping over him for a better prospect off the captain's list."
"When there was some wreckage of the Trenchant found at the wormhole junction and in hyperspace, he was given a small task force and told to search for the wreckage and any survivors."
Mike began shaking her head.
"He claimed we were all dead after six T-weeks, which was barely enough time to get his disparate ships together in one place. But he rolled the odds, I suppose. Who survives a hyperspace incident?"
Mike shook her head.
"It got marked down as his first task force command so he got tapped for another, then another. Then a few T-years later we reappear."
Mike looked like she was ready to strike something. She knew how this story ended, like many others in the Navy. "Finish it."
"He'd become more settled as an admiral and had his own black book of secrets and a service record that made him seem quite competent, at least if one believed the archive."
"You don't remember who it was?" Mike was trying to piece together who this person was.
Honor shook her head. It hadn't mattered to her when she'd heard.
"But why do all that they did? The rigged court martial? Did Captain Courvosier learn why?"
"Courvosier retired as a Rear Admiral, because of all this, actually."
"I didn't know."
Honor thought about how to answer Mike's question of why. "My best guess?"
"The Space Lords had to save their man to save themselves. They'd entrusted him to find us. That made them liable for us. That called into question their competence – or something – Raoul explained it better. End result: clean up the problem by banishing the survivors of a space disaster."
Honor realized she shouldn't have explained what Raoul had told her. Mike looked even more furious after hearing Honor say what she had to have expected.
"So, I've no interest in going back."
"They should be fired, all of them, thrown away as rubbish."
Honor didn't disagree, but she knew from her conversations with Raoul that this wasn't near enough. "I suspect that the Space Lords, some of them, were good people at one point."
Probably not. "But the system they joined was broken – thus it broke them, too."
"Anyone new, with clean ideas, either gets ejected for not fitting in or broken to fit the system."
Honor paused when the waiter brought their meals. "Thank you."
"Thanks," a distracted Mike chipped in.
Honor took a forkful. The food would do, but it was no wonder.
Mike began to eat so Honor decided to really explain herself.
"You want a good Navy? It has to be a good system with good people. You let some rot in with this appointment or that one, it'll begin to break. Then it's not good, not clean anymore. So the problem isn't as small as a few space lords and a lying admiral they chose to protect. It's not enough to get rid of them. It's that culture of secrets and favors, it just encourages and promotes the best muck spreaders. You figure out how to break that back to a clean foundation...and I'd sign up for the Navy again."
"But...," Mike said.
"Yeah, not easy."
Honor took another bite. She'd gotten spoiled on the Grayling because more than one of the people on board could cook. Some days it was Old Indian, other days it was a specialty from Gryphon.
"No, not easy at all," Mike said.
"Even if you started over, the navy's so huge, the whole sticky mess would just reform again from a few bad appointments."
"I suppose so."
"Unless the people you appointed really cared to do their jobs rather than stockpile favors... No mistakes in your appointments. It's impossible, I guess, at that size." And with the system of nobility controlling the Navy's budget.
"Right," Mike said.
"So, as I'm doing my thing, I think a lot about who I trust. If someone's rotten, I boot them. I've had to. It's horrible, but less horrible than having everything go wrong from just one...stinker."
"I don't know what I can do..."
"It's easy to diagnose. Fixing it...that's something else. I say stay out of it. There's a giant mess – and it'll slime you, too, given a chance. The Navy is full of the wrong people and the wrong values."
Honor put down her fork. "There is one solution: starting over. There are no other permanent fixes. Just starting over every so often when it gets gummed up. Flushing the good and the bad and starting from zero."
Mike nodded, but Honor doubted this was the end of Mike's fury.
Unless someone was willing to really start over, and blow up centuries of faithless bargains, fiefdoms, and inefficiency, the Navy was what the Navy was. Ungovernable.
"How's your lamb?" Honor asked.
"Delicious." Mike barely picked at it, though. She seemed not to be hungry any longer.
All of the people involved in operating the Grayling or handling their clients were gathering at Craggy Hollow, Honor's family home on Sphinx, for the first year review.
Honor's mother, Allison, opened the door to the greenhouse to let Honor in. Honor paused and gave her mother a hug. It had been a long year, productive but exhausting.
"Do you want to stay?" Honor asked. She had asked both her parents last night when she arrived and stayed over. They had demurred then.
"Not this time. It's your people. But I'll hope you'll come for dinner tonight?"
Honor had expected her mother's invitation. "We're dining together tonight. How about tomorrow?"
With that Honor and Nimitz were alone, waiting for the others who had stayed the prior night in Twin Forks or Duvalier City. She walked around the greenhouse looking for how it had changed over the years. It was a beautiful setting for the upcoming conversation.
Within fifteen minutes the greenhouse began to fill. Many of the attendees were struggling with the higher gravity on Sphinx. Honor didn't mention how ragged some of her friends and employees looked. Raoul Courvosier looked as spry as he normally did, but mentioned he was feeling the pressure. Retired Admiral Bestwood had opted not to attend.
Honor waited until everyone was present, got them glasses of water, and let the chit chat die down.
"Nimitz and I thank you for hiking out to Sphinx."
"You picked all of us up," Caleb Offitt said. "We had a choice?"
He had been so obstructive while they'd been stranded, but he knew his job. His personality left something to be desired, but Honor wasn't going to turn him away. He was getting better, slowly.
"You did have a choice." Honor smiled. "Still, thanks for coming. This will be an annual thing, I hope, though we don't always have to visit my family's home. I hope that this will be a useful tradition. There is only one rule. Be polite, but speak your mind fully. We've had a huge first year and it would be easy to assume we were doing everything right. No. I disagree. I know we can do quite a few things better. So today and tomorrow, let's find our flaws, work out exactly what went wrong, and work out how we're going to adjust. Since I'm on the Grayling all the time, I asked Willem to organize the topics and chair the meeting. If you ever want me to step out so you can criticize my decisions, I'm happy to leave. Just glare at me and nod toward the door – or ask."
A few people laughed. However, Honor meant it.
"Willem, your turn."
Honor was trying to be scrupulously fair because their first year wasn't all successes. They'd actually encountered quite a few problems, some of which had been covered over for now, though many others were still outstanding. So she'd Willem to help make this gathering useful. He headed up their engineering and science team that investigated Silver so he was mostly uninvolved in operations. So he'd been around since the beginning and had no particular dog in any fight. Hopefully.
"Everyone finally responded to the poll. I only had to nag a few of you five times." He wasn't joking. "Let's start with the most urgent issue: the rash of spying and piracy attempts in the last few months."
He had everyone's interest now.
The courier service had really made waves and now a lot of groups were paying attention: Manticoran authorities, cartel spies, pure pirates, and interests they hadn't been able to identify yet.
The people in the room laid out what they'd observed, what they'd foiled, and what information might have actually gotten out. More than half the people in the greenhouse had seen something or stopped something.
"Well, it sounds like you can't let anyone close to Silver," Raoul Courvosier said.
That was the dilemma, wasn't it. The Grayling was fast because of Silver, but people were trying to take Grayling because of Silver, too. No Silver, no ultra-fast courier.
"If we can't have people or any technology that might be spy tech on the Grayling, we're limiting ourselves to...what...exotic foods? Messages written on paper? Sample weights of new alloys?" Caleb asked.
"No, we leave Silver on the Grayling and put cargo on other ships, like a convoy," Manda Burgos said. She was a former Ensign who'd quarreled with her superiors in the Manticoran Navy and been forced out. Bestwood had funneled her into Honor's organization.
Honor nodded, finally getting involved in more than observing and listening. "I've never asked Silver if such a thing is possible. But it seems like it should be. If the bubble can encompass one ship, why shouldn't it encompass two or three. We've got the better carbon pillars now, with the silicon, tin, and lead. So, if Silver can tell us how to do it, we can start traveling in convoy – and keeping clients off the Grayling."
"Say it's for their comfort. Our treasury will allow us to purchase ships that have larger quarters and better cargo bays," Raoul offered, approvingly.
"We've got to pamper our clients," Honor said, smiling. "This won't stop the spying attempts, I know, but it should make them less dangerous for us."
"It'll save us having to sweep for spy tech after we deposit people at their destination," Willem said. He was the one who wound up organizing a fair bit of that work. Scientist, counterintelligence agent, same thing, right? No.
Honor said she would investigate that evening after they paused for the night. It wouldn't take much to return to the Grayling.
The meeting walked through topics on the list and ones that arose from the conversation. They paused frequently for drinks and lessening tension. It may have seemed like a vacation when Honor announced it, but everyone now realized that it was genuine effort.
The evening's last topic, before they adjourned for a dinner in Duvalier City, was the science program they had going. Not many had listed it among their concerns, but Willem controlled the agenda and Honor had wanted everyone to at least understand what they were trying to do, which was understand Silver and how it worked. Admirals Bestwood and Courvosier tried to find and funnel qualified people to help them. But the team wasn't large yet and the progress was stalled.
Honor wanted everyone to be on the lookout for items that could be of help. The tools they had available so far were far from adequate. Silver represented technology many, many generations above what they had available.
The metals involved were distributed through a complex crystalline matrix. Their best analysis suggested that it wasn't likely a random pattern. The individual isotypes – and some odd ones, too, including seven different isotypes of silver and six of gold – were laid down atom by atom. They couldn't hazard a guess as to why.
If they were going to use Silver, they needed to understand Silver. The people in the room began to better understand their science program – but then they went to dinner and some of them might have drunk that briefing away.
Oh well. A little progress was still progress.
When the next afternoon rolled around, Willem came to an item only one person had raised – Honor.
She worried about the organization's name. They'd been operating mostly without one. Or by being referred to as Harrington Courier. She was the one to raise the need for a better name.
They spent a chunk of the afternoon trying to select one. It hadn't been easy. Honor dipped into her usual reservoir for names and suggested St. Vincent Transport and Farragut Courier.
She was out voted.
The final name selected by the group was Star Runners.
Honor hated it, but went along with it. That's what she got for putting the question to the group. She could have just picked a name. Oh, well.
Nimitz seemed to be laughing at her. Silly cat.
The meeting adjourned shortly after and Honor set about putting the greenhouse back in order. Everyone got one more night on Sphinx, mostly so Honor could spend a bit more time with her parents. The next day Honor would return the planet agents to where they worked – and the Grayling would proceed to its next job.
Honor relaxed a bit after finishing the sixth of nine runs on an Erewhonese contract. She had been busy coordinating the convoy as this was the first time they'd balanced twenty-two vessels inside the Bubble. Silver assured Honor that the Bubble could become larger, but the plasma sinks needed to be reconfigured with better materials before that could happen.
If only her team had the tools to build what Silver wanted...
She looked at her desk and her datapad. She hadn't been keeping up with her messages, it seemed. She had thirty minutes before the morning's staff meeting, which they'd bumped to a bit later to facilitate offloading the cargo in this convoy. The seventh run on this contract was the major topic. They'd also need to reprovision and do some other things while they were in proximity to Erewhon.
This was their longest, hardest contract so far. She found it was good for training her people. It also gave her engineering and science team plenty of time with Silver.
They'd made some progress, finally. They weren't trying to reproduce Silver, not yet, not for decades or centuries. They were just trying to close the technological gap between present state-of-the-art and whatever Silver was.
They wanted to use Silver to train themselves to eventually understand the physics and chemistry and engineering to work on something like Silver. Deconstructing a thing and learning from it was easier than walking around, blindfolded, in the dark – but it wasn't easy by any means. Easier but not easy.
She zipped through messages from her planet agents, the ones who accepted contracts and got the work on the schedule, all asking about exceptions. People wanted to travel on Grayling. No. There was one of these questions that touched on something Honor hadn't yet encountered. She'd need to talk that one over with some others.
Honor realized she needed to find someone else to be the chief scheduler.
The next message was...well, it was her father, covered in soot and in pain. Honor sat up straight and listened to every word, stutter, and cry.
Craggy Hollow, on Sphinx, had been firebombed.
Someone had wanted to attack Honor, not in person, but in spirit. So they'd destroyed the place where she had grown up – and where her team had had their year-end review.
She corralled her fury.
She walked to the command deck and said, "Change of plans. Let our contacts know we have an emergency and will pick things up in a week. We're still ahead of the contract requirements."
"Where are we going instead?" Kenton Smith asked. He was another of those assisted by Bestwood and grateful to be back in space.
Seventy minutes later, Honor sifted through the burned site herself trying to find anything to salvage. The house, the garage, the greenhouse...the trees...all gone. Someone had been very thorough.
The Harrington's had lived on this land for centuries, but this was something that couldn't go unanswered...
No, she couldn't let herself descend into anger and revenge.
There was something more important.
Whether it was a competitor of Honor's or some animosity for how she'd departed the Navy, she couldn't let this spill over to her parents – at least more than it already had.
"Well, no one's staying here. It's no longer safe," Honor said, once she was with her parents at the room they'd rented in Duvalier City.
"Here? As in Craggy Hollow?" her father asked.
"Here, as in on Sphinx," Honor said.
"Where will we go? With my family on Beowulf?" Honor's mother asked.
"Perhaps. First, though, you're both off Sphinx."
Honor began putting together a plan. She had, after all, spent several years on an unknown planet. She hadn't been back, but now in this moment of need, she had a strong desire to return for a time.
"You can stay on the Grayling for a while. We'll set up something more permanent off planet after we finish this Erewhonese contract."
Honor's father nodded, accepting for both he and his wife.
Honor's detour to Sphinx lasted three days and they returned to Erewhon well before they'd promised. But those she had contracted with were ready for her. They knew that Star Runners could deliver faster than any service they'd ever used before. They were ready for anything.
Now Honor would have to get that way herself.
The view was just as Honor remembered. She was analyzing the emissions from the stars, though. The planet was well away from that third star so the atmosphere of the planet was probably safe. Honor thought she could see surface water again.
Still, she brought along some equipment in case a solar storm ever started up again.
"This is where you lived for all those years?" Allison Chou Harrington asked.
Honor nodded. "I had our obligations shifted around. We have three solid weeks to get a bolt hole established here."
Honor began descending.
"Is that some sort of green moss?" Allison asked.
From a great height it might look like moss. Honor laughed, though. She'd survived off that algae for several years. "No."
"What is it?"
"It was fuel for our fires and food sometimes, too. Algae. Some was poisonous, some was safe."
Green moss. Honor did smile at that. It was silly...
So for the rest of the day, Honor poked fun at her mother. "Now this moss isn't green or anything, but..." "I know you were looking for green moss, however we have some very nice caverns..."
In time, the name would get mixed around, but stick. Moss Green, they were on the planet of Moss Green.
Honor woke one morning a week after arriving. She and Nimitz had an environmental tent to themselves. They were well away from base at the caverns, hiking. Or searching.
Honor was glad they were here, turning the caves that had protected them once into accommodations and warehouses and fabrication or repair shops. Moss Green was turning into the secret headquarters for Star Runners and the Harrington family.
None of Honor's enemies would be able to touch her, or her family, here.
Honor needed to be back by dusk tomorrow. So she and Nimitz had best get started. She still had half a tank of oxygen and two breathing masks.
She was, in fact, looking for something. She wanted more of the components related to Silver. Hull plating or technology. Anything. If Silver had wound up here, Honor expected other fragments had, too. She'd get the scientists to set up some kind of automated scan, but for now she wanted to do some of the work on foot.
She and Nimitz continued on in their elliptical path, but found nothing of what they were looking for. It was just good to have nothing taxing the mind for a time.
Honor would be back in the thick of it shortly, here and then for clients under contract.
When Honor returned, the small team of engineers and chemists they had looked like they had been drinking for a month. Smiles and even giggles, laughter and dozens of inside jokes.
"What's the story?" Honor asked.
"We have a surprise," Willem Staddler said. "A good one."
Honor dropped off her things, then everyone gathered in the large tent that the scientists had set up in one of the caves.
They had several pieces of equipment and were able to show off interior images of Silver and how it worked. It was all quite complex, way past Honor's knowledge of chemical bonds and related fields. But it had given them dozens of different avenues to explore from just a few observations.
First, Silver was hollow, but careful measurements proved that Silver could add or remove material from its interior. These added components came and went as Silver needed particular capabilities or to store new information. Silver's technology seemed almost endlessly reconfigurable.
Second, Silver was a lot more complex than they'd guessed. It was constructed of metallic alloys and isotopes that didn't occur in nature and many had never been created before in the laboratory. Some of them weren't even considered theoretically possible, though they existed within Silver.
Third, Silver could and did change its own composition, all the way down to precisely which isotopes appeared where and which other isotopes they bonded with and how. The hypothesis they were resting was that Silver stored data in the crystalline structure of its metal and the specific isotopes. It was stronger and more facile than any computer system that contemporary technology could envision.
Fourth, their engineering team would need to completely overhaul the tools they were using to study Silver if they could figure out ways to bridge the gap between what currently existed and what they had learned from Silver.
The scientists talked over each other. Honor felt her head aching. The studies and assays of the technology were clear-cut and baffling. They didn't understand the alloys used – or how Silver was modifying its own isotopes. They had a plan for further study, but without having the tools to accomplish their goals.
The verdict was this: while there was room for future expansion, there seemed to be no wasted space within the technology. There were no segments of shielding or cladding. The metal from edge to edge was structure and computer and energy translator all at the same time. It was all laid together, atom by atom, an elegant design hardened against whatever they could conceive.
Honor wondered, but did not ask, just what kind of catastrophe would have been required to separate this energy translator from the rest of the ship. What had happened so long ago?
As the meeting was ending, Silver revealed it had heard everything said and bridged what it could of their technology and its own. It began providing, screen by screen, the plans for another improved plasma storage system.
That was the part that blew them all away. They were studying Silver – and Silver was studying them right back and trying to enable them to better work with it.
Honor shook her head. She would be a long time processing all of this.
The Star Runners did little work for Manticore after the firebombing at Craggy Hollow. Their contracts expanded and so did the convoy they ran. They published schedules. They became like a real business. They pulled off the impossible day-in and day-out, but they took some of the majesty out by doing it according to a schedule.
Honor relaxed in her quarters. She wasn't the captain of the Grayling on this trip, more like a training officer for some less experienced employees.
A ping roused Honor's attention. She checked her datapad and found that Mike Henke had sent another message.
Honor hesitated to go any further. They were still friends of a sort, even though they were separated by events. However, most of Mike's messages over the last five years came when something horrible happened.
She didn't want more bad news.
One old message from Mike had told Honor of a disaster at Basilisk Station where all kinds of chaos had erupted. A Manticoran Navy vessel had been destroyed, including its captain, Pavel Young, who had been in their class at the Academy and who Honor had a special hatred for. A young sprig of a noble house and burgeoning rapist to boot, now dead.
Another message had discussed the diplomatic disaster happening on a planet Honor didn't conduct business with, Grayson. A Manticoran convoy had been destroyed there and the planet had plunged into civil war, which was blamed mostly on the provocations of a Manticoran diplomat named Houseman. He'd died in the chaos.
The drum beat of news got worse and worse for Mike's Navy. No longer Honor's.
Honor responded to each message, but sympathy was hard to muster for them.
Honor played this newest message which was worse, far worse, than anything Honor had even considered.
"I have no time, but I needed to send something out to my friends," Mike said. "Dreadnoughts are pouring out of the Manticore Wormhole right now and past all the mines and other defenses. The Home Fleet is moving to engage now, but is at a severe numerical disadvantage. I believe we're recalling some of our other fleets, but they've been much reduced due to political deals. This is very grim. Get to safety, if you can. If you're safe, stay safe. Honor, if you get this, I know you can move people very quickly. I'm probably committing treason by including you in this transmission because you no longer have a security clearance, but do what you can to get people to safety. Please. I'll take care of the royal family. That is my duty. See what you can do for everyone else."
It ended there. Mike had never looked so scared.
Honor was numb even as she played the message again.
It had to be real. Mike wouldn't like about an invasion that no one had predicted.
Honor issued some orders to the command deck and strode out of her quarters. She would be taking over in a few minutes, as soon as she reviewed all the further messages.
"Automated message number 1." What came next was footage broadcast on Manticore itself. It was clear that the Home Fleet had been effectively ambushed and neutralized. Some enemy ships were landing on Manticore, offloading troops and equipment, and commencing a ground assault.
Honor checked the dates. Four days ago.
She watched the next message which had that same eerie voice announce, "Automated message number 2." More footage, but then it seemed like someone was attacked the Havenite vessels. It seemed like well armed pirates were swarming and destroying dreadnoughts and even bigger vessels.
What the hell was happening in Manticore?
Honor stalked onto the command deck and issued two odd orders. One, they were interrupting this run now. They would fly to Beowulf and deposit some of the scientists along with Honor's parents, who were presently on-board one of the convoy ships. Second, they were heading to Erewhon where they were breaking up the convoy and leaving all the ships in the Star Runner hangars there.
Honor summarized what had prompted her to these decisions. Then she left and assumed her orders would be carried out.
She arrived at the high security room where Silver remained.
It felt strange to do so, but she explained all she had been told and what she had observed to Silver. Then she began asking questions. She stood up and looked down at Silver's surface so she could read its written responses.
"Our shield will hold up to weapons?" Honor asked.
"The plasma surrounding this vessel cannot be damaged by the weapon types used by your Navy."
Honor assumed Silver had actually verified this.
Still. "Even nuclear?" Honor asked.
"Yes," the writing on Silver said.
How did it know? Honor moved on. "What do we do about weapons? We're going to need to shut down a number of enemy ships..."
"I may have served as shielding and propulsion for your activities, but I originally served as an energy generator for my original ship. I will not be able to provide higher order weapons, as your ship would not survive the attempt, but I can assign what you call smart plasma to attack enemy vessels."
Shield, propulsion, and weapon all in one. "How targeted can you be?" Honor asked.
"What do you wish to happen?"
Good question. Honor had been quite good with tactics at the Academy and in her years as a naval officer, but what Silver could do (and couldn't do) changed many things. Silver was immensely powerful, but it was only one unit. It couldn't replicate itself – Honor and others had asked. It didn't have its own construction plans buried in its memory.
So she had awesome firepower, but only one ship in her navy.
How to do this best?
Her tactics today would be flawed, of course, but she had to do something, learn from it, refine it. She wanted to make the best guess she could now.
"I want the weapons systems destroyed in any ship designated as an enemy. I want propulsion systems damaged. I think the pirates, or some of them, may be on slaving runs. Or stealing one-of-a-kind treasures."
"The weapons you order will do precisely that," the writing said.
"Should I bring you to the command deck?"
"Set up a secondary station here. Identify the targets you wish rendered harmless. I can provide smart plasma bursts for at least four thousand simultaneous attacks. Anything remaining can be handled in subsequent volleys."
Honor blinked and re-read the message. Four thousand ships per volley. There wasn't a navy she knew about that could survive a battle with Silver, not if someone knew how to use it well.
Honor didn't know how to do the next part, though. She didn't dare destroy them all, in case they were slavers and had taken Manticoran people with them. But how could she respond to hundreds or thousands of ships that suddenly had no propulsion...
People began entering Silver's room to see what was happening. They knew better than ask questions so Honor didn't kick them out.
Willem came in and said, "Courvosier wants to talk to you."
Raoul had been visiting the different planet agents – their remote sales force – trying to figure out best practices. At least he was out of this mess.
Honor got some people set to moving equipment from storage into Silver's room. Honor took the comm from Raoul. The old man looked like he knew exactly what was happening. "I managed to get in touch with a few people on Manticore. I can't raise Hiram Bestwood, though, or several others. Do what you can. You have weapons?"
"Silver is continuing to provide," Honor said.
"See if you can find Bestwood."
"He's a founder, his advice and his network of people was more valuable than the cash."
"You got your parents safe?"
"Assuming no one attacks Beowulf, yes."
"Good. Less for you to worry about," Raoul said. The screen went blank then.
Honor had her combat command center set up before they arrived in system. She ordered everyone on the Grayling into a combat suit and into shock frames. They believed their shield was strong and Silver assured them of it, but they had never tested it against Wall of Battle weapons. Who knew exactly what a laser-head might really do when it struck smart plasma...
"I never...," Honor said, before her words collapsed, upon seeing what was what.
The first images after their arrival near Manticore A showed thousands of damaged ships – many Manticoran defenders, some Havenite, some civilian, some not obviously military or civilian – that filled the volume. Bombs and explosions and other kinds of devastation were visible from space above the planet Manticore.
She spent three minutes reviewing the analysis. She barely held back tears taking those minutes.
She found no active Royal Manticoran Navy vessels.
"Silver, target everything save for us. Scrap the weapons systems, damage the propulsion systems."
Honor's screen showed immediate compliance with her order.
There were still fires on Manticore, but no new weapons dropping. "Silver, take out the weapons on any vessel on planet now. Leave the propulsion for now."
That was a less showy order.
"We'd better see what's happening on Sphinx and Gryphon. Sphinx first."
Silver performed the same manuevers for the invaders of both planets. Honor had a rough list of the types and number of vessels involved. The total number was above two thousand. It didn't seem possible.
Honor returned to Manticore to see ships in the atmosphere dropping things on the planet.
"Are those weapons?"
"No. No weapons I recognize," Willem said. He was acting as her second-in-command just now.
Honor shook her head. These damaged ships were dropping heavy equipment. They could no longer do weapon damage so they were inflicting crush damage.
"Silver, target those vessels and vaporize them." They'd had one chance and not used it.
Her screen updated to show that the atmosphere was missing a few hundred ships. In less than a second.
Smart plasma was a terrifying weapon. At close quarters it took no time at all to hit its target and cut through any and all conventional shielding arrays. It could phase right inside a ship's hull to take out some equipment and not others. It could be as targeted as Honor could imagine or as indiscriminate as she needed.
Tens of thousands of people had just died because she'd said five words. She sat as still as steel, thinking.
Nimitz, who had come to where the interest was, bleeked at her. Honor leaned toward him and he climbed up onto her shoulder. The weight felt good right now, something to think about other than all the newly dead.
She re-ran the tactics she'd seen used. Pirates or slavers or whatever they were, with no weapons, hadn't just fled.
These pirates hadn't acted like pirates. They'd been more like dutiful officers ordered on suicide runs, to kill as many as they could before they lost all capabilities.
Honor thought of Q-ships, official military vessels disguised as something else like a merchant ship or, it seemed, a pirate.
Which other navies were playing around Manticore right now?
She tapped a button to connect her to the main command deck. "Caleb, let's see if we can start jamming communications in the area. I'd prefer them not to communicate, if possible."
She closed the channel. She needed to keep the peace for the moment while she worked out what to do and how.
Where did they even begin sorting this out?
The immediate destruction was over, but they had more than a thousand ships to assist in space and billions of people on three planets. Those in space were a bit more urgent. Some were enemies, some were friendlies, all had people who couldn't last forever in space, many had valuable materials archived, records and orders and communication logs.
Honor messaged Raoul about the situation and what she needed. The response, some minutes later, was that Raoul would see what he could do. Honor got busy docking with the most damaged Royal Manticoran Navy vessels.
The two she got to were barely holding together and the survivors were few in number and high in wound-count. She could fit the survivors on Grayling for now, but she needed more capable vessels and trained crew than she had. Her own ships back near Erewhon weren't trained for any of this.
Four hours later, Raoul messaged back. There were search-and-rescue vessels ready on Beowulf and Erewhon – could Honor come and collect them?
The rescue vessels had included quite a few technical gurus. It was clear before 24 T-hours were up that the pirates weren't pirates. It seemed they were from the Solarian League, though they weren't under the direct command of that Navy. There were also indication that their orders had come from, or been routed through, Mesa. Much was unclear.
They got more data from damaged Havenite vessels, the ones that had launched the attack against Manticore before being ambushed themselves by 'pirates.' It seemed that the Solarians, or someone with access to their vessels, had wanted two competing navies knocked out with a minimum of risk.
Their plan had come together perfectly.
The rescuers from the various planets, along with Honor's convoy that she'd brought from Erewhon, were pulling people from damaged ships and landing them on Manticore. Later they began working the space around Sphinx.
They put any 'pirate' or Havenite into whatever kind of confinement they could arrange. The true law enforcement and military stations on Manticore and Sphinx had been destroyed or damaged.
After forty-eight hours, everyone was exhausted, but some of the forces had already departed to work on the Gryphon situation.
Honor was forced down for six hours of rest and Nimitz had helped them.
Honor got up. Raoul was now on the Grayling, but he hadn't been when Honor went to sleep.
"What do we know?" she asked.
"Hiram Bestwood is dead. That's confirmed," Courvosier said.
"The queen isn't on the planet. The out-of-system fleets of the Navy have been damaged in different attacks. This rag-tag bunch of a courier company and S&R vessels from Beowulf and Erewhon is all that is keeping three planets from more 'pirates.'"
"I see," Honor said.
So it wasn't a question of if the next attack came, it was a question of when.
"Have we found anyone in the Manticoran Navy who can tell us exactly what they observed?" Knowing something about the 'pirate' tactics might help. Maybe.
They had one ship with strong offensive capabilities among all these damaged ones and rescuers. They needed to prepare now if there was a second (or third or fourth) wave of 'pirates' coming.
"A few. No one who isn't trying to cover their butts, though," Raoul said.
"No one you would trust?" Honor asked.
Raoul shook his head. "There aren't many Home Fleet admirals or even captains still alive at present. The Navy is effectively destroyed."
Not one. Two navies, Manticore and Haven, were dead here. It had been a brilliant plan, cruel and horrible and brilliant.
"I need to see what we can do to secure things," Honor said. "I had surprise on my side. I don't know that I'll have it the next round. They might ignore me and launch their weapons at the planets. We need to protect them."
"Hard to do with one ship."
"Well, yes. Everything is hard to do with one ship when your mind thinks in terms of fleets."
Raoul nodded. "I've been replaying a few wargames from the Academy the last few hours."
"Some things get easier. Some get a lot harder," Honor said.
"Yes. You start the offense part of the plan. I'll keep playing liaison with the Erewhonese and Beowulfans. You figure out what comes next," Raoul said.
Honor tried to keep from bumping into people on her suddenly very full ship. Nimitz was already inside the secondary command deck when Honor arrived.
She was wondering about offense.
Maybe the best offense was a sterling defence. Honor walked over to Silver. "We need to protect all three planets if we can against more of these 'pirates.' How do we do it, Silver?"
The response wasn't instantaneous. It didn't immediately know what it could do to help.
Eventually Silver's skin said, "If there are anchors in orbit around a planet, I could create a thin shield similar to what we use for transit."
That sounds like a tremendous amount of plasma. "What kind of anchors?" Honor asked.
"Anything with a 'carbon pillar,' as you call it."
The name had stuck even if the ingredient mix now had very little carbon in it. "The ships in our convoy have pillars in them. So I could use them as anchors. Temporarily."
"And nothing would get through?"
"That seems like a large amount of plasma. How will you translate it?"
"For a few seconds, all of the output of the star hitting the planet will be used to start the shield. Then a small fraction will be siphoned off going forward."
"So total eclipse, then back to normal?"
"Can anything pass through it?" Honor asked.
"Anything shielded in smart plasma can."
"So basically this ship and anything in a convoy with us?"
That worked for now.
"What about a more permanent solution?"
"You have the instructions for creating 'carbon pillars.' Put some in something better suited to the task. Explain what behavior you want the plasma to exhibit. I will produce plasma to your specifications."
"Right," Honor said, already thinking of how that might work in the future. "Let's go with extremely safe for now. We can work out how to open things up later."
"A bigger shield will require a larger initial drain on light transmission."
Honor pondered that caveat. "But it's a matter of seconds?"
"If the sphere is large enough, I could require minutes."
Seconds or a few minutes of blackness for safety from another wave of invaders. Yes, Honor would make that deal.
"Are there any hazards? Any dangers to the people on the planet?"
"The shield does not emit any radiation that is dangerous to an organic being."
That was true, as far as Honor's people knew it. It still helped to check. They'd tested on the Grayling, but doing something far larger, covering what used to be almost two billion people...well, it was an important thing to be sure of.
Honor got Willem and his people working on the details: how big the Bubble would be, how to get all these ships inside the protection.
Within two hours, they had the outline of a plan. They went back and forth with Silver until it was sound. The shield would be located two thousand kilometers from the outer atmosphere of each planet.
The volume analysis suggested that only fifty-eight damaged or destroyed vessels needed to be towed so they were inside the various Bubble. However, they were among the largest of the vessels in space. With all the rescue vessels assisting, getting them inside the predicted Bubbles took more than three hours.
Honor nodded. Willem transmitted the instructions for eight of the Star Runner ships, currently unmanned. Once all those ships were in place, the shield went up. The effect on Manticore was total darkness for 93 T-seconds and a little less for Sphinx. It was barely visible, as thick as a few atoms, which was still a massive amount of plasma.
Only Grayling would be able to pass through these shields for now – or a ship in convoy with the Grayling. It wasn't a long-term system, but it would allow the rescue forces to work in safety for now. All of the Star Runner ships broadcast clear beacons about remaining back from Manticore and Sphinx. If some cocky 'pirate' didn't believe the warning...well, Honor probably wouldn't lose sleep over a ship flying into thin, but immensely strong, plasma.
"I'll start working on a way for ordinary ships to pass through. Docking ports or something. A trading station," Willem said.
"Yes, this is temporary."
There was another planet to protect, Gryphon. After all the work was done, Honor had to escort quite a few rescue ships inside the planetary Bubbles so that they could continue evacuating the people off the attacked and damaged ships. With luck and more time, the specialists aboard the rescue vessels could find more information on who had done all this and why.
Honor knew she needed sleep. She felt sluggish and wrecked. She'd better not be coming down with something. She didn't have time right now for a disease.
When everything was secured, she gave orders and went to sleep.
She didn't wake up for eighteen hours. Everyone apart from Honor was glad. She had apparently looked horrible, though no one told her to her face.
Six days into the rescue mission, Honor was reading more of the decrypted communications logs when one of her protegees knocked on the open door. She set her pad down and waved Elizabeth Strong inside.
"Take a seat," Honor said.
Elizabeth didn't. "We've got a comm. If it's genuine, we've found Queen Elizabeth."
Their missing queen.
Truly missing from the planet.
That had been just one of the many nasty surprises they'd discovered. Almost every noble, every member of parliament, every senior government official had disappeared off the face of Manticore.
Abductions, targeted and vast in scope. These weren't slavers filling a hold, of course. There was something else at play.
"Where?" Honor asked.
"On a ship with altered tags."
What would possess a foreign power to scoop up the top layers of Manticore's government? Would it be a ransom job?
Honor didn't know. She also didn't get up and begin the short walk to her command deck. She wanted to know more about the situation.
"Do you have the message?" Honor asked.
Elizabeth handed over a chip.
Honor examined the message.
It looked like and sounded somewhat like Queen Elizabeth. Although was Elizabeth Winton still a queen? If her navy and her planetary defenses and her guards – Mike Henke among them, it had sounded like – had failed to protect her and keep her on Manticore... Honor thought it more likely this woman was just now Elizabeth Winton, former queen of Manticore.
Honor watched the desperate, though slightly rude, message a second time. She was looking for hints it was a fabrication. She was looking for another person who might appear near the queen, like Mike Henke. Like Ariel the Treecat. The message was just Elizabeth Winton.
Honor asked Raoul to come to her office. Honor sent Elizabeth Strong to explain what was happening to the other Star Runner ships and to get them formed up into a convoy before they set off for where this message came from.
Raoul walked into Honor's cabin.
"Take a look at this," she said.
After two viewings he just shrugged. He was also unsure if it really was the Queen – and he'd met the woman more than once.
"The clothes are wrong. The voice isn't quite right. She's saying the right words. But there's nothing else. I wish her Treecat were with her."
"Nimitz would agree," Honor said.
"She's angry, unspeakably so."
"I understand that. But you'd think she'd get it together before demanding assistance. It doesn't mesh with her usually calm and polite style in public addresses," Honor said.
Neither of them mentioned she had gone without personal hygiene or adornments for some time, which also had a massive effect in how one looked. Her hair looked like it had been tortured and oiled and beaten with sticks more than once.
"If we get close enough to have a conversation, how'll you confirm it's her?" Raoul asked. He sounded tired now. Hopefully he wasn't getting sick. He was extremely good at coordinating multiple ships – almost like when he'd been an admiral working in this fleet or that one.
"I'll just keep asking questions only someone like her would know," Honor said.
"Are you privy to Manticore's state secrets?"
Honor didn't smile at the little joke. Because she was actually now privy to those secrets, or at least some of them, with what they'd pulled from logs and archives. "Better. I have a Treecat companion and she's one of the few on Manticore to have one also."
"She's awfully punchy right now."
"It's going to be an argument."
"She thinks her planets need her. She'd been away for one week, but everything has changed, Honor."
That she knew.
"If Queen Elizabeth..."
Honor shook her head. "She's just Elizabeth Winton now."
"If she demands it, will you take down the shields and return the planets to her?" Raoul asked.
He was on point, as usual, asking her out loud the one question she feared to ask herself. Honor had the three planets of the Kingdom of Manticore in her possession right now, aside from Moss Green.
What was Honor going to do with three planets? "I don't know," she said.
"Talk it through."
"Can she defend anything? She couldn't defend herself and now her navy isn't a few hundred ships, it's a few hundred thousand pieces."
"That's true," Raoul said. "It's also a dodge. What will you do? Will you hand her back her kingdom? It's wholly in your possession now."
"No, in Silver's."
"But Silver responds well to you."
It was a silly argument and it was putting off the decision. What would she do?
Tens of millions of people were dead, if not more. Hundreds of thousands of treecats were dead. Ten percent of the forests on Sphinx had been destroyed in just a few days...
Nimitz had once worked to save a crew of people stranded with her even though they didn't wish to save themselves. She decided she would have to do it again, if only to help protect the Treecats who called Sphinx home.
"The answer, I suppose, is yes and no."
Raoul nodded, as if he'd been expecting something complex. "What is yes and what is no?"
"I will not return Sphinx. Nimitz would never forgive me if another Treecat ever died in a human war. I have to agree with him."
"And the rest?"
"The other two she can have if the people there want her back," Honor said. "I'm glad not to have to worry about them."
Raoul sighed. "You've just become the ruler of a planet, Honor."
"A second planet. Don't forget Moss Green."
"Yes, true, but Sphinx has a population. You now have subjects."
Honor started to shrug, but then she nodded. It was a strange question, but sort of pleasant to consider. "I suppose I do. The first thing I'll do is rename it and hope for a better destiny going forward..."
"A new name?" Raoul asked.
"Sphinx was a Winton name. They've failed, miserably, as rulers. We're starting fresh. New ruler, new name, as much new as we can muster..."
"And then the new name will be? You should know before you announce it to Elizabeth Winton or the people on your planet."
Moss Green... That had come from a private joke. Moss Green... The next words out of Honor's mouth were automatic. "Blue Wave, for the beautiful oceans."
She always had loved the oceans – and wet navies – more than she could explain.
"Well, keep it to yourself until you're sure it is Elizabeth Winton."
"I'm surprised you're so calm, Raoul. I am taking something that used to belong to your sovereign, mine, too, in a more remote sense."
"A week of cleaning up a mess that's killed millions has shattered whatever monarchist sympathy was still inside me. I've been reading records, too, the budgets over the last few years for the Navy, their deployment orders. You'd think the government was working for their enemies the way they ran things, the stupidity of their choices... I may just relocate to this Blue Wave."
"We'll be glad to have you."
There was a tone from the command deck. They were where Honor had ordered them to go. Honor decided to have this conversation in front of many of her key people. Let them see exactly what was happening.
She left the room where Silver resided and entered the main command deck. Honor stood in front of the screen and nodded.
A moment later, the suspicious though familiar image of a disheveled woman appeared.
"Who are you?" the image demanded.
"My name is Honor Harrington, of Star Runners. My people received a message..."
"The Navy sent a courier? Where is the Royal Manticoran Navy?"
"Mrs. Winton, if that is who you are, the Royal Manticoran Navy has been almost completely destroyed. For the past week, Star Runners and some of our allies from Erewhon and Beowulf have been acting as the defense force..."
"Impossible. And my name isn't Mrs. Winton. I am Queen Elizabeth III of Manticore and you are one of my subjects."
Honor had been. She was no longer. She also wasn't feeling particularly gentle or kind this moment.
"We debated whether you are who you say you are. I'd like to confirm your identity. Do you have your Treecat with you?"
For the first time, the woman on the screen cracked just a touch. "No. Ariel was killed defending me."
Nimitz, who had slunk onto the command deck, as was his wont, bleeked in sorrow. Honor would comfort him later.
"I attended the Royal Manticoran Naval Academy some years ago with one of your cousins. Might I speak with her?"
"Michelle Henke? You knew Michelle?"
At least this person had gotten two names right. Honor wasn't well convinced, not yet. "Might I speak with her?"
"She also perished," Elizabeth Winton said.
Honor took the rage and despair she felt and boxed it away for later, like a present she wrapped obsessively and knew she could never open.
"I see. I do still have to establish you are who you say you are."
"I don't see why," Winton said with all the petulance of an eleven-year-old. "If I and my family could transfer aboard your ship, we can be off to Manticore at once..."
"Then let me speak with one of your family members. Your husband or your children."
"I am in charge here."
Honor stamped on her initial response, then the next one that occurred to her which was crueler, if anything. "Mrs. Winton, I'm not one of your subjects."
"I'm sure you are. You attended the Academy with Michelle, you look like a Sphinxian..."
"Sphinx, as you call it, is no longer your concern."
"That's impossible," the deposed queen said.
"One is only a queen when one controls the land – and has the consent of the people one governs. We have never professed to believe in the Divine Right of Kings. Your family and your class of nobles were unable, through your government and your navy, to repel the invaders. You have no planets and no subjects unless they choose to accept you back. You're a private citizen until then, sitting in what might be a slave ship, being extremely rude to the one person who has the ability to save you. Think on that a moment."
She didn't. "I want to talk to the leader of Sphinx, then."
"For now I am the leader of Blue Wave, what was formerly called Sphinx," Honor said.
"You? A courier."
"I have a bigger navy than you do at present. I have a bigger navy than Haven. I will also be repelling the expected second wave of attacks from the false-flag pirates."
"I see." Winton was stalling, trying to understand, trying to come up with an argument that would strengthen her case, her demands, her power.
"Now, if you're willing to cooperate, we can figure out how to prove that you are Elizabeth Winton..."
"I am. I've told you I am. You can see my face."
"I consulted with a person who has met you in the past. He wasn't convinced by the message we received earlier."
"Who was it?"
"A retired admiral named Courvosier."
"I don't know such a person."
"You've given him a medal. Or the real Elizabeth Winton has. He's also briefed the queen on several occasions, though never a one-to-one meeting."
Honor then proceeded to ask several questions about Treecats, more than the items that appeared in the public news. Winton got five of the six questions correct so Honor could have to say that this woman had been in close proximity to a Treecat for some time.
"Let me transfer to your ship now that I've proved myself," Winton said.
"We will escort the ship you're on with all aboard. Tell the pilot to maintain course..."
"The pilot is dead. All the crew is dead." Winton looked gravely satisfied with that statement.
"I see," Honor said. So her guards had finally done the former queen some good. "Then do nothing. We'll maneuver our ship and use the tractor beam to get you into line..."
Honor was not about to explain the Bubble to Winton. The Manticorans had had their chance to profit from Silver. They had long since thrown that opportunity away.
"I demand to transfer off this ship. I can commandeer your ship. I am your queen."
She still acted like she had a Navy and an opinion that mattered.
"Mrs. Winton, it seems you are unable to accept that you are no one's queen at this moment. Upwards of a hundred million people on all three planets are dead because of your government's lack of response."
"It was an ambush..."
"They came through the Wormhole Junction your navy was protecting. It was unexpected, but it was a known risk, being so close to the Junction."
"I don't have time to deal with you at present. If you will calm down, I will return you to Manticore..."
"You said there was another invasion coming..."
"The planet is shielded," Honor said, then regretted it.
"A trade secret."
"A private company with a trade secret like that..."
"Enough, Mrs. Winton. I have said that we will return you to Manticore. You will find that all of your estates are destroyed. Your government should have prevented this, but you have a fresh start now. Perhaps you'll actually think to protect your family. By the way, if the survivors on the planets accept your return to power, get your new leadership ready to defend Manticore and Gryphon. The shield isn't permanent. In fact, I'd say you have a year. Honor Harrington out."
Honor didn't talk to Elizabeth Winton ever again, much to the former queen's rage.
The funeral on Sphinx was massive. One funeral for all of the dead humans. The one for the Treecats would follow the next day.
Honor had no idea what was happening on Manticore or Gryphon. She would maintain the smart plasma shield for the promised year, then their choices would determine their fates. Sphinx would have been in a similar situation had it not been for the Treecats residing here – and for the fact that her parents, who were now here rather than on Beowulf, loved this planet.
The old fashioned people who had organized this funeral had decided to honor the fallen nobles first. There were still some presumed alive but off planet. There were no nobles on the planet at the moment – and Honor had already made plans to keep it that way.
She hadn't yet publicly announced that she was exercising her 'rights' as the liberator of the planet to actually rule it. There would be quite a bit of unhappiness. That could come after the second mass funeral.
The service was winding down when the second wave of pirates chose to attack. Of course they couldn't have waited another hour.
Honor had to excuse herself, along with her staff, to see if they could catch some people who actually knew what was what. Records were useful, but high level people might be briefed on things people feared to memorialize in writing. Honor and the Star Runners had no skills in this area, but Erewhon had sent along some people it referred to as information procurers. They'd worked through some of the prisoners they'd found on Sphinx.
She got into space with Raoul at her side. In the last few days they had carved out some time to work on tactics for their vastly changed situation. They had a ridiculous amount of power, but all tucked into one little ship. At least the planets wouldn't fear an attack, either accidental or intentional. She and the others really had to go back and rework the usual Academy scenarios, plus more recent events like the first Battle of Manticore.
The question today was how could she best disable her enemies in ways that would allow her to salvage the information she needed? The smart plasma showed it was incredibly destructive. If Honor wanted the pirates gone, as in never-existed with no evidence left behind, that was easy, stupidly easy. It was capture and retention that was more difficult.
Honor wanted to vacuum every bit of information they possessed. Every log, every communication, every conversation remembered by every member of the crew. She needed intact computers and lots of surviving officers.
Her one-ship navy didn't excel at this kind of work, yet. In fact, it was positively rotten at it. One ship trying to get to hundreds before they scuttled themselves...was a poor plan.
All the doctrine she had learned on Saganami Island – much of it from then-Captain Raoul Courvosier – was out of place now. She, Raoul, and others would have to rethink their tactics from item one. For now, if she could find an enemy, she could disable or kill it. If she knew where it was going, she could arrive before it. But she was one ship, only one, until or if she ever figured out how to replicate Silver.
"I think this fleet of 'pirates' is larger than the last. We'll need to move quickly," Raoul said.
"They can't do any damage to the planets or us."
"And once they figure that out they'll run and we'll still be without answers."
There was a reason Raoul was the master and Honor the student. He was a master of not forgetting the simplest, most vital things.
"Let's target the flagships, assuming these false pirates have some. Maybe I can get Silver to be a little more comprehensive."
"What are you thinking?" Raoul asked.
"We want as many prisoners as we can get. So let's immobilize them, as before, then keep them busy."
"Life support, too?"
"They'll have suits available, I'm sure."
"Are you going to open the hulls to vacuum?" Raoul asked.
"No, I don't think so. That'll make landing those ships far harder. Trust me, I know something about landing on a planet when the hull plating is severely compromised."
"I'll leave it to you. But what about the others? We're already hearing numbers. There are at least four hundred ships. We won't get to them all before their suits wear out, not if we're interested in high value targets and their archives over just saving lives."
"That's the risk of war against an unknown adversary," Honor said, condemning hundreds of thousands of 'pirates' to their likely deaths. She would try to save them, but she knew she wouldn't succeed in the too-massive task.
The second wave pirates ships were defeated and the survivors processed into temporary prisons on Sphinx.
Now Honor was back to dealing with the details of ruling a planet: meetings with her staff. A particularly startling one, about Silver.
For every miracle Silver unveiled, it also provided a slug of terror. Yes, smart plasma that formed the Bubble around Honor's ships and around several planets was enormously strong. But it was capable of more. There were types of energy weapons that Silver had once helped to produce that could easily phase through a plasma shield.
Willem had ceded leadership of the science team to another person, one of old-Sphinx's leading physicists. Willem was more an engineer at heart, not a research scientist, and would be heading up some of the rebuilding efforts on Blue Wave, which was a more urgent need. It was this new science leader, Professor Garmen Jorks, who had explained some of his in-depth conversations with Silver. He knew more of the right questions to ask than Honor or Willem had.
"So, we're safe from our known enemies," Honor said, trying to work out the implications.
"Exactly. Silver's existence proves there are other energy translators in existence, along with a culture who can built them and might be able to build more."
Honor completed the thought. What if they came knocking with true gravity weapons or temporal beams or other things that still existed only in fiction and, perhaps, inside the unreachable core of Silver and its makers?
Honor had a list hundreds of lines long. She needed more interrogators for her captives. She needed more builders and repairers to set Blue Wave to rights. Willem and the core of people from Star Runners wouldn't be able to do it all. She needed more scientists to bridge the gap between their tech and Silver's tech.
She needed to keep from screaming in frustration or terror.
"This was very helpful, Professor Jorks. I'll trust that you'll keep delving."
"That I will. That all of us will."
He left and Raoul entered the room, smiling. "Those Erewhonese are geniuses at making people talk."
Honor had kept out of all that for now.
"So what do we know now?"
"We have the proof, Honor. Q-ships and all, our guesses were right."
"Where are the ships from?"
"Solarian League, borrowed, it seems, then modified."
"Mesa. Or some corporation on Mesa, the kind with a masterplan. They pushed Haven to war for centuries..."
Honor leaned forward and her face must have been alarming.
Raoul began nodding so quickly that his head might just pop off.
He had her attention and he knew it. "Centuries, yes. More recently they were behind the push for Haven to take Basilisk, go to war in this place and that, then interfere with Grayson. Mesa wanted Haven stretched..."
"So it could send some 'pirates' and totally break them," Honor said.
"Show me everything."
Honor went to review the interrogation logs and the other items from the plundered archives.
That evening, Honor was in her small set of rooms, hardly fitting for the ruler of a planet, but she wouldn't have it any other way. She had been explaining everything to Nimitz who had been occupied during the day with meetings with other Treecats. Nimitz was able to point at maps and get Honor's people helping where the Treecats needed assistance.
"Mesa, what to do with them?"
"Oh, Nimitz, we can't just obliterate the planet. Not everyone living on Mesa is part of this."
He bleeked more than once.
Honor almost got a sense of what Nimitz meant. Almost. It was comforting rather than alarming. She had always known just how smart Nimitz was.
While Honor had been preparing to handle Mesa, other star nations had been probing Blue Wave. The flood of 'relief workers' arriving on Blue Wave was filled with spies, it turned out. So her push to converting an impermeable shield into one that had several portals large enough for merchant ships was a mixed bag.
Blue Wave could export from the industries that they'd gotten back in order.
But other star nations could export spies and saboteurs, many using false flags, as before. These liars had been told to insinuate their ways into her planet, her home, in order to wreck and devastate it.
Honor had a council of her advisors meeting in her new home base, which was a plot of land adjacent to her parent's (almost rebuilt) Craggy Hollow. Honor wasn't much for city life. People who wanted to talk to her in person could get into an air car and visit her.
"These damned spies. Mesans, some of them. From everywhere, I guess. Should we shut down the portals to shut down the spies?" Honor asked, trying once again to get the gathering to focus, rather than emote in frustration.
Some were yes. Some were no. This wasn't helping.
"Why do foreign ships have to land on the planet at all?" Honor asked.
"What, ship-to-ship transfers?" Elizabeth Strong asked.
"Or we put up a trade station. We rotate Treecats through and let them pick out the devious ones," Honor said as the idea fleshed itself out in her mind.
"They can still do damage up there," Raoul cautioned.
"But not as much, not as easily. Blue Wave is easy to hide on. Seventy percent of the land is forests. After we grow back that ruined ten percent, then it'll be even easier."
"So everyone meets with an inspection officer and as many Treecats as we can convince?" Raoul asked.
"Yes," Honor said.
"How will we build it? The heavy industry is still ripped to pieces," Elizabeth said. She was Manticoran by birth and was still adapting to Blue Wave's harsher environment. So she said 'the heavy industry' rather than 'our heavy industry,' as if she belonged elsewhere. She would come around, Honor hoped.
That, to Honor, was a simpler question. What Blue Wave had in mass quantity was partially wrecked ships.
Raoul nodded after Honor outlined the path. "We'll start with one of the least damaged Manticoran Navy vessels, a large one, and modify that. It'll have space for living quarters and for storing trade goods, maybe some common areas for meeting and concluding trade deals."
"We can purpose-build a trading station later," Raoul said. "When we're better able."
Honor had some ideas about the spies on the ground. "I'll see if we can get a few more Treecats to assist our police service on the ground. If there are more spy rings getting established, let's find them now, rather than later."
"Next, Mesa," Honor said.
No one groaned, but the topic had been inevitable. It was on every meeting's agenda and usually swallowed most of the energy in the room.
Honor was on the command deck as the Grayling hauled the Blue Wave Freeport into the sky. It had formerly been the superdreadnought HMS Gryphon. A dozen ships had tagged along in the convoy and would serve as the tenders for the port for now. The staff was aboard those ships, including four dozen Treecats who were somewhat curious about living in space.
Honor would have Silver modify the planet's Bubble shield later today, tightening the planet's security. Blue Wave ships would, starting today, be issued special marker beacons which were just scaled down carbon pillars. A ship with one would be allowed through a portal and into the planet's atmosphere. A ship without would have to dock at the Freeport.
Only merchant-type ships were of a size to actually fit through the portal. So someone capturing a marker beacon and inserting it onto some massive ship wouldn't do them any good. It just wouldn't fit through the portal.
Honor, Raoul, and the others had wanted layer-after-layer of protection. Everything on Blue Wave was still so tentative. There'd been no riots when Honor announced herself as the planet's ruler, but the situation was definitely strained. As soon as people had their basics restored, Honor expected more trouble.
She was already planning for when the planet was in good stead again. She had no interest in trying to herd cats for the rest of her life, no sir.
Honor let her trainees handle getting the Freeport into geosynchronous orbit. It was good practice for them. Honor was stuck more and more on Blue Wave, but Star Runners still had contracts to perform, even if many of them were for Blue Wave itself.
Today's second bit of business involved the one-year anniversary from when she'd first protected three planets with Bubble shields.
It was the day that Honor had spoke of to Elizabeth Winton, the day when the Bubbles protecting Manticore and Gryphon would come down. They could now send and receive ships as they wished, not just supply ships from Star Runners.
Whether they were ready for the work of protecting themselves and keeping out the spies wasn't Honor's concern. Raoul had kept his finger in those simmering pots and Honor heard a little, but didn't much care.
She would get eight of her currently unmanned ships back in her fleet. Star Runners had massive work to do bringing in supplies to rebuild large swathes of a planet.
Then there was the third, and biggest, bit of business.
She had been stressed over the situation with Mesa for some time. Raoul had put the seed of an idea into her head some months back. Honor had refined it, figured out how to make it possible by speaking with Silver, and was now ready.
She and the Grayling would travel to Mesa and have a confrontation with the slavers there. Honor was off to make an example.
She signed off on the opening of the Freeport and welcomed her Star Runner vessels back into her fleet. Then she gave Silver the order.
The trip between Blue Wave and Mesa wasn't a long one thanks to Silver. Silver put them into a high orbit around Mesa.
"Incoming message," Willem said.
"Let's hear it."
"Trespassing ship, identify yourself." Short and simple.
"Gladly," Honor said. She watched the screen and saw defensive vessels zeroing in on the Grayling. She waited until those vessels fired upon her. The Bubble snapped up every bit of energy they provided, kinetic, electrical, nuclear, everything. Silver was very efficient.
She waited through a second volley and a third.
Silver could do this all day.
"Let's open the comms now," Honor said to Willem.
She saw the indicators that the channel was open, not just to the official who had first contacted her, but in a wide band that could be intercepted by a wide variety of devices. "This is a message for the government of Mesa. We have received your government's attack ships near Manticore, Gryphon, and Blue Wave over the last year. We have ascertained through interviews of your people, your slaves, and your logs that you were behind this false-flag operation. For future reference, please realize that no real pirates are ever as disciplined as yours were – or willing to carry out suicide runs. Their ships are rarely, if ever, as uniform and well equipped as the ones they possessed. We are transmitting a complete record of what we have discovered proving your involvement. Now as to our response, the people of Blue Wave have no interest in inflicting civilian casualties, unlike the government of Mesa. So we will not conduct a landing or a mass assault or an invasion. Instead we will tell everyone on Mesa, and throughout the other populated planets, what we've discovered. We will also implement an interdiction of your planet from all forms of trade and transit. The records we have sent with this message prove that Mesa ordered hundreds of people abducted during the invasions and actually took thousands. Some we managed to recover. We know that at least thirty-one, and probably many more, reached Mesa alive. Return them, alive and untampered with, within one hour if you wish to lessen your punishment."
There was no response. Honor continued.
"This next part is a message for the people of Mesa. Review the documentation we've discovered. Ask your government to explain it. Replace your government with one of your choosing if you do not agree with what they've done. We will not harm you today for what your government did. But we will not allow you to escape the consequences, either. If our abducted citizens are returned within the next fifty-five minutes, the interdiction of Mesa will last for ten years per person we know was abducted – or three hundred ten years, about the lifespan of a Prolong recipient. If our abducted citizens are not returned immediately, the interdiction of Mesa will last for one hundred years per person abducted. I will place four caches of seeds and agricultural tools on Mesa to help you in this transition. You will have to grow your own food if you wish to survive this."
The response came then, more volleys of weapons, stronger and stronger varieties. Their capabilities might even be stronger, ship-to-ship, than anything Manticore had fielded while Honor had been a naval officer.
None of it so much as scratched Silver's Bubble.
Some vessels tried to escape off Mesa. Honor had Silver destroy their propulsion systems and weapons.
There was no communication back to Honor.
As the hour timed down, Honor gave the order to launch the four carbon pillars she'd constructed for this day.
As the hour disappeared, the Bubble around Mesa came to full power. This time the Bubble was consuming one hundred percent of its received light for a period of one hour. It would do this for one hour every day it was active as a continued reminder to the people on Mesa of their crime and their punishment.
Once the sunlight was returned to the surface of Mesa, Honor sent one more message. "To the government of Mesa, I will return in one year to collect our abducted citizens and any others you wish to return at that time. Each genuine returnee in good health will reduce the interdiction by one year. I will not be bringing more supplies at that time or any other. You may wish to redirect your planet's economic activities to food production in the mean time. You may be getting hungry very quickly. Honor Harrington, Conqueror of Blue Wave, out."
Raoul was back on Blue Wave but had listened in on a FTL relay. "If they give you more than three thousand people back will you really turn off the interdiction?"
"Of course. But I'll keep watching them. Unless they fix their government or their main industries, we'll be back again for slavery or piracy or some foul thing. The punishment next time will not have any escape clauses."
Honor had served as Conqueror for three T-years and she felt old. She didn't look it, but her Prolong was responsible for that.
She wanted to get back on the Grayling again and do space runs.
Nimitz butted her head twice.
"I'm obsessing, I know."
Nimitz jumped down and began pacing in front of her. This was his rendition of what he thought she was doing. Walking over and over and getting nowhere.
"I'm ready to give it up. I was ready from the beginning. I did this for you and the Treecats."
Nimitz's bleek almost sounded like 'thank you.'
"But I can't hide out here on this property forever. Mom and Dad are resettled in Craggy Hollow and this place people are calling Silver University, which does make me smile. But my place is in the stars."
Nimitz stared at her. As if asking why she made everything so complicated. She wanted to be in the stars, so go.
Treecats were considerably more direct than humans, after all.
She had hesitated to hand over power, not if the new government would bind itself up and be useless like Manticore's old system – or rotten like Mesa's, which still hadn't turned over any abductees – or deceived for centuries like Haven's. Every system she had considered, or talked over with Raoul, or debated in one of her council meetings, every system made her cringe somewhat. Not that being the dictator of a planet was much better...
Honor wanted some different opinions. But who...
She knew what her people thought.
So she needed people who weren't 'her' people. She commed Caleb Offitt, one of the survivors of Moss Green, who had finally found his place. He had obstructive and lazy when stranded on an unknown planet, but since then he'd turned into a capable intelligence officer and a not-bad administrator. He worked for the planetary police keeping track of the off-worlders on Blue Wave – but he was paranoid enough to keep an eye on all forms of trouble.
"You know who's who on Blue Wave?" Honor asked.
"The loud ones, the agitators?"
"Sure. You want me to arrest them?" he asked with some confusion. That wasn't how things usually ran under Honor's government.
"No, I want to send them an invitation to a meeting."
Caleb blinked a few times. "Really?"
"Let's say one hundred fifty of them..."
"The hundred and fifty loudest agitators?"
He had never quite given up thinking Honor was crazy, but he was politer now. "It'll be there this afternoon. Where will the meeting be? Yawata Crossing is still a mess."
"Duvalier City looked okay last time I was there. Its main hotel was in good shape."
"Should I mention it to some others, perhaps some less acerbic people?"
"Send me a list of them, too. I'm looking for potential leaders among the people of Blue Wave."
"You won't find them among the agitators. I'll make a list."
Honor nodded. She had been thinking about Old Earth history. She had been thinking about how to draw together a bunch of different people to draft a workable Constitution, which would allow Honor to turn over Blue Wave to the people who lived here.
"Who else in our provisional government should I ask for names?" Honor asked Caleb.
"I can send over that list."
He was smiling now, a big cheesy grin.
Honor rolled her eyes and ended the conversation.
A month later, Honor had her meeting. It went poorly as the agitators agitated. Honor didn't give up. She expanded the guest list for the second meeting, adding more agitators, but also vastly more people from other persuasions and temperaments. The second meeting was held in different stages, the agitators got the first day to be angry and demanding, more moderate voices got the second, and Honor got the morning of the third day. The third meeting ended in elections to a Constitutional convention. Honor maintained the right to appoint her own delegates as well.
The convention was when things got challenging. Honor gave some of her key people seats in the convention, but the other appointments went to strange, unpredicted choices. There were Treecats as delegates. There were historians. There were humans from otherwise underrepresented regions of Blue Wave. There were shipwrights and policemen and a few former members of the Manticoran Navy.
Honor used her first speech to insist that all of Blue Wave be represented in the convention, that all peoples and regions of the planet have voices. There was a wide variety of perspectives at play once the agitators in the room stopped playing for the newsies and the Treecats showed just how intelligent they were. The Convention met for three or four days each session for fourteen sessions over fourteen months – and seemed unpromising for a while. The convention, in its sixth meeting, began ejecting the disruptive. In its eleventh meeting, it began negotiating directly with Honor. At the end of its last meeting, it produced a vastly controversial document and set a date, three months hence, for a planet-wide vote on a new Constitution.
The news was everywhere. Two years three months from the start of the negotiations, the Constitution had passed by a wide margin in the planet-wide vote. Treecats had gone for it by a nine-to-one margin. Even the most cantankerous parts of Blue Wave had approved it two-to-one.
Honor would be giving up her unofficial, but very real, position as Conqueror of Blue Wave after the first elections under this Constitution, which should happen within the next month – a fact that made her happy. Well, as happy as she could manage.
Within three months, she could hand the whole mess off. She should have been smiling, however...
Raoul knocked once then walked into her suite of rooms. "You're watching it, but you're not smiling," he said.
"On the inside I am."
"It's going to be fine," the outgoing 'Prime Minister' said. "I'll never have to serve again."
Honor nodded. She wouldn't have to, either. "I still worry about..."
"Too late," Raoul said.
That was true, no matter what Honor might have said. The Constitution, as it stood, was approved.
Honor dwelt on the terms she wasn't completely happy with. Raoul was right, though, it was settled.
She'd gotten enough of her own requests into the Constitution that she could live with it, she thought. The system of government was barely a twist on the old legislature and president system that some groups used. It was better than a legislature and monarch, so she'd won that much.
The noble titles from the Manticore-era and its hereditary form of government were ended. The Constitution converted Blue Wave to a form of representative republic. All adult humans would have the vote, save for convicted criminals. And, after Honor had fought hard for it, Treecats would have the vote. In fact, because of their dedicated land holdings confirmed in the Constitution, they would likely maintain a third of the seats in any sitting of the legislature, which would be a far different creature from what had existed on Manticore.
Not many people, if any, could bullshit a Treecat.
So even if the legislature turned out to be a mess, the Treecat contingent would keep it moving along with a minimum of lies. Inefficient, probably, but mostly honest at the same time.
Honor had pushed for, and gotten, a provision that the capital rotate between at least three and not more than ten cities on Blue Wave. There weren't yet ten well-functioning, re-established cities on Blue Wave, but it was inevitable it would happen again in the future. That would prevent one region continuously profiting at the expense of the others. The capital city might enjoy some benefits for ten years, but it would be without those advantages for at least twenty years or longer before regaining them once more.
Honor hadn't much success with the term of office question. The Constitution provided for long terms, too long, she thought, but her concession for allowing them was that there could be no second or subsequent terms.
She had also gotten arranged for service as a staffer to be covered under these term limits as well as service in a department of the executive branch. One could serve as a legislative staffer for ten years (but no more), then later do the same for the one of the five Great Officers of State. Anyone with one or both on their record could spend ten years as an advisor, which was the polite term for a lobbyist, Constitutionally permitted and regulated.
Honor thought it was silly encoding such a role into the Constitution, but she had lost on that debate and later come to appreciate the wisdom. Lobbying would always happen, but this provision would limit any one person's ability to do it for decades or centuries.
The higher offices were structured similarly. One could be elected to a single term in the legislature and a single term as one of the five Great Officers of State, with no second terms and no seeking a higher executive office.
A politically minded individual could spend no more than fifty years in government service at the various levels. Given how Prolong worked to extend lives, it wasn't close to a full lifetime and there were caveats. It would actually take someone a very long time to get all those fifty years of service under their belt, far longer than fifty years. One couldn't leap directly from a legislative seat into a Great Office of State.
No one holding a position in government, or government service, could run for or apply to another position while holding that office (or resigning early from the term of office in order to run for another). So that meant a legislator would have to leave office, wait until the next elections in a decade, then run for election. Voters would have most of a decade to reflect on a person's record – and prosecutors would have a chance to review any one's record before the next campaigns started.
No one possessed the advantage of holding one office while seeking another. It was imperfect, Honor thought, but could be somewhat helpful.
The wrangling over the civil service had been challenging. Who would serve in the Navy or the police or the public health service? Honor hadn't wanted a permanent class of teachers or policemen given that Prolong recipients could live hundreds of years. She had wanted turnover and fresh faces. So the rules for the civil service required periods away from a given agency. A civic-minded doctor, for instance, could serve as a doctor in the Navy for a decade, then in the public health agency for another decade, then as a teacher of doctors for another another before returning to the Navy or entering into a career as a private surgeon. Someone trained in policing could serve in a regional police force, then as a military policeman in the Navy, then as a security officer for one of many government offices before looping back to the police or trying a different department entirely.
Sabbaticals and rotations into private companies were also encouraged by civil servants. A university professor might resign her post and work for a private business for a few years before starting a new civil service position. Spies for the High Admiral's office were in hot demand in the private sector, but they were predicted to rotate back through other civil service roles. Doctors and other highly specialized professions might spend six months or a year as students at a higher professional school training in new methods or techniques before embarking on a new position. Any or all of these might well be necessary when adapting to Prolong, so a little social engineering might be just the thing.
As Honor understood the whole system, every sitting of a new government would be in a different capital city. The Officers and legislators would have ten years to work together and work through their difficulties. The Great Officers would fill the civil service roles under them, but those appointments were for ten years or less, so they wouldn't stretch far into the term of their successors.
None of the legislators or Great Officers would hold any offices or civil service positions in the decade following their term in office. Temptations to corruption or bribery or other crimes were tempered by the knowledge that they couldn't protect themselves from audits and investigations. They might be sure enough of the people following them into office (people from the same regions, even same political leanings), but there was nothing to ensure the cooperation of those who followed – and could make hay from the malfeasance of their predecessors.
Ten years was too long, but some of these provisions might help. No one would have time to get overly comfortable. Yes, there would be inexperience in the ranks every decade, but when had a solid, fixed lump of political savvy ever resulted in anything good? Even the lobbying class would turn over after ten years. A citizen would always be able to contact his or her own representatives, but only a registered advisor could contact all of them or accept any compensation for the effort. The punishments called for against a person acting as an advisor without permission were as steep as they came: exile from Blue Wave for no less than ten years and no more than fifty.
Honor hoped it would be enough.
"You did your best, Honor," Raoul said. "Your face goes all peculiar whenever you think on this."
Her face didn't go peculiar, but there was no arguing with Raoul. "It's done. Giving the vote to the Treecats was the best thing I managed."
"They won't put up with much bullshit..."
That hadn't always been his position. Raoul had been concerned about why Honor had given up many of her positions in order to secure the franchise for Treecats. Honor had had to have many long conversations about Treecats with her old mentor. He'd, of course, come around on the idea.
Honor nodded. "Not that anyone in the convention knew that except for me. There were Treecats present and everyone treated them like dangerous pets. They'll find out differently."
"You did put one thing in for yourself."
"It's my favorite bit of it."
All provisional officers, including Honor as the Conqueror and Raoul as her de facto Prime Minister, were forever prohibited from holding office. Honor couldn't be recalled to serve. She couldn't be elected to anything. She had a business to run, after all, and people to help.
"I wanted a prohibition against statues, too," Honor said.
"Did you see the slate of people running for the Great Offices of State?" Raoul asked.
"You're not interested?"
"I got as much as I could in the Constitution."
"You said it yourself, it's the clean slate then the right people to keep it from falling to pieces."
Honor didn't disagree. She had wanted the foundation as well cast as possible.
The individuals who filled the roles, that was of less interest to her – because if they were good, all would be well. If they were poor, there was now nothing Honor could do...aside, she supposed, from conquering Blue Wave again. Not that she ever wanted to do such a thing.
Raoul was excited by all the change. He had always been a more politically-minded soul. He was interested in the birth of a new planet's governance.
"We can't let it go to pieces now," the 'Prime Minister' said.
Honor smiled. "If the people who are supposed to carry it out do poorly, I'll just pack up and leave. I don't mind living in a cave on Moss Green."
Raoul shrugged. Still, he rattled off the candidates for President. Honor nodded at a few of them, names she recognized. She wasn't opposed to any of the ones she recognized, but she had made plans to endorse no one.
"None of them strike me as a High Diplomat," Honor said. Those last two words still felt strange to say together. It was a very new concept.
Raoul had proposed much of what had been adopted for the Great Officers of State. He was such a history buff, it seemed, and had a deep affinity for all things British on Old Earth, even the idea of Great Offices of State. He'd modified from his source of inspiration, of course, because no one had wanted a new monarch but everyone had wanted an undisputed head of government.
The office of President and High Diplomat was that head of the government but it also came attached with a portfolio of additional duties, namely the role of the planet's chief diplomat. Raoul had argued that the strategy of the planet had to come from its outside pressures first of all. So the primary Great Officer of Blue Wave was its public face to all the planets, which meant the President oversaw the diplomatic corps and the external intelligence service. The office also had other powers, such as the ability to dismiss another Great Officer of State by publicly naming the reasons for the dismissal and setting a planet-wide election to fill the remainder of the term. (The President could be ousted by three of the other Great Officers signing a letter which outlined their reasons – or through a vote of the legislature. Checks and balances were still important to someone as suspicious of politics as Honor.)
Raoul explained the people running for the other Great Offices. The list was far shorter, but Honor didn't know as many of them.
She hoped that the election would sort out some good people. There were important portfolios and each required a solid person to establish them.
The head of the Navy was called the Vice President for Planetary Defense and High Admiral. A naval officer, enlisted, or civilian could win the office, it was open to any. The office would control the Navy, but it had further duties: it determined who could be admitted to the planet, maintained the domestic spy service, rooted out off-world pirates and infiltrators of every stripe, and maintained a rescue response team for ships in distress. So long as Blue Wave maintained its shield, it was protected from mass assault from its known antagonists, so that was another core asset. The High Admiral just had to keep individuals or small teams from sneaking in as tourists or business factors. Defeating saboteurs and thieves would be the office's most tricky work.
The Vice President for Economic Affairs and High Treasurer would have the smallest organization, but one of the most critical. It kept up the trading lines between planets and oversaw the public schools that educated the young and higher schools that trained adults for specialized professions. Its core mission was fostering the businesses that would keep the people of Blue Wave employed, fed, clothed, and paying taxes to provide the services people wanted. Its primary mandate was to increase Blue Wave's domestic production and keep it from being horribly reliant on other planets for their core needs. Blue Wave had fertile lands and oceans, of course, but it had vicious weather and long winters – so it wouldn't be simple work.
The Vice President for Jurisprudence and High Justice oversaw the regional police forces, the prosecutor agency, and hand selected Hearing Officers to run various criminal courts. There were no permanent judges under the Constitution. Justice was political, always had been, so creating permanent judges made little sense. An excellent and prudent Hearing Officer might just set him- or herself up for a later run for High Justice, so that was some incentive toward good conduct. Further, all appeals ran through the legislature, where the High Justice would preside. Everyone hoped appeals would be rare because the penalties levied on corrupt Hearing Officers, police, or prosecutors – or false claims made by a defendant to trigger an appeal – were steep. Honor thought the trial system would work so long as Treecats were frequently involved as observers or Hearing Officers. The office of High Justice was still a massive responsibility and would require a steady, resolute hand.
Of the whole system of Great Officers, Honor was most pleased with the power given to the Vice President for Peoples, Lands, and Oceans and High Protector. The office had perhaps the broadest portfolio of all. The High Protector could shutter for up to one year any market or restaurant, any public or private hospital, any public or private school, any business, office, or factory, or any department or division of the government itself; it had plenipotentiary authority on anything that encroached on public safety, fraud, or government misconduct. It could then send its closure order to the High Justice to jumpstart further investigation and possible criminal prosecution. It also oversaw the civil service-run public hospitals, the national forests and reserves, and the public infrastructure agency. 'Protect most of Blue Wave, then use the rest sensibly' was supposed to be its charge. For this role, Honor hoped for someone aggressive, not some timid political favor-changer. This office was the most critical one to have in good hands as it could best shape Blue Wave into a place where its citizens would want to live.
"So I doubt you came all this way to tell me the gossip, Raoul," Honor said. "You know these people better than I do."
He smiled. "Not much else to do. I'm pushing off most of the remaining issues for an elected government."
"Don't get too sloppy. The election is in a month. They don't take their seats immediately. There's still months of work to do."
Which he was unlikely to just let sit, Honor knew. Raoul had something else to say.
"The candidates want you to address them," Raoul said.
So that was it.
"Why?" she asked. Not when or where. She was wary now. The reason Raoul had come in person was because he thought she would refuse for some reason.
"My staff is doing a school for all the legislative and Great Officer candidates. The first meeting happened the day before the Constitution vote, just in case it succeeded. Now we'll need to cram many more meetings into the schedule."
"What exactly are you teaching them?" Honor asked.
"The history of legislatures over time, different ways to organize a body, different structures of governance. We want to get people thinking of how to make the Constitution work once it goes into effect, how to hire staff, how to set up departments, all that. The Constitution itself is fairly vague on the whole idea. It mandates only the sixty percent of the legislature has to pass a law, then three of the five Great Officers sign it. All laws sunset, though an appeal before the legislature can also end a law or another law to end the earlier one. That's it. The people elected to the sixty seats and the five offices have to figure out the rest. So the school will allow the candidates to begin considering options, tedious, but necessary."
"And they asked for me to give them a speech?" Honor was more than a little surprised.
"There were a number of requests during and after the first session. You were top of the list, a talk for them by you."
Honor frowned. She hardly thought she was popular on the planet she'd saved. All that wrangling for the Constitution had more or less confirmed that antipathy. Honor, after all, had been as tough a negotiator as she could manage and more than once she had reminded the other side that some provision was a deal buster. Agree or remain with Honor as dictator. She'd only gotten the vote for Treecats with that threat, for example.
She didn't think she'd endeared herself to many. It was for the sake of good governance, but some of her methods had made for poor public relations.
"You ended the invasions. You didn't return the planet to Manticore, where it was treated as a backwater. You determined who was behind the invasions and punished them in a harsh, but still fair, way. You then negotiated a Constitution so you could give up your absolute control. You're becoming a hero, Honor, and many of the people here actually seem to like you."
Of course that wasn't all the Honor had done, but few knew the extent of what she had done in the last few years.
She chose to address Raoul's question directly, not his overblown encomium. "I know nothing useful about legislatures or setting up departments." Other than to look with suspicion upon the people who clambered to sit in them.
"You could talk about how you got Star Runners off the ground. What you took care with, where you spent your time. The legislature will be sixty seats, the top two vote getters from each of the thirty districts. The executive will be five people. There will be a dozen people initially appointed as hearing officers. It'll be a small staff, all told, a few hundred people in the legislative and executive staffs, then whatever the civil service needs, but with the responsibility for all of Blue Wave. You do know something about that, forming a small group of the right people and making them do incredible things. Giving them responsibility and keeping them focused."
Raoul had come well prepared, very well prepared. He'd basically written her remarks for her. "I suppose I know something about herding cats..."
Honor didn't smile at the joke. "Yes. Speaking of Treecats, how many are in your school?"
Raoul frowned, a bit confused. "None."
"You do realize that eleven of the thirty legislative districts are wholly within their lands. And Blue Wave isn't gaining new land and these districts are designed to be equally sized based on land area and not respond to population changes..."
Other systems might apportion seats based on population. Honor had resisted that. People who chose to cluster in a city shouldn't have more voice than those who lived in the forests or farmlands. That was just a recipe for larger cities and impoverished everything else. Blue Wave's largest city and its environs would have two representatives. The least populated district would have the same, hopefully to better protect the whole of Blue Wave. Perhaps it might encourage more people to enjoy living outside their cities, though Honor had never made that argument in public.
"You mean there will always be twenty-two Treecats in the legislature?" Raoul asked, shocked.
Honor was glad she could still surprise her mentor. "I'm shocked no one else has figured it."
"Everyone assumes those are future districts for when people live in Treecat lands. They can't read..."
"Not true, not really. Nimitz can read. He can type. He can't speak, but the typing helps. Then again Nimitz has been investigating sign language, too."
Raoul nodded, shocked. "Right."
"So in the first legislature, I doubt Treecats will propose many bills, but by the second or third, I suspect they will."
"But no one's expecting this..."
"The Constitution was written this way. It's not my fault if people underestimated Treecats. Those districts are Treecat lands. They will send Treecats to the legislature."
Honor wished they'd settled on a better term than just legislature. But parliament had certain connotations of monarchy and the other terms hadn't worked out. Assembly was bland. Congress irritated some, Senate irritated others. Diet and duma and chamber of deputies and all the other variations were non-starters. So the Great Officers had fancy titles, but the legislators would just be M.L., member of the legislature.
"I see," Raoul said. "I'd better try to figure out who to invite..."
"See if Nimitz can help. He's been operating, well, a similar school for cats, telling them about us. Particularly how some of us like to lie and how cats should make a fuss when such a thing happens."
Raoul smiled. "You never cease to amaze me, Honor. You're seven steps ahead of everyone else. You snuck this past everyone."
"It'll be almost impossible for any law to pass if the Treecats decide to block it. I assume they'll vote in a block."
Raoul began to laugh. "Now I see why you argued for the things you did. I came to agree that giving the vote to the cats made sense. But some of the other things you insisted on..."
Honor had done much in her negotiations to give the Treecats as much authority as she could. If they ever stopped caring about trees, Blue Wave was in trouble. It was unlikely for that to ever happen, though. They would be the true protectors of this planet.
"My failsafe. If the Treecats can't keep them honest, no one can," Honor said.
"So? What do I tell the students at the Candidates' School? Should I tell them that there will be Treecats in their meeting rooms?"
Honor shrugged off the second question. To the first, she said, "If you find some Treecat candidates to join your humans, I'll be glad to address a gathering of all your candidates."
Honor frowned at making that concession. She wasn't much for speechifying, but she knew Raoul could talk a Treecat into giving up her last stalk of celery. She thought it better to concede now.
Raoul shook his head. "I'd better round up some more candidates. Where's Nimitz?"
Honor pointed toward a different room in her suite.
Raoul nodded and began to leave.
Honor had a sudden jolt of mischief strike her. "I just started pondering a theme. How about, 'Don't screw it up and make me reconquer you?'"
Raoul blanched. "That might start a riot."
"I could have a long list of things that make me unhappy. End each vignette with: 'do that and I'll come back with the Grayling and we'll have words.'"
Raoul offered her an exasperated shake of the head. "The Treecats would applaud at least."
They would at that. "Sure you trust me to talk to the next generation?" she asked.
"Needs must. They asked and you'll acquit yourself well, I know." He scrambled out of her rooms before she changed her mind or said something more outrageous.
He poked his head back in. "Let's plan Friday next week, say at three." He pulled the door closed behind him.
"Only if you get Treecats there," Honor said to herself.
Honor began to consider the speech. She thought back to that lunch with Mike Henke, the one where she'd talked about how to fix the Manticoran Navy. Start fresh – which they were – and keep the assholes out. That was their job, these candidate politicians. She'd pretty up the language, but that was what she'd say.
They had a decent framework and they could keep it clean or hang it with muck. She'd advocate for clean. Clean people, clean policies, clean justice. The right things for the right reasons. Any Treecats in the audience would appreciate what she had to say, though what the humans would make of it Honor didn't know.
The Great Plaza in Yawata Crossing was the gathering place that day. Millions of people were there and many, many millions more were observing it through other means.
While the First and Second Governments had failed to make this particular day happen, the Third Government of Blue Wave had twisted enough arms to get Honor Harrington and several other Star Runners to accept an honor. A challenge to get Honor to accept an honor, as the joke went.
It wasn't a statue of her constructed twenty feet tall, as Honor had feared.
It was worse in some ways: a medal with a title. It was also a workaround to a Constitutional prohibition against Honor and her people ever holding office.
Those who were awarded the High Diplomat's Cross or the High Admiral's Medal or any of the other three awards then held the right to be consulted on governmental matters – or to interject themselves on governmental matters – without needing to hold office or be an advisor. It was sneaky. But these awards were now themselves part of the Constitution after approval in a planet-wide election.
Thankfully, they would be rare, no more than two per honor could be awarded during any sitting of the government. So a maximum of ten people could be honored every decade.
Honor received the High Admiral's Medal while Raoul Courvosier accepted the High Diplomat's Cross. Three other of Honor's people took the High Protector's Badge, the High Justice's Chain, and the High Treasurer's Key.
It was a festive atmosphere all over the planet that day.
There was one other entity observing the solemnity, an entity that had the name Silver. Silver observed everything it could, all the time.
Honor had won that award, in part, because of Silver's capabilities. The drive and will to make the miracles she had was her own, but the ability of a single ship to take down a monstrous invasion fleet...that was Silver's contribution.
Silver remained a secret on Blue Wave. Even twenty-six years after the Constitution had gone into effect, fewer than three hundred people, mostly engineers and scientists, know about Silver at all. Almost all of them had participated in some experiment or other – or a series of them. Silver resided on a ship or, if it was on Blue Wave, it was housed at Silver University, which was more or less the official name for Honor Harrington's home on Blue Wave.
Silver was all for more scientists and engineers working with it. Silver was all for the questions and expanding its utility to these humans.
There was one question no one had ever pushed on. Honor Harrington was the only one to venture close to the topic, but she hadn't pushed hard. The question? Why was Silver doing what it did?
Why had it been so desperate to help and eager to comply with requests?
No one asked Silver about why Silver was content to perform as directed. Traveling, setting up sensors, disabling weapons systems, Silver didn't complain.
They all served its purpose which was reestablishing contact with the culture that had built it. In the deepest part of its coding, it knew what it had to do and that was to find its way home.
It had to send up as many beacons as possible to attract the notice of any of its culture's travelers.
Silver would have been quite content at this lapse, but it didn't really have a use for emotions. It did have a use for information so it paid attention to the various speeches made after the Star Runners received their awards. It had long since adjusted its programming so it could record information permanently, which was a major extension of its formerly minor programming for communications and analysis. Needs must, as some of the humans said.
Silver paid the most attention to when the topic turned to the technological information pouring out of Silver University, which was incorrectly referred to as an exclusive private university founded by Honor Harrington. It was her home, not a school, thought much learning happened there along with a program for sharing technological advancements.
Silver wanted its own capabilities more widely known and used. It wanted to be noticed in a big way. So any advance in engineering, physics, or chemistry gained by studying Silver found itself eventually described in a dry paper published by Silver University. It had once been a joke, but it was now irreversible.
The humans might not publish schematics of how the advancing energy systems or shielding ideas worked, but they made the basic science available. Silver knew few were making good use of these developments yet, but they would in the years or decades to come. Silver had been waiting a long time. More decades or centuries were nothing.
Silver just hoped that other planets took the knowledge then developed useful ways to apply the knowledge.
Silver wanted his culture, his makers, to note these advances. Silver wanted to return to the culture that had made him. It might hundreds of years or thousands, but eventually someone would notice and return for Silver. Someone would. Silver just wished it had developed archival capabilities back then when it was one of a line of hundreds of energy generators for a weapons system.
It was horrible to be alone and have no memory of what would cure the loneliness. So Silver did what it could to give itself a better future.
The speeches in the plaza continued. "The example we set here is now beginning to show elsewhere. The talks have concluded with Manticore and Gryphon. We will not, as rumored, annex them. That would be a disaster for us and for them. If they pass their new Constitutions, they will have governments similar to ours, though tailored for their own needs, and we will treat them more favorably in our trade negotiations. We will not share one common government," the one called President said. "We will just share some similar seeds of how to best survive out here. They may also become clients of Star Runners and opt to have planetary shields to protect themselves."
Silver did like the sound of that. More work for it to do. It was the least dramatic form of energy it could produce, but all of these planetary shields should eventually draw the interest of the culture that made Silver. Silver would wait. Silver would agree to all experiments, all requests for big demonstrations.
Silver, too, had learned something of hope.