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Chapter Fifteen

"Well, it's about time," Mercedes Brigham said with profound satisfaction as the superdreadnought Imperator grew steadily through the pinnace's viewport. "I was beginning to think we'd never get this fleet activated!"

Brigham sat beside Honor, next to the hatch, and Honor nodded in silent agreement with her chief of staff as she studied the ponderous mountain of battle steel drifting against the stars, glittering with the brilliant pinpricks of its own riding lights. HMS Imperator was a far cry from Honor's last flagship. The better part of two megatons larger, massively armored, without the hatch-studded flanks of a CLAC. One of the new Invictus-class ships, Imperator was one of the dozen or so most powerful warships in existence. Unfortunately, her class was also far smaller than originally projected, thanks to all the incomplete Invictuses which had been destroyed in their building slips in Grendelsbane.

The other five units of her squadron—two more Invictus-class ships, and three of the older but still formidable Medusa-class SD(P)s—orbited San Martin in company with the fleet flagship. Just beyond Imperator, she saw HMS Intransigent, Alistair McKeon's squadron flagship, and she smiled fondly at the sight. If anyone deserved a flag, it was certainly Alistair, she thought. And she couldn't think of anyone she would rather have watching her back.

Her pinnace decelerated to a halt relative to Imperator, then rolled on its gyros as the superdreadnought's boat bay tractors locked on. They drew the small craft steadily in, then deposited it with scarcely a tremor in the docking arms. The boarding tube ran out to mate with the hatch collar, and the service umbilicals extended themselves and locked into the proper receptacles aboard the pinnace as Honor gazed through the transparent armorplast of the boat bay gallery at the waiting side party.

"Good seal," the flight engineer informed the flight deck crew, studying her panel.

"Crack the hatch," the pilot replied, and the hatch slid open.

Brigham climbed out of her seat, moved into the aisle, then stood waiting while Honor got up, lifted Nimitz to her shoulder, and started for the hatch. The Royal Manticoran Navy's tradition that the most senior officer boarded last and disembarked first was ironclad . . . for most people, at least, she thought with a slight grimace. As usual, things weren't quite that simple for Steadholder Harrington, but she'd won at least one concession from LaFollet. She got to swim the tube first, then her armsmen broke into the traditional disembarkment queue.

She tasted Nimitz's excitement and anticipation, like an echo of her own, as she swept gracefully through the tube's zero gravity. She caught the grab bar at the far end and swung through the interface with the ship's gravity with the smoothness of decades of experience. She landed in precisely the right spot, just outside the painted line on the deck which indicated the official beginning of HMS Imperator.

"Eighth Fleet, designate, arriving!" the intercom announced as the electronic bosun's pipes began to wail, and the side party snapped stiffly to attention, Marines presenting their bayoneted pulse rifles with parade ground precision.

"Permission to come aboard, Ma'am?" Honor requested formally of the senior-grade lieutenant with the brassard of the boat bay officer of the deck.

"Permission granted, Ma'am," the lieutenant replied, saluting crisply, and Honor returned the salute then stepped past her, down the avenue between the rows of side boys to where Rafael Cardones stood waiting.

"Welcome aboard, Your Grace," he said, reaching out to shake her hand as the bosun's pipes sounded again for Mercedes Brigham behind her.

"Thank you, Captain," she said, observing the formalities, but her eyes gleamed. Rafael Cardones had changed in a great many ways from the youngster she'd first met, but she could still taste his little-boy excitement and pride in his new command, and he grinned as he glanced at her own white beret.

"Congratulations, 'Captain' Harrington." It was the first time he'd seen her since she'd been formally named Unconquered's CO. "It seems we both have new ships, Your Grace."

"I suppose we do," she agreed, glancing around the spacious, spotless boat bay. "And yours looks beautiful, Rafe," she added in a softer voice, and his teeth flashed in a broad smile.

"Not as nimble as Werewolf or a battlecruiser, Ma'am," he said, "but she's still got that new-air car smell. Among other things."

"So I understand," she agreed, turning to stand beside him and watch the arrival of the remainder of her staff. It took a while, and—not for the first time—she thought the Navy could have gotten things done more quickly if it wasn't quite so enamored of proper procedures, formalities, and traditions. Of course, then it wouldn't have been the Navy.

"Would you care to be shown to your quarters, Ma'am?" Cardones asked after everyone had joined her.

"I would like to see them," Honor replied, "but we might as well get the rest of the official business out of the way first. Are all of the squadron commanders aboard?"

"Admiral Henke is still in transit, Ma'am," he said. "Her ETA is about six minutes. She sent her apologies, but she was delayed aboard Admiral Kuzak's flagship."

"Well, I don't imagine I'll have her shot just yet," Honor said judiciously. "But if she's that close to arriving, would you object to waiting for her here and going up to Flag Bridge together after she arrives?"

"Of course not, Ma'am," Cardones replied. "In fact, if you wouldn't mind, we might use that time introducing you to some of my own senior officers."

"I'd appreciate that," she said, and he turned to the officers standing behind him.

"This is Commander Hirshfield, my XO," he said, indicating a tall, slender, red-haired officer who extended her right hand. Hirshfield's blue eyes were frankly curious as she met Honor's gaze, but her handclasp was firm and Honor liked the taste of tough, professional competence the other woman exuded.

"Commander," she said.

"Welcome aboard, Your Grace," Hirshfield replied. "If there's anything you need, just let me know."

Honor nodded, and Cardones turned to the next officer in line.

"Commander Yolanda Harriman, Your Grace. My Tactical Officer."

"Commander." Honor shook the proffered hand firmly. Harriman, despite her surname, obviously had at least as much Old Earth Oriental in her genotype as Honor herself. The tactical officer was dark-eyed and dark-haired, with eyes so brown they were almost black and a delicate sandalwood complexion. She also radiated a certain subtle ferocity. That was the only word Honor could come up with. This was obviously a woman who had found her proper niche.

"Welcome aboard, Your Grace," Harriman said, smiling with perfect white teeth. "If the newsies know what they're talking about, I'm sure you'll be able to scare up enough action to keep us all busy."

"It seems likely," Honor agreed mildly. "Not that you want to believe everything you read in the 'faxes."

"No, Ma'am. Of course not," Harriman said, but her eyes dropped to the medal ribbons on Honor's chest, and Honor felt a slight twinge of alarm. The last thing she wanted in a tactical officer was someone who still believed in glory. She started to say something else, then stopped, smiled again, and turned her head as Cardones indicated the next officer in the queue.

"Commander Thompson, my Engineer," he said. Thompson was red-haired and wiry, and Honor's smile grew much broader as she saw him.

"Well, well, Glenn!" she said. "It's been quite a while, hasn't it?"

"Yes, Your Grace, it has," he agreed, and Cardones raised one eyebrow inquiringly.

"Glenn made his snotty cruise aboard Hawkwing a few more years ago than either of us would like to remember, Captain," Honor explained. "At the time," she continued with a wicked twinkle, "he was the despair of Lieutenant Hunter, our Engineer. Apparently he's managed to sort out the widgets from the gizmos since then."

"Almost, Your Grace," Thompson said with a slightly worried expression. "I still get them confused once in a while, but, fortunately, I've got really good assistants to keep me straight."

Honor chuckled and touched him lightly on the shoulder, then turned to the lieutenant commander standing beside him.

"Commander Neukirch, our Astrogator."

"Commander."

Honor shook the offered hand. Neukirch was probably in her mid-thirties. It was often difficult to tell, especially without knowing which generation of prolong therapy someone had received. In Neukirch's case it was rendered more difficult because she was one of the minority of female Manticoran officers who had chosen to completely depilate her head. The severe style contrasted with her sensual lips and exotically planed features, and her eyes—a curiously neutral shade of gray—studied Honor almost warily.

Honor held her hand a moment longer than she had held Hirshfield's or Thompson's, and her own eyes narrowed as she tasted the other woman's emotions. There was a peculiar combination of apprehension, or perhaps anxiety, coupled with an oddly focused, burning sense of anticipation and curiosity.

"Have we met, Commander?" Honor asked.

"Uh, no, Your Grace," she said hastily. She seemed to hesitate, then smiled tautly. "You did meet my father once, though. The same time Glenn did."

Honor frowned, then her eyes widened.

"Yes, Your Grace," Neukirch said more naturally. "Father stayed in the Star Kingdom after Casimir."

"And took Dr. Neukirch's surname," Honor said, nodding.

"Yes, Your Grace. He's spoken of you often over the years. When he heard Imperator was going to be your flagship, he asked me to remember him to you and to extend his thanks once more."

"Tell him I'm honored he remembered," Honor said, "and that while I appreciate his thanks, they aren't necessary. It's obvious," she smiled at the younger woman, "that he—and you—have amply repaid me and the Star Kingdom."

Neukirch's face blossomed in a huge smile of pleasure, and Honor turned to the next officer in the queue, who wore the uniform of the Royal Manticoran Marines.

"Major Lorenzetti, commanding our Marine detachment," Cardones said.

"Major." Honor shook Lorenzetti's hand, liking what she saw and what she tasted of his mind-glow. Lorenzetti was a typical Marine, who reminded her strongly of Tomas Ramirez. He was much shorter and nowhere near as broad, built on merely mortal lines, but he had that same no-nonsense tenacity.

"Major," she acknowledged, and he surprised her by bending over her hand. His lips just brushed its back in a formal Grayson-style greeting, and then he straightened.

"Your Grace." His voice was deep and resonant, and he smiled at her. "Since I appear to be one of the minority of officers in the ship who hasn't already met you, Your Grace, perhaps I should point out that I spent two T-years in the Masada Contingent. They weren't the most pleasant tour I ever pulled, but after seeing that planet—and comparing it to Grayson—I can only say that if anyone's navy ever needed its sorry ass kicked, it was Masada's."

"The Major, as you can see, like all Marines, is particularly eloquent," Cardones said dryly, and Honor chuckled.

"So I noticed," she said. "Although, on balance, I'd have to agree with his sentiments. When were you there, Major?"

"I transferred back to Fleet duty last year, Your Grace," Lorenzetti said in a much more serious tone.

"I've often considered visiting Masada myself. Colonel LaFollet here—" she gestured at her senior armsman "—doesn't seem to feel that would be the smartest decision I ever made, however."

"On balance," Lorenzetti replied, deliberately using her own choice of phrase, "I'd have to agree with him, Your Grace. Things have improved a lot just in the time since I was first stationed there, but there's still a nasty underground ticking away. And, with all due respect, you're probably one of the three or four people they'd most like to assassinate. The real fanatics would pull out all the stops if they knew you were coming."

"I know," she sighed, then smiled at the Marine and turned to the final officer awaiting introduction.

"Commander Morrison, Your Grace. Our surgeon," Cardones said, and Honor gripped the slender, fair-haired lieutenant commander's hand. Morrison was probably the oldest of Cardones' officers, and she felt . . . solid. There was something profoundly reassuring about her calm assurance and confidence in her own competence.

"Dr. Morrison," she murmured, and the physician smiled and bobbed her head.

"I'm pleased to meet all of you," Honor continued, meeting their combined gaze. "I know there's something of a tradition of rivalry between a flagship's officers and the admiral's staff, and up to a point, that's probably not a bad thing. However, it's been my experience that the flagship's personnel are just as vital as the staff if a squadron or a task force is going to operate smoothly. Commodore Brigham here," she waved Brigham forward, "and I have discussed that very consideration, and if any difficulties do arise, I want them resolved as expeditiously as possible. I think you'll find Commodore Brigham is much more interested in results than in assigning blame when problems do arise."

Everyone smiled and nodded with murmurs of understanding. Well, of course they did, given that any admiral's suggestion carried the force of a direct decree from God aboard her flagship . . . however stupid it might be. In this case, however, Honor tasted genuine agreement behind the proper formula, which gave her a pronounced sense of satisfaction.

"Excuse me, Captain," the BBOD said, interrupting diffidently, "but Admiral Henke's pinnace is on final."

"Thank you," Cardones responded, and Honor turned to watch the side party reassemble itself smoothly.

The newly arrived pinnace settled into the docking arms, the tube ran out, and the green light indicating a good seal blinked to life over the inboard end.

"BatCruRon Eighty-One, arriving!" the intercom announced, and a moment later an ebony-skinned woman in the uniform of a rear admiral swung herself lithely out of the tube into the twitter of pipes.

"Permission to come aboard, Ma'am?" she requested of the BBOD in a husky, almost furry-sounding contralto.

"Permission granted, Ma'am," the lieutenant replied, exchanging salutes, and the new arrival stepped forward quickly.

"Welcome aboard, Ma'am," Cardones said, shaking her hand.

"Thank you, Rafe," she said with a smile, which grew considerably broader when she turned to Honor.

"It's good to see you back in uniform, Your Grace," she said, gripping Honor's hand firmly, then nodded to LaFollet. "And I see you've brought along your baseball fanatic."

"Nonsense," Honor said airily. "By Grayson standards, he's a mere dilettante. Now, Simon, here—he's a real fan. Unlike myself, of course."

"Oh, of course!" Henke chuckled.

"I believe all of the squadron COs are aboard now, Your Grace," Cardones said.

"So we should get out of your boat bay crew's way and take ourselves off to Flag Bridge," Honor agreed.

* * *

"Attention on deck," Vice Admiral Alice Truman, as the senior officer present, said as Honor stepped through the flag briefing room's hatch, and the officers who had been seated around the large conference table rose.

"As you were, Ladies and Gentlemen," Honor said briskly, striding into the compartment and crossing to the head of the table. She seated herself and laid her white beret neatly in front of her.

Henke, Cardones, and her staff followed her, and as they found their chairs and the other officers settled back into their places, she let her eyes run around the table.

It was as near to a hand-picked command team as anyone was likely to be able to come under the current circumstances. Alice Truman, Alistair McKeon, and Michelle Henke—commanding her carriers, her "wall of battle" (such as it was, and what there was of it), and her most powerful battlecruiser squadron, respectively—were all known quantities. Vice Admiral Samuel Miklós commanded the second of Eighth Fleet's two CLAC squadrons—Truman herself commanded the other, as well as the entire carrier force—and Rear Admiral Matsuzawa Hirotaka commanded Honor's second battlecruiser squadron. Rear Admiral Winston Bradshaw and Commodore Charise Fanaafi commanded her two heavy cruiser squadrons, and Commodore Mary Lou Moreau commanded her attached flotilla of light cruisers, while Captain Josephus Hastings was present as her senior destroyer captain.

She knew Matsuzawa and Moreau personally, although not well; Miklós, Bradshaw, Fanaafi, and Hastings were complete newcomers to her command team, but all of them had excellent records. Perhaps even more importantly, given the nature of their mission, all of them had already demonstrated flexibility, adaptiveness, and the ability to display intelligent initiative.

"It's good to see all of you gathered in one place at last," she said, after a moment. "And, as Commodore Brigham commented as we docked with Imperator, it's about time. Eighth Fleet is officially activated as of twelve hundred hours, Zulu, today."

No one actually moved, but it was as if an invisible stir had run around the compartment.

"We can anticipate the arrival of the remaining units of our initial order of battle over the next three weeks," she continued levelly. "We're all aware of how tightly the Navy is stretched at the moment, so we won't dwell on that just now. I met with Admiral Caparelli immediately before my departure for Trevor's Star, however, and he emphasized to me once again the importance of beginning active operations as quickly as possible.

"Commodore Brigham, Captain Jaruwalski, and I have given considerable thought to the most appropriate initial targets for our attention. This isn't simply a military operation. Or, rather, it's a military operation with a political dimension of which we must be well aware. Specifically, we want the Havenites to divert forces to provide rear security against our raids. That means balancing vulnerability of target against economic and industrial value, but it also requires us to think about which target systems are most likely to generate political pressure to divert enemy strike forces to defensive employment.

"I'm confident we can find such targets, but accomplishing our objective is almost certainly going to require us to operate widely dispersed attack forces, at least in our initial operations. That means we're going to be relying very heavily on the judgment and ability of our junior flag officers—more heavily than we'd originally anticipated. I know the quality of my squadron commanders, but I'm less familiar with your divisional commanders, and, unfortunately, the pressure to begin operations is going to sharply restrict the time we have to get to know one another through exercises. Which means, of course, that I'm going to be relying heavily on all of you to provide the insight about your subordinates which I won't have time to develop for myself."

Several heads nodded, and every expression was sober and intent.

"In just a moment, Commodore Brigham and Commander Reynolds will brief all of us on current intelligence, enemy strength appreciations, and the parameters the Admiralty's set forth for our target selection criteria. Afterwards, I'll ask all of you to return to your flagships and bring your own staffs up to speed. Get them started brainstorming. This evening, I'd like all of you—and your chiefs of staff and operations officers—to join me for dinner."

McKeon, Truman, and Henke looked at one another expressionlessly, and Honor smiled.

"Bring your appetites," she said, "because I think you'll find the food quite good. But plan on staying out late, Ladies and Gentlemen. It's going to be a working dinner. Probably the first of many."

* * *

"Could I have a minute?"

Honor turned her head to look at Michelle Henke, and her eyebrows rose as she tasted the edge of apprehension and frustration behind the question. The other flag officers were flowing through the briefing room hatch, and she glanced at Brigham. She flipped her eyes to one side, and the chief of staff caught the silent order and discreetly urged her other staffers towards the hatch as well.

"Of course you can have a minute, Mike," Honor said, turning back to Henke. "Why?"

She allowed a touch of concern to soften her own voice. Henke was one of the people who'd realized long since that Honor could actually feel the emotions of people around her, so there was no point pretending she didn't know her friend was concerned about something. Henke's lips twitched in a brief smile of half-amused recognition, but the smile barely touched her eyes.

"Something came to my attention the other day," she said quietly. "Specifically, the circumstances which led to my being given the Eighty-First."

There was something oddly formal about her tone, and Honor frowned slightly.

"What about it?"

"According to my sources, I got the command because you specifically asked for it for me," Henke said, and looked at her steadily.

Honor looked back, and tried not to sigh. She'd hoped Henke wouldn't hear about that. Not that there'd ever been much realistic chance she wouldn't.

"That's not exactly how it happened, Mike," she said after a moment.

"Honor, let's not quibble over words like 'exactly.' Did you pull strings to get me the command?"

Honor gazed at her for a moment longer, then glanced around the compartment. Everyone had departed except Andrew LaFollet and Mercedes Brigham.

"Mercedes, Andrew," she said, "could you give us a minute, please?"

"Of course, My Lady," LaFollet replied, and he and the chief of staff stepped outside. Honor waited until the hatch slid closed behind them, then turned back to Henke.

"All right, Mike," she sighed. "Just how difficult do you intend to be about this?"

"Honor," Henke began, "you know how hard I've fought against playing the patronage game. It's important to me that—"

"Michelle Henke," Honor interrupted, "in this particular regard, you are the most stubborn, stiffnecked, prickly, hyper-sensitive person I've ever met. And I remind you that I know my own parents, Nimitz, and your cousin Elizabeth, so you're in some pretty select company for stubbornness."

"It's not a joke," Henke said, almost angrily, and Honor shook her head.

"No, it's not," she said. "And by this stage in your career, Mike, it's gone a long way past funny, too." Henke's eyes widened at the sudden severity of Honor's tone, and Honor grimaced. "Have you ever seen the 'Confidential Notes' section of your personnel jacket?" she asked.

"Of course not." Henke looked surprised by the apparent non sequitur. "That's why it's marked 'Confidential,' isn't it?"

"Yes, it is. And I'm not surprised it's never even occurred to you to bend the rules in this particular regard. But, if you had read it, you'd discover that BuPers has noted this particular phobia of yours. There's a specific notation, Mike, which says—and I paraphrase—'This officer is of superior quality but not prepared for accelerated promotion.'"

Something like hurt flickered in Henke's eyes, and Honor snorted in exasperation.

"You're not listening to what I said, Mike. It doesn't say 'not qualified'; it says 'not prepared.' As in 'not prepared to accept.' Everyone knows you're the Queen's first cousin. Everyone knows you've always stomped all over anything which even looked like preferential treatment. We understand that, Mike. What you don't seem to understand is that a flag officer's chair would have been pulled out for you at least four or five T-years before it was if BuPers hadn't realized you would have thought it was because of who you're related to. And that you're so stubborn you'd probably have resigned your commission rather than accept 'preferential treatment.'"

"That's ridiculous," Henke protested.

"No, it isn't. What's ridiculous is that you've managed to slow your career and to deprive the Star Kingdom of the full value of your skills and talents because in this one regard you—you, Mike Henke, Ms. I-Know-What-I'm-Doing, Brash-and-Confident—suffer from a serious self-confidence crisis. Well, as it happens, I'm not prepared to put up with that sort of silliness any longer."

"Honor, you can't—"

"I not only can, I have," Honor said flatly. "Look at the record, Mike. Of our graduating class, thirty percent have attained at least junior flag rank; another forty percent are captains, over half of them senior-grade; and fifteen percent are dead or medically retired. Are you seriously going to tell me that if you were another officer, evaluating your record and your performance, you wouldn't rate your command ability as being in the top thirty percent of our classmates? You do remember some of the idiots who graduated at the same time we did, don't you?"

Henke's lips twitched at the acid tone in which Honor delivered her last sentence, but she also shook her head.

"I'm not saying I'm not qualified to be a commodore, or even a rear admiral. What bothers me is that I just got command of the one and only squadron of pod-laying battlecruisers in the entire Royal Navy. If you aren't aware of how cutthroat competition for this slot was, I certainly am."

"Of course I'm aware. And before you go any further, I should point out to you that I was promised that squadron for Eighth Fleet before I submitted my list of requested squadron commanders. I was getting those ships whether I got you or not, and when I asked for you and Hirotaka, you were senior. Which is why Admiral Cortez suggested you for the Eighty-First when I inquired as to whether or not your services were available. And before you say it, I'm quite certain that one reason he made the suggestion was the fact that he knew about our friendship. But you know as well as I do that Sir Lucian is not exactly in the habit of suggesting incompetent officers for critical slots just to curry favor with politically important people."

Honor folded her arms, and Nimitz rose high on her shoulder, cocking his head at Henke.

"Bottom-line time, Mike. Yes, you could say I 'pulled strings' to get you assigned to Eighth Fleet, knowing it would probably mean you got the Eighty-First. And, yes, I did it on purpose, and I'd do it again. But if you think for one single moment that I would have requested anyone for this command if I didn't believe she was the very best person available for it, regardless of friendship, then you don't know me as well as you think you do. Or, for that matter, as well as I think you do, when you aren't bending over backward to make sure no one does you 'any favors.'"

Henke looked at her, and Honor tasted that stubborn sense of integrity and the need to prove she merited any promotion that came her way warring with her intellectual recognition that everything Honor had just said was the simple truth. Then, finally, the other woman sighed.

"All right, Honor. You win. I'm still not entirely comfortable with it, you understand. But I have to admit I really, really don't want to give it up, however I got it."

"Fine. I can live with that," Honor told her with a smile. "And if you still entertain any doubts about it, then I suggest you use those doubts as a self-motivator to go out and prove to both of us that you really do deserve it."


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