Disclaimer: Characters are the property of their respective creators. This is an unlicensed parody
Summary: The beginnings of a game, with a star system and more at stake.
Vorkosigan Saga timeframe: Between Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance
Honorverse timeframe: After Honor Among Enemies, with slight canon tweaks
Note: periodically eats the scenebreaks on this story and I've gotten sick of fixing them. If this is an issue for you, please read the correctly formatted version on Archive of Our Own.

One would not think that Empire could survive
As starships Roman cavalry displace;
The politics of Space must needs derive
From Einstein's time, Planck's heat, and Riemann's Space...

-John M. Ford

Admiral Naismith growled. He was being herded.

There was no other word for it. A Cetagandan destroyer sat casually athwart the wormhole to his rear. A pair of their fast couriers played hunting dogs, a heavy cruiser the huntmaster. An elegant trap, elegantly sprung, and what little commercial shipping was in this system was steering subtly clear.

They were so screwed.

"Maybe we could send our shuttle off on a ballistic course while they're busy blowing the Ariel, and try to talk our way aboard one of the neutral freighters?" Captain Thorne suggested.

Miles shook his head. The couriers were keeping close enough station to them that that simply wouldn't work. "The tac comp says no."

"The tac comp's saying no to everything. Your call, Admiral," Thorne said.

There was a non-trivial probability that Miles himself would survive capture by his adversaries, but the Cetagandans considered the whole Dendarii fleet pirates, and would have no compunction about shooting Thorne's crew on principle. Miles rubbed his nose, trying not to betray his bleak thoughts. "Stall," he said finally.

"Stall how?" Thorne asked.

"The usual way. I have some favors I can pull in." Bel gave him a sideways look. "If we can hold out a couple weeks, the messages I sent out through the jump-relay network might reach either more of our folks or allies." A Barrayaran convey escort would be ideal, however much it might blow his cover. Getting captured by the Cetagandans would blow his cover in a significantly more unpleasant fashion.

"Might," Thorne said. "In a couple weeks?" Battles were dances, and the Ariel was faster than either of the Cetagandan warships, but not faster than the flanking fast couriers. It outgunned the fast couriers, but not the warships. A decisive close-range engagement could be delayed for quite some time, but not forever. "What about their reinforcements?"

"They don't know I'm here."

"You don't know they don't know you're here."

True enough. Miles crossed his arms in front of his chest and stared across the tactical map, before switching to the Nexus display. The system they were in had four wormholes, but only the two Cetagandan-guarded ones went anywhere interesting. He called up the bare survey reports from the other two. One led to a starless area of open space, not a place one wanted to play hide and seek in. It was too easy to lose track of a wormhole terminus hurtling through the voids between stars. Wormholes bound to a star system through five-space interactions were much safer.

The second, more distant wormhole, led to an extended binary star system with fourteen very boring planets. Some independent had spent a fortune mapping it out on a hunch, but hadn't found any other wormholes through. It was a guaranteed dead end, but a dead end with a lot more places to hide than this planetless expanse with its swelled, blood-red sun.

"There," he said, pointing at the terminus. "We've got a minefield beacon, right? Drop it before we go through, see if they want to risk a ship." If a wormhole exit wasn't clear of all debris, a ship transiting in was almost guaranteed to be destroyed.

"Do you want to actually mine it?" Bel asked.

"No. Unfortunately, we may need the shuttle, and we don't have anything else big enough," Miles said. "But it may give them pause."

Bel handed off the orders to the tactics computer. The dance would spin out for another three or four days. The fast couriers, placed so as to easily intercept them on the way to either of the two guarded wormholes, couldn't beat them to the third wormhole without coming into range of the Ariel's weapons. They didn't want to do that, not without backup.

Miles stared down at the tactics plot, his thoughts dark and tangled. He caught Bel watching him with a worried wrinkle between its eyes, and attempted a reassuring smile. The hermaphrodite straightened, smiling back. They were alone in the small ship's tactics room.

"So, if we're all going to die anyway…," it started, one elegantly shaped eyebrow arching up in unmistakable invitation.

Miles cleared his throat. "We're not dead yet."

The Atlas-class passenger liner RMMS Artemis cruised towards the Gregor A wormhole terminus. There were still scars where it had been raked by Havenite fire, and it was not the beautiful example of Hauptman Cartel craftsmanship it once had been. But it had served, and would serve, its purpose.

The Manticorans in New Berlin had discovered that it was faster and more efficient to repair the swift passenger liner's hyper nodes than for its battered passengers to take commercial or other passage home. Trade magnate Klaus Hauptman had graciously offered to carry the remnants of the crew of Honor Harrington's wrecked Q-ship HMS Wayfarer all the way to the Manticore system. A warship would have been even faster, but with Trevor's Star not yet taken Manticore had no warships to spare. While the Andermani yards had done an excellent job on the hyper nodes, the Artemis still needed a complete refit in a Manticoran yard before it could take commercial passengers, so the gracious offer was not costing Hauptman anything in addition to what it would normally have cost him to get the ship home.

BuPers would spare no time in splitting up the much-needed Wayfarer crew to new postings and new assignments once their current leisurely cruise was at an end. Manpower was at a premium. Only their battered captain would be spared. Having 'inherited' Samantha, the pregnant treecat mate of her bonded companion Nimitz, Honor would be going on maternity leave on her home planet of Sphinx until the kittens were born. It wouldn't be long now, until her seniority pushed her into a flag rank. Indeed, it was possible she'd never be merely a starship captain again.

The Manticorans were not the only passengers on this vessel. To Honor's irritation, she'd been forced to eat her word to her prisoners from the People's Republic of Haven. She'd promised them release in Andermani space – it'd been approved, even – but the Office of Navel Intelligence had partially countermanded the ambassador's approval. The crews had still been let go there, but the officers were to be released through Trevor's Star. After military interrogation in the Manticore system, of course.

The Havenites – Citizen Commander Caslet, Citizen Captain Holtz, and their surviving staff - had taken this in stone-faced stride. In addition to enduring additional interrogation, they'd also be getting home much ahead of schedule, and facing the music there sooner. Defeat was looked at with suspicion in the People's Republic, as there was a sense that the truly patriotic should find a way to win, regardless of the odds.

Honor stood on the bridge, as a spectator, not the captain. Margaret Fuchien, the vessel's civilian captain, was as good an officer as most in the Royal Manticoran Navy and better than no small number. Honor's treecat, pried away from his bereaved mate, perched on her shoulder, tasting the emotions of the crew. There was nothing here Honor could criticize, especially not after the efforts Fuchien and her people had gone to on her behalf. Focus and smooth professionalism were the rule. You didn't get to be bridge crew on one of Klaus Hauptman's luxury passenger liners if you were easily unnerved by important guests.

It would be good to be home, if Sphinx still was home. Honor was torn now between two worlds, two governments. Her obligations to her adopted world of Grayson would consume her again soon enough.

Fuchien oversaw the configuration of the Warshawski sails in preparation for their transit. As its turn came, the ship smoothly made the transition, riding the wormhole grav wave home.

"Admiral, you'd better get up here," Bel's voice crackled over the shipboard com. Rousing in a military instant, Miles threw on some undress grays. He stared at the mirror, decided to skip depilation, and arrowed down the hall to the tactics room. The jump had happened during his sleep cycle, disturbing his dreams as usual. The first Cetagandans couldn't possibly jump through for (he glanced at a chrono) another half-hour yet.

The smothering blanket of depression that had hovered over him lifted slightly as he wandered into the tactics room. Bel had this look on its face that it only got when something really neat was going on.

"They falsified the survey!" it grinned.

"Who did what now?" Miles asked, not quite awake.

"Take a look at this. A freighter's sensors wouldn't pick it up, but take a look."

It took a couple hard looks at both the sensor images and the survey figures for Miles to figure out what Bel was talking about. The planet sizes matched. Anyone who wasn't looking to land might overlook that… two? Two of the supposedly extremely boring worlds orbiting this half of the binary were clearly life-supporting by the spectra.

"Pirate base, you think?" he asked. Not necessarily a bad thing. He'd be willing to temporarily hook up with a batch of pirates if they could help him get the Cetagandan Navy off his back.

Bel shrugged.

"We've led the Cetas right to this, though," Miles added a bit more soberly. "It's close enough that they might just grab it. Two terraformable worlds is a major prize."

"Three," Bel said.

"Three?"

"One of the ones around the other sun looks suspicious to me."

"Huh," Miles said. "Are we picking up anything?"

"I might have got some radio from one of the worlds, but it's hard to say. I also spotted an ephemeral flash from way out-system, but it might have been a glitch."

"Well, let's try to find some friends," Miles said. "We'll surely need them."

The Junction forts had gone missing.

That had been Honor's first blank impression, hours back. It had been wrong, though. It was actually the Star Kingdom that had gone missing.

Manticore A and B still orbited each other in a distant, majestic dance. The worlds of Manticore, Sphinx, and Gryphon still circled their parent stars. But no impeller signatures graced their plot, no communications were in evidence, and the far planets seemed entirely unscarred by either civilization or war. Nothing.

Their first thought was that their systems had failed, but it soon became clear that something much stranger had occurred. Streams of normal commercial traffic had been strung out in front of and behind them before the transit, but all those ships were missing too. It was an empty, lonely visage.

It took them a little while to find the small, impellerless space platform lurking in their wake. When hailed, it apologized profusely and said it was still working on the science.

It wasn't pirates. It was worse. It was physicists.

Depressingly, they were unarmed.

The Manticore Wormhole Junction was light-hours from Manticore A, an easy cruise for the sleek liner. After an urgent discussion with the engineering crew, it was decided that until the possibility of an undetected imperfection in the Warshawski sails could be eliminated, attempting to re-transit was inadvisable. Even assuming this Junction had the same approaches as the one that was supposed to be here also was not without its hazards. The Artemis was a passenger liner, not a survey vessel. They also, as Hauptman noted, would be coming in outside the usual transit patterns, possibly leading to an accident. When such cosmic energies and forces were involved, accidents were not to be courted.

The engineers checked the engines, the techs checked the controls, and grudgingly Captain Harrington permitted Hauptman to draft Citizen Lieutenant Commander Shannon Foraker from the Haven POWs to figure out if anything had gone wrong with the computers. There was something about Foraker that made Honor uneasy, most likely the sense she got from Nimitz that the Peep tac officer was far too bright for her own good.

One could hardly draft Foraker without admitting to the POWs (and the small contingent of non-military non-crew aboard) that something had gone terribly wrong. However, they'd have realized that soon in any case. The prisoners were tense. Haven had secret prison camps, it was said, where it disappeared men and women, and surely they suspected treachery here. Honor suspected, however, that some of them might find a Manticoran POW camp secretly preferable to going home.

So they wandered slowly sunward over the course of a day or so, not daring to take a shortcut in hyper. Hauptman, Honor, and their entourages had been invited to visit the main settlement in this system by its mysterious inhabitants.

Honor had considered just seizing the craft near this Junction and forcing its inhabitants to divulge its secrets, but currently they had an excess of Marines and a shortage of assault craft. Klaus Hauptman, of all people, had pointed out that starting a war with a culture that had the power to disrupt the Wormhole Junction was perhaps not the wisest idea. But Hauptman and his daughter were who they were, and clearly they were already thinking of trade possibilities, and more. The distorted grav waves showed that a wormhole junction was still present. Where did the termini lead from here? Was there an empty Beowulf to discover, an empty Trevor's Star?

There had to be some way of turning this to Manticore's strategic advantage, Honor thought, and it likely started with annexing this odd mirror system. But the first priority was getting back, and to get back they had to learn how they'd got here.

Time passed. The Artemis swung into orbit over a familiar yet unfamiliar planet. There were ships here, a handful of them – two small intrasystem craft no larger than a large LAC. One was transmitting some form of non-standard identification code, while the other, smaller one was running silent and was extremely difficult to spot. They moved seamlessly through space. Clearly they had some form of inertial compensators, for the grav sensors were picking up something this close, but the Artemis didn't pick up the bold signatures of impeller wedges even when they were moving. The speed of the pseudo-LACs was glacial, their maneuverability equally so.

She was on the bridge when the larger vessel hailed them.

"Unidentified vessel, this is ghem-Captain Elern of the Cetagandan Imperial cruiser Cyrene," a male voice said. The video signal was shortly deciphered by the Artemis's computers, revealing a brown-skinned, serious-looking man in a black uniform and lurid facepaint. "Please state your intentions in this system."

Calm words, for a man whose ship was outmassed so vastly. But maybe they'd spotted the Artemis for a civilian craft. Artemis's armament wasn't civilian, though, and Honor suspected ('cruiser' or not) she could easily take this 'Cyrene'.

Hauptman leaned forward, taking the call. "Cyrene, this is the RMMS Artemis," he said. "Klaus Hauptman, owner. We are currently here by invitation of the planet's inhabitants, but please be aware that the Star Kingdom of Manticore has a pre-existing territorial claim to this system."

"No such claim is recognized among the interstellar powers," the… Cetagandan? countered. "Neither, I believe, is any government of that name."

Hauptman's eyebrows rose. He glanced sideways at Honor. They were lost. But they'd known that by the empty system where their homeworlds were supposed to be,.

"We look forward to peaceful interaction between our two nations," Hauptman offered. Honor was suddenly uneasily aware that the magnate seemed to have appointed himself ambassador. Not necessarily a good thing. Perhaps she should have insisted on taking the call.

"We have also now received an invitation," the Cetagandan said. "I look forward to making your acquaintance, Hauptman of the Artemis. Perhaps our governments' interests may coincide, now or in the future."

"If I may ask, ghem-Captain," Hauptman asked courteously, "what is your business in the system?"

"Ah," Elern said. "As it happens, we are pirate-hunting."

The Ariel's shuttle was stealthed near the tiny colony's power plant, about the only place it could hide its emissions. They had one, blessed, advantage – the colony's inhabitants, like Bel and Miles, were Betans. It instantly got them the benefit of the doubt.

It was a small colony, though, and one that could be swallowed by the Cetagandans without a blink. Unregistered, too, so Beta Colony likely wouldn't make too much of a fuss. As to why it was unregistered, the colonists were evasive in that peculiar Betan way that betrayed something big was afoot.

It also seemed like half of them were five-space physicists, retired five-space physicists, or jump pilots. That worried Miles. By definition, these people were both smarter and crazier than he was. They had to be, to play with wormhole math.

Bel was in orbit, keeping on the other side of the planet from the Cetagandan cruiser. Miles was downside, with Taura and her squad. No use getting the Ariel's crew killed in a ground fight, or Green Squad killed in a space fight. He'd given Bel tacit permission to sell him out if it became necessary to save his own skin and the skins of the rest of the crew.

The Cetagandans had become more cautious, though, as they'd spotted the kilometers-wide distortion approaching from deep out-system, cutting through space with absurd velocity. Its deceleration into planetary orbit was incredible, a few hundred gravities, far in excess of what even the swiftest known warships could accomplish. As it neared, they got a glimpse of the ship itself through its distorting veils. It was well over three-quarters of a kilometer long beneath its odd, shrouding veils, and deeply phallic. A mystery wrapped in a mystery, and an urgent intelligence priority.

Happily, the colonists were willing to employ Miles. He was the only person on the planet who had any idea how to plan an official banquet.

Honor Hornblower, the name tag on the table read.

Eyebrows raised, she picked up the tag and showed it to Rafe Cardones, who cracked a smile, and then to Hauptman, who looked blank. Hauptman's daughter and Captain Fuchien had remained in orbit on the Artemis in case of treachery.

They were in what looked like a small gymnasium/auditorium, attached to the colony's small school. The artificial floor was smooth and polished, with markings for various sports. A flimsy curtain partitioned a stage from the rest of the room. One of Honor's armsmen was back there, checking the theater equipment for bombs or hidden enemies.

The Cetagandan delegation (ghem-Captain Elern, a hardfaced man who had been introduced to them as ghem-Major Liu, and a set of men who looked like subordinates or bodyguards) seemed to be having similar difficulties with their nametags, but Honor didn't know enough about their culture to understand exactly what the issue was. There was real anger, however. Some obscure slight of precedence had occurred involving the two ranking officers, apparently baffling the colonists.

Of her own guards, Honor had only three armsmen, as well as Nimitz and Samantha. She had been reluctant to take Samantha, but she needed Nimitz's talents badly. While Samantha had recovered on the surface from the death of her companion Harold Tschu, her pain was bone-deep, and separating her from her mate now would have been cruelty.

Honor studied the black uniforms of the men across the table curiously. There were no women in the group, which set off alarm bells in her head. The officers could be distinguished by their extremely elaborate face paint, which seemed to vary by rank. They showed no surprise at a woman in uniform, however, and their accents, while archaic, were understandable.

The dinner seemed slapshod and poorly put together by formal Manticoran standards, with little ceremony and that done badly. It was a small colony, though, and perhaps no insult was intended. It was fascinating to see a Manticore essentially unmolded by civilization, and to see what had been lost over the years. Outside this little settlement, the world was vast and empty.

The head of the colony was an elderly, quite absent-minded man named Steve Andersen, who gave the impression that he really just wanted them all to go away but realized he was heavily outgunned. Social events clearly weren't his specialty, which begged the question of what was. It was clear the humans of the colony were pre-prolong, though she was less certain about the Cetagandans.

During the adequate but not spectacular meal, Honor looked up to see ghem-Captain Elern considering her and her uniform carefully. She and Cardones were in Manticoran black and gold, her armsmen were in green, and Hauptman was in civilian dress.

"Is there something I can help you with, ghem-Captain?" she asked. The ghem- appeared to be an integral part of the title, but there was no clue to what it meant.

"I merely wished to express my admiration of your ship, Captain Harrington. It is rare to see such a beautiful and well-handled vessel in our patrols."

"Oh," she said, "it's not my ship. I'm merely a passenger."

The ghem-Captain smiled. "I have never heard of your kingdom, Captain Harrington. Is it very large?"

"Not by some standards," Honor said. "But our wormholes make us influential." She smiled back over her plate. "And our military skill is second to none. As for your own empire?"

"Eight core worlds, and many systems beside."

"Not large, then," she said. The Cetagandan's eyebrows rose, and he gave her a considering look. Her reaction seemed to surprise him.

"You said you had a claim to this system," he said. "Yet Andersen says that he's never heard of you. A curiosity, that."

"I was born here," she said. "My companions as well. It is our home."

"Not this world, I assume."

"I'm actually from Sphinx, the next planet out. As is Nimitz, here."

"I see," he said, studying the treecat with thoughtful curiosity. The cats had been given seats of their own, since they had been on the guest list Honor had sent down. Neither the colony head nor ghem-Captain Elern had made more than polite comments on their presence yet, though Honor sensed they were more curious than they were letting on. Nimitz looked up and bleeked at the Cetagandan before going back to his meal, showing off his table manners. Had they realized yet that he was an intelligent creature in his own right?

"Our main worlds are significantly more developed," Honor added.

"A wormhole's jump away?" Elern asked, seeming amused.

She smiled.

Elern sighed. "This complicated things. I am in pursuit of a pirate named Miles Naismith. I dearly hope that your people have not chosen to give him safe haven. That would be unfortunate for all concerned."

"I can't say I've ever heard of the man," Honor said honestly. "But I'm not friends with pirates."

"Ah? Well, he's hard to miss. He's very short. If you should happen to see him…?"

Honor made a neutral noise, and glanced sideways as she felt something odd through Nimitz. She was just in time to see Samantha disappear under the table, and felt the treecat eel past her legs. Honor frowned as the treecat darted up the steps to the stage, and reached out with her true-hands to pull the curtain aside. The only person back there should be…

A spike of alarm went through her as she realized the armsman that was supposed to be guarding that area was unconscious. She'd sensed no malice from back there, no murderous intent, but they had company. Two armored individuals looked up as the treecat hopped through the opening. A small man scrambled back, and a tall woman surged forward with extraordinary speed.

Through Nimitz, Honor could feel how poundingly loud the glow of one of the minds was, a maelstrom of emotion – surprise and increasing alarm. Samantha's gaze and mental focus locked on him, and she bounded forward. Honor could feel herself being drawn in as Samantha attuned to him, and him to her. She struggled free, trying to close off her perception, but it took effort to focus.

The tall woman in armor had reflexes faster than anyone in the room. Before anyone could say a word, her weapon was out. As Samantha arrowed into the smaller person's arms, she fired.

Confusion. Honor reached for her own sidearm in sheer spinal reflex. Nimitz should have reacted before now, should have warned her. Her guards drew, and the woman fired, taking one down. LaFollet dived for her, and a second shot hit him. Nimitz bleeked in startlement and worry but didn't join the fray, instead hurtling towards Samantha.

The Cetagandans were on their feet now. A blue bolt hissed through the air, blowing a hole in the wall behind the stage. Another hit the armored woman, but stopped with a loud snapping sound and left her unharmed. Elern went for what Honor thought was the panic button on his comlink. The woman fired, fired, and fired again without pause, hitting her targets with surgical precision. The last one collapsed before the first even hit the floor. All unconscious, Honor realized through Nimitz. She stayed still, not wishing to draw fire.

The armored man, meanwhile, was staring down at the fallen cat with complete confusion on his shrouded face. He took a step back as Nimitz approached. The treecat sniffed at his mate in alarm, then curled up protectively beside her.

"Damnit," the man said under his breath. He took two steps forward, looked down at Samantha in complete bafflement, then came down the stairs into the room. He kept glancing backwards as he did, though he seemed not to realize he was doing so. His gaze swept curiously across Honor, Cardones, and Hauptman.

Demands for information were now coming from the Cetagandan communication link. The short man – he was even shorter than she'd first thought, little taller than Benjamin Mayhew's senior wife - jogged over and picked it up, cracking his helmet open.

"Half-stunned, I'm sorry," he said imitating Elern's intonation precisely. "We were ambushed. Major Liu and his team are pursuing. We expect resolution shortly." He listened calmly to the reply. Out of the corner of her eye, Honor saw more armored individuals gliding through the hall nearby. By feel, two of the meal servers also belonged to Naismith's faction, such as it was. "No, I think not," he continued. "This is well in hand."

He turned off the comlink. "'Do you want an orbital bombardment?'" he said in an incredulous, mocking tone, staring down at it in disbelief. He shook his head and without apparently thinking about it turned to walk back up the stairs.

"Mmm," the larger woman said. Now that she was off the stage, Honor realized just how tall she actually was. The smaller man barely came to her waist, which made her most of two and a half meters. No human had those reflexes, and even though she was aware of her own genetic background Honor felt unease as she realized that she was in the presence of an actual genie supersoldier. "Time to skip town. Ah… Admiral?"

The 'Admiral' looked down at his feet, frowned, and stared up at the stage with narrowed eyes. Andersen of the colonists was blinking and frowning.

"Excuse me," Honor said with arctic chill, gently removing LaFollet's unconscious body from her lap. Standing, she drew herself to her full height. "I don't believe you were invited to this dinner."

A lopsided grin flickered across the smaller man's features. "I'm catering staff," he said. Seeing her lack of amusement, he gave her an almost aristocratic bow. "My apologies for the inconvenience. That was much less elegant than I'd planned."

"I thought we'd agreed to avoid shooting people," Andersen said a little anxiously.

"Yes, sorry," the commander said, sounding mildly frustrated as he looked down at the Cetagandan officers. "I had Liu halfway to re-declaring that clan vendetta, too. They'd have been shooting each other by the dessert course." He frowned, then squared his shoulders. "Well, best laid plans. We'll cope."

Beaten by a cat. The Great and Powerful Oz must have felt like this, Miles thought darkly, running through the tactical situation in his head. The Cetagandan lieutenant had sounded so enthusiastic about orbital bombardment. And his cruiser, Bel informed, was in position to block an orbital pick-up.

Theoretically, he had hostages. Theoretically, he could try to force a negotiated settlement. Practically… the situation was less clear, and things would come to a head again soon.

There were more players in the game than him and the Cetagandans, of course. Dismissing from his mind the continuing nagging sense that he should be going over there, he took off his helmet, sliding off the nerve disruptor net hood as well.

"Hi," he said smoothly as he walked up to the woman who seemed to be, if not actually in charge, the most influential person present. She was in her mid-twenties at the latest, with Eurasian features and a cool, unimpressed gaze. "I'm…"

"…Miles Naismith," she said.

He brightened. "Oh, you've heard of me!" There was the faintest flicker of contempt in her eyes in response to that. He stiffened.

"Do you want me to wake any of these people up?" Green Squad's medic asked.

Miles thought about that. Ghem-Major Liu's death squad, Elern, and possibly Elern's XO would all have the allergy treatment, which limited his options. "Interrogate the Cetagandan ghem-lieutenant," he said, scratching his itching nose. Harrington was watching him. "And...hm. Give the men in green some synergine too." He frowned. "The rest – you have something that'll put them out for a long time, right?"

"Right," she said. Green Squad had coalesced in the room now, and were sorting out and disarming the Cetas. Miles frowned, realizing he had completely lost his train of thought again. He didn't understand why he was so off his game right now.

There was a hiss from the stage. Miles whirled, a sudden defensiveness coming over him. The six-legged creature that hadn't been stunned was bristling. "Danio, step away from the cat!" he snapped, starting up the stairs again. Both the creature – Nimitz, he remembered from the guest list - and Danio settled back on their feet.

"Bleek!" the creature said, clearly scolding.

"I'm busy!" Miles snapped back, and immediately felt very silly for doing so. He crouched down and took off his armored glove to check the vital signs on the other, stunned creature. Alive, yes, very much so. He ran his fingers thoughtfully through her fur, and then, on instinct, picked her up and clutched her to him.

Yeah, that felt right. His brain kicked back into its groove as he headed back down to the makeshift dining room. The creature was not exactly portable, and Miles had to sort of drape her over him to make it work. She was close to a quarter his weight, he figured. Looked sort of Sergyaran, with the six legs.

Taura had that look on her face she got when she was pointedly not commenting on something. Miles ignored her. The other cat trotted tamely at his heels.

Harrington watched this interplay, a peculiar expression on her face. It was wiped clean almost instantly, however – she was nearly as good at looking blank as a haut-lady.

"These Cetagandans," she asked. "If they catch you, will they kill you?" She had a nice voice, Miles noted vaguely, a clear soprano. He wondered if she sang.

"Ah… yes." Honesty compelled him to add, "Or do other severely unpleasant things to me instead." He wrinkled his nose, holding back a sneeze.

"Why?" she asked.

He thought about Dagoola, about Vervain and the dozen skirmishes since. "It's complicated," he said helplessly.

The creature Nimitz flowed up the table, climbing up to Harrington's shoulder and clinging with long ivory claws. He made a scolding noise at her, and she frowned.

"I want you to come aboard my vessel," she said abruptly. Miles looked cautiously interested. This could actually solve a number of his currently intractable tactical problems. Taura growled, gold eyes burning in distrust. "You're clearly unable to escape on your own, and unfortunately I now have a personal interest in ensuring your safety."