Despite her own genuine concern, Michelle's lips twitched. Unlike her, Honor Alexander-Harrington had spent the better part of fifty T-years training in coup de vitesse. Even without the hidden pulser Michelle knew her father had built into Honor's artificial left hand, Honor wouldn't find it particularly difficult to fend off any bare-handed assault Michelle might launch.

            "And, second," Honor continued, "both Nimitz and I know what to watch for now. I feel fairly confident we'd realize something was taking over at least as quickly as you did, and this time, Mike," she looked directly into Michelle's eyes, "I am not going to kill another friend as the only way to stop her. Nor am I going to take a chance on Andrew's doing the same thing. So if it should happen that anyone on the planet of Haven slipped any new lines of code into your programming, the sooner it kicks in, the better, as far as I'm concerned.

            "Besides," she grinned suddenly, breaking the tension of the moment, "I can't believe anyone in the Republic would be crazy enough to deliberately send another programmed assassin after me, especially after releasing the aforesaid assassin from prison and providing her with transportation home! I think they must have a pretty shrewd notion of how Elizabeth would react to that."

            "If you're sure," Michelle said.

            "Positive," Honor replied firmly, and reached for the coffee pot on the tray MacGuiness had set up. She poured a cup for Michelle, then poured a cup of hot, steaming cocoa from a second carafe for herself, then settled back in her chair.

            For several minutes, neither of them spoke. They only sat there, sipping their beverages of choice while Honor nibbled idly on a sandwich — taking the opportunity to stoke her genetically-modified metabolism — and handed Nimitz a stick of celery. The 'cat chewed blissfully — and messily — on the treat, and the crunching sound of his dining sounded unnaturally loud in the day cabin's quiet.

            It was odd, Michelle reflected. She supposed most people in their position would have been busy filling the silence with small talk, or at least telling one another all over again how glad they were to see each other. But neither she nor Honor felt the need to do that. They'd known each other much too long to need to manufacture chatter just to be saying something, after all.

            Besides, Michelle thought with an internal flicker of amusement, we've already done this once before, from the other side. We're all practiced up!

            "So, Mike," Honor said finally, "just what induced the Havenites to send you home?"

            "That's an interesting question." Michelle cradled her cup in both hands, gazing at Honor across it. "I think mostly they picked me because I'm Beth's cousin. They figured she'd have to listen to a message from me. And, I imagine, they hoped the fact that they'd given me back to her would at least tempt her to listen seriously to what they had to say."

            "Which is? Or is it privileged information you can't share with me?"

            "Oh, it's privileged all right — for now, at least," Michelle told her wryly. She kept her expression suitably solemn, although she was perfectly well aware that Honor's empathic sense could taste her impish amusement. "But I was specifically told I could share it with you, since it also concerns you."

            "Mike," Honor informed her, "if you don't come clean with me and quit tossing out tidbits, I'm going to choke it out of you. You do realize that, don't you?"

            "Home less than an hour, and already threatened with physical violence." Michelle shook her head sadly, then shrank back into her chair as Honor started to stand up and Nimitz bleeked a laugh from his chair back perch.

            "All right, all right! I'll talk!"

            "Good." Honor settled back. "And," she added, "I'm still waiting."

            "Yes, well," Michelle straightened in her own chair, "it's not really a laughing matter, I suppose. But put most simply, Pritchart is using me as her messenger to suggest to Beth that the two of them meet in a face-to-face summit to discuss a negotiated settlement."

            Honor's eyes flickered. That was the only sign of surprise Michelle saw out of her, but that very lack of expression was its own revelation. Then Honor drew a deep breath and cocked her head to one side.

            "That's a very interesting offer. Do you think she really means it?"

            "Oh, I think she definitely wants to meet with Beth. Just what she intends to offer is another matter. On that front, I wish you'd been the one talking to her."

            "What sort of agenda did she propose?" Honor asked.

            "That's one of the odd parts about the offer." Michelle shook her head. "Basically, she left it wide open. Obviously, she wants a peace treaty, but she didn't list any specific set of terms. Apparently, she's willing to throw everything into the melting pot if Beth will agree to negotiate with her one-on-one."

            "That's a significant change from their previous stance, at least as I understand it," Honor said thoughtfully, and Michelle shrugged.

            "I hate to say it, but you're probably in a better position to know that than I am," she admitted. "I've been trying to pay more attention to politics since you tore a strip off me, but it's still not really a primary interest of mine."

            Honor gave her an exasperated look and shook her head. Michelle only looked back, essentially unrepentant, even though she had to admit Honor's annoyance was amply justified. For a moment, she thought Honor was going to read her the riot act all over again, but then her friend only shrugged for her to continue.

            "Actually," Michelle told her, "it's probably a good thing you are more interested in politics and diplomacy than I am."


            "Because one specific element of Pritchart's proposal is a request that you also attend the conference she wants to set up."