Chapter Twelve


            Michelle Henke leaned back in her comfortable seat beside Gervais Archer as her pinnace separated from HMS Achilles's number one boat bay, rolled on gyros and maneuvering thrusters, aligned its nose on the planet Manticore, and went to main thrusters. It had no option but to use reaction drive, since Achilles was still wedded to HMSS Hephaestus by the entire complex tapestry of personnel and equipment tubes and current traffic control regulations prohibited the use of even small craft impellers until the small craft in question was at least five hundred kilometers clear of the space station. That was many times the pinnace's impeller wedge's threat perimeter, but no one was inclined to take any chances with the Star Kingdom's premier orbital industrial node. For that matter, inbound small craft (and larger vessels) were now required to shift to thrusters while still ten thousand kilometers out.

            Michelle could remember when Hephaestus had been little more than twenty kilometers in length, but those days were long gone. The ungainly, lumpy conglomeration of cargo platforms, personnel sections, heavy fabrication modules, and associated shipyards, all clustered around the station's central spine, now stretched for over a hundred and ten kilometers along its main axis. Something better than three quarters of a million people — not including ship crews and other transients — lived and worked aboard the station these days, and the hectic pace of its activity had to be experienced to be believed. Vulcan, in orbit around Sphinx, was almost as large, and just as busy. Weyland, the smallest of the Star Kingdom's space stations, orbited Gryphon, and was actually the busiest of the three, given the amount of highly classified research and development which was carried out there.

            Those three space stations represented the heart and soul of the Manticore Binary System's industrial muscle. The resource extraction ships which plied the system's asteroid belts, and the deep-space smelters and refiners which processed those resources, were scattered about the system's vast volume, but the space stations housed the production lines, the fabrication centers, and the highly trained labor force who made them all work. The mere thought of what an active impeller wedge could do to something like that was enough to cause anyone the occasional nightmare. Michelle might not care very much for the way traffic control's restrictions extended her flight time, but she wasn't about to complain, and she had remarkably little sympathy for people who did moan about it.

            There were some of those, of course. There always were, and some of them wore the same uniform Michelle did and damned well ought to understand why those restrictions were in place. More of them were civilians, though, and she'd heard more than one upper-level civilian executive venting about the Hephaestus approach rules and Planetary Approach's new rules in general.

            Idiots, she thought, gazing out the viewport as the shuttle's fusion-powered thrusters moved it Manticoreward at a steady (if pokey) ninety gravities. All we need is some lunatic, like one of those Masadan fanatics who attacked Ruth in Erewhon, to get a shuttle with an active impeller wedge into ramming range of the station! And, she added unhappily, glancing briefly at the youthful lieutenant beside her, until we can figure out how the hell Haven got to Tim Mears, we can't be sure they couldn't get to a shuttle pilot, either. Which means the poor son-of-a-bitch at the controls wouldn't even have to be a volunteer. Hell, he probably wouldn't even realize he was doing it until it was too late!

            The thought had no sooner crossed her mind than her eye caught the subtle distortion of an impeller wedge a hell of a lot bigger than any pinnace's. In fact, it was at least the size of a superdreadnought's wedge . . . and it couldn't be more than a couple of hundred kilometers outside its threat perimeter from the station. She tensed internally, then relaxed almost as quickly as she saw the second ship moving steadily — and rapidly — away from Hephaestus behind whoever was generating that wedge and realized what it must be.

            Well, I suppose there have to be some exceptions to any rule, she reflected. But even the tugs have been required to make a few operational changes since Haven tried to kill Honor.

            The Royal Astrogation Control Service's tugs were the only type of ship which was allowed that close to a space station under impeller drive. They were also the only ships, aside from warships of Her Majesty's Navy, which were permitted to enter or leave planetary orbit under impellers. Manticoran registered and crewed merchant traffic could approach to within ten thousand kilometers of Manticore, Sphinx, or Gryphon under impellers, if their ACS certification was current. Even they were required to have reduced their closing velocity to a maximum of no more than fifty thousand KPS while still two light-minutes out, however, and no one was allowed to use impeller drive outbound until they were at least ten thousand kilometers clear of their parking orbital radius. No one else's merchant vessels — not even those of such close allies as Grayson — were allowed to approach within two and a half light-minutes without first having gone to reaction drive, however, and there had been absolutely no exceptions to that policy since the attack on Honor.

            Which has led to a few pissed-off exchanges between ACS and some of the "regulars" on the Manticore-Grayson run, Michelle thought. More from our side than anybody else's, from what Admiral Grimm was saying.

            Admiral Stephania Grimm was the current commanding officer of the Junction ACS. She was also ex-Navy, and her younger brother had served with Michelle aboard the old dreadnought Perseus far too many years ago. Michelle had run into her at a dinner party three or four weeks after her return from Haven, and the two of them — inevitably — had ended up in a corner talking shop.