Grimm didn't have to put up with anywhere near the crap Planetary Traffic Control did, of course, but to make up for that, she had many times the amount of traffic to keep track of. Actually, for a star nation whose preposterous wealth was so heavily based upon its merchant marine, there were usually remarkably few hyper-capable ships anywhere near Manticore or Sphinx, even under normal conditions. It made far more sense for cargoes bound in or out of the Manticore System to take advantage of the stupendous warehousing and service platforms associated with the Junction itself. It was much more time and cost effective, even for ships which weren't using the Junction — and there were some of those, headed for more local destinations — to use its facilities, which were undoubtedly the biggest, most efficient, and most capable in the entire galaxy. The ships and cargo shuttles which plied back and forth between the Junction and the star system's planets were far smaller than the leviathans which traveled between stars, and they were a far more efficient way for most shipments to complete the final transition to their destinations.

            It was those freight-haulers who were complaining most vociferously about ACS' new rules and attitude, according to Grimm. After all, before a shuttle pilot or, even more, the astrogators and helmsmen aboard one of the bigger, short-haul freighters were certified for planetary approach, they had to clear dozens of certifications, background checks, and routine physical and mental evaluations, and all of those certifications and evaluations had to be kept current, as well. Given all of that, some of them seemed to deeply resent the fact that they were no longer trusted to make those approaches under impeller drive. And some of the owners of those vessels clearly resented the way the new requirement to have two fully certified planetary approach pilots on the bridge at all times was increasing their overhead.

            Well, I can live with that, Michelle reflected. I think sometimes they forget just how frigging dangerous an impeller-drive ship is. Maybe it's because they spend so much time in space themselves that for them it's all just routine, but they might want to remember that even a fairly small ship could turn itself into a dinosaur-killer from hell if it really wanted to.

            She shuddered inside at the thought of what a mere hundred thousand-ton short-haul freighter could do if it hit, say, Manticore, at twenty or thirty thousand kilometers per second. A ten-petaton explosion would pretty much ruin the local real estate values. Michelle was no historian herself, certainly not to the extent Honor was, but Admiral Grimm, who'd seen all the ACS threat analyses and recommendations, had told her that an impact like that represented something like sixteen times the destructive power of the meteor impact which was supposed to have killed off Old Earth's dinosaurs. Given the fact that the danger represented by her ship was pounded into the head of every ACS-certified planetary approach pilot from Day One of her training, the idiots who were complaining certainly ought to understand why the new rules — including the "two-man" rule — were in place.

            Especially after what had happened to Tim Mears.

            I wish we knew more — hell, I wish we knew anything! — about how they got to him. And not just because of how much I liked him, Michelle thought for far from the first time, glancing again at the young man sitting beside her and remembering all the youthful, murdered zest and promise of Honor's flag lieutenant. And I wish we knew whether or not the same "programming" could have made him do something else . . . like flying a pinnace into downtown Landing at a few thousand KPS. But until we have the answers to both of those questions, I don't think anyone's going to be venturing into or out of Manticore orbit under impellers. Or no one except Navy ships and the tugs, that is.

            There never had been enough tugs, of course, and the situation was even worse now. Traditionally, three ready-duty tugs had been assigned to each of Manticore's space stations. Actually, there'd been seven — enough to keep three continually on call, three more at standby as backups, and one down for mantainence or overhaul. Despite the wear and tear on their impeller nodes, the trio of ready-duty tugs' nodes were always hot, ready for instant use. And, despite their relatively diminutive size, they had hugely powerful wedges, as well as gargantuan tractors. One of them could easily handle the unpowered mass of two, or even three, superdreadnoughts if it had to. And the reason their nodes were always hot was that one of their responsibilities was to maintain a safety watch over the space stations. Even without some sort of esoteric mind control to create a deliberate collision, there was always the possibility of an accidental collision as ships maneuvered under thrusters to dock with the station. So whenever a ship approached or departed from Hephaestus, Vulcan, or Weyland, one of the duty tugs was ready to intervene. And they were always ready to pounce on any random bits of space debris, as well.

            Only the most experienced captains and helmsmen were allowed to command the ACS tugs, and they'd always used the "two-man" rule, for reasons Michelle had always found self-evident. But these days, with all of the new, additional restrictions, the demand for their services had risen astronomically.

            Michelle winced internally as she recognized the word play she had just inflicted upon herself, but that didn't make the thought inaccurate. According to Grimm, her Planetary Control counterparts needed at least half again the number of tugs they actually had. The good news was that even with the press of warship construction, at least some vital auxiliaries were still being laid down, and eight new tugs were set to commission over the next couple of T-months. The bad new was that despite the newly commissioned units, the number of ships which were going to be leaving the near-Manticore dispersed building slips over the next several months meant the need for still more tugs was going to get even worse quite soon now.

            Fortunately, I'm not going to be here when it does. But I do wish we could figure out how they got to Tim.

            "Twenty minutes from the pad, Milady," the flight engineer informed her, and she looked up with a nod.

            "Thank you, PO.