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"Good morning, Milady."
Andreas Venizelos turned with a smile of greeting as Honor stepped out of the flag bridge lift with Andrew LaFollet at her elbow. Although her chief of staff had known her since the days when she was plain Commander Harrington, with no titles or feudal dignities, he'd adjusted to the presence of her armsmen without fuss or bother. In fact, he and LaFollet were well on their way to becoming friends, for which Honor was grateful.
Nimitz rode in his normal, half-standing perch on her shoulder. Like her Grayson vests, her uniform tunics were made of a fabric tough enough to resist light pulser firenot because she expected assassins to lurk on her flag bridge, but because Nimitz's claws required it. His true-feet dug in at the level of her shoulder blade, and his hand-feet clung to the top of her shoulder as he looked around with bright, curious eyes, and the scimitar claws which would quickly have reduced any lesser fabric to shreds didn't even leave pick marks. Which was just as well, she thought, and smiled as she reflected on MacGuiness' probable reactions to that sort of carnage.
Nimitz caught her amusement and bleeked a laugh, flirting the tip of his prehensile tail cheerfully, as he plucked the same image from her thoughts. Like Honor, the `cat had perked up in the last few days. In her case, it was being away from the perplexing puzzle Earl White Haven had come to represent, and, in a sense, that was also the reason for Nimitz's improved mood. There was still a low key echoa sense of something not quite perfectly in synch in her emotionsbut by and large the return to a familiar environment and new but well-understood challenges had restored her equilibrium and damped the emotional spikes he'd been unable to understand. Neither of them was so foolish as to think the problem was solved, but unlike Honor, Nimitz had the capability to let worries take care of themselves without rushing to meet them.
"Good morning, Andy." Honor nodded a reply to the chief of staff's greeting and crossed to her comfortable command chair and ran her fingers lightly over the keys to bring it on-line.
The flatscreen and holo displays flicked to life about her, presenting the full status of her squadronor, at least, those units of it which were currently presentat a glance, and she gave a mental nod of satisfaction. There wasn't that much to see, with all her ships still in a Grayson parking orbit, but she sat back for a moment, watching the routine small craft traffic plying between them and the planet or moving on ship-to-ship courses. There was something almost sensually satisfying about watching her command live and breathe. In an odd sort of way, it was even more satisfying than it had been when she'd been given the GSN's First Battle Squadron and command of no less than six superdreadnoughts. Even one of those stupendous ships would have outmassed her entire present squadron by a factor of three, but perhaps that was the reason for the difference. Those ships had been stupendous, with a ponderous might and majesty that lacked the fleet-footed responsiveness of a cruiser squadron.
This, she realized suddenly, was probably the best squadron command she would ever haveunless, perhaps, she was ever fortunate enough to command her own battlecruiser squadron. Heavy cruisers were powerful units, too valuable to waste on secondary duties, yet small enough and numerous enough that they could be worked hard . . . or risked. There would always be something for squadrons like this to do, and those who commanded them would always enjoy a degree of freedom and independence from higher authority no ship of the wall would ever know. Capital ships must remain concentrated at crucial strategic points, but cruisers were not just the eyes and ears of the Fleet but its fingertips, as well. They were far more likely to be detached for independent operations, and she felt herself looking forward to forging her ships into the single, cohesive force she would wield as easily and naturally as she did the Harrington Sword.
She smiled at the simile and turned her chair around, putting her back to her displays to survey her staff. She was over a half-hour early for the regular morning conference, and most of her officers were busy with routine duties or collating one last bit of data for their upcoming briefings.
Like her squadron's ships, her staff reflected the composite nature of the fleet it would be joining. Unlike her BatRon One staff, however, she'd personally selected each member of her current team, either on the basis of personal experience with them or on the advice of Commodore Justin Ackroyd, current head of the GSN's Office of Personnel.
Venizelos, of course, she knew very well indeed, and her eyes rested on him with carefully hidden fondness as he bent over Lieutenant Commander McGinley's shoulder to discuss something on the ops officers display. Honor could just hear the crisp, quiet murmur of his voice, and she smiled as she recalled the poker-faced, noncommittal, almost desperately detached officer she'd taken to Basilisk Station with her so many years ago. He'd changed a lot since then, yet he remained just as poisedand handsomeas ever, and his small stature was no handicap among Grayson's generally undersized population. In fact, he probably wished it was a problem. Given the fact that female births outnumbered male by three-to-one on Grayson, women were far more aggressivein their own fashionhere than back in the Star Kingdom, and according to Honor's reports from MacGuiness, Venizelos was finding it necessary to beat off Grayson beauties with a stick.
She smothered a highly inappropriate giggle at the thought and turned her attention to the ops officer herself. Like Venizelos, Marcia McGinley was Manticoran, but unlike himor, for that matter, HonorMcGinley wore Grayson uniform. The trim, brown-haired, gray-eyed lieutenant commander was barely thirty-seven, extremely young for her rank in the RMN, but like many of the Manticoran "loaners" in GSN service (including one Honor Harrington), she'd found rapid promotion in her adopted navy. She was also, according to Commodore Ackroydwho'd hand-picked McGinley as one of his three final nominees for Honor's operations officerextremely good at her job. From what Honor had seen so far, he'd been right about McGinley's competence, and it looked like the ops officer was going to be one of the off-duty spark plugs of the staff, as well.
Commander Howard Latham, her staff com officer, was the senior Grayson-born member of the staff, and he was as old for his rank (as a Grayson) as McGinley was young (for a Manticoran). Not that his service record had ever been less than exemplary, for his relative lack of seniority was entirely due to the serious injuries he'd suffered in a shuttle accident six years before Grayson joined the Alliance. Grayson's pre-Alliance medical science had done its best, yet its best hadn't been good enough to keep the damage from cutting short what had been a very promising career. But once Grayson had signed the treaty of alliance, modern medicine had been able to intervene retroactively and do a great deal to restore his "hopelessly crippled" legs.
Complete repair, unfortunately, had evaded even the Manticoran doctorsmainly because the healing process had been so far along. To really fix all that was wrong, the doctors would have been forced basically to destroy his legs all over again in order to start from scratch, and Latham had been entirely too good an officer to put back into the hospital for another two years. His mouth was bracketed by deep-etched pain lines, and he moved stiffly, but even when he had been invalided out of the Navy, he'd continued to work from a wheelchair as one of the GSN's civilian consultants. On his return to active duty, he'd spent two years working with the RMN to more fully integrate the Allies' FTL communications capability into squadron-level tactical and operational capabilities, and his present assignment was almost certainly the last stop on his career track before he received his own first starship command. Honor didn't know if he realized that, but she knew how glad she was to have him.
At fifty-five, Lieutenant (Senior-Grade) George LeMoyne, her Logistics and Supply Officer, was the oldest member of the staff, but anyone who thought his relatively low rank reflected lack of ability or performance would have been sadly mistaken. LeMoyne had joined the Royal Manticoran Navy straight out of high school (as the forfeit for a lost bet, according to him). Despite initial training as a small craft coxswain, he'd soon been moved over to the Bureau of Ships and assigned to BuShips Logistics Command, and despite his lack of formal education, he'd risen steadily in grade on the basis of sheer competence. Two T-years before the present war broke out, LeMoyne had attained the rank of master chief and the equivalent of at least three postgraduate degrees, and Admiral Cortez's BuPers had offered him a commission, then assigned him to Logistics Commands Grayson liaison group. His performance there had more than justified BuPers' faith in him, and Honor knew she'd be able to keep him for no more than a T-year or so before he was promoted to lieutenant commander and reassigned to one of the Manticore Binary System's three major Navy shipyards.
Lieutenant Commander Anson Lethridge, Honor's astrogator, was the only member of her staff who was neither Manticoran nor Grayson. Lethridge was from the Erewhon Republic and an officer of the Erewhon Navy. Dark-haired and eyed, he was heavyset and powerfully built. He was also one of the ugliest men Honor had ever seen, with rough features and a heavy brow that, coupled with his broad shoulders and long arms, lent him a hulking, almost brutish appearance at complete odds with his quick mind and endless energy, and she wondered why he'd never resorted to biosculpt. It was obvious that he was sensitive about the way he looked, for he went out of his way to deliberately cast himself as the butt of his own humor by making jokes about his appearance. Many of them were genuinely funny, but all carried their own bitter, biting edge, though Honor sometimes wondered if the rest of her staff realized that as clearly as she did. Of course, she'd spent twenty or thirty T-years convinced that she was ugly, too, and she empathized almost painfully with him. But whatever other problems Lethridge might have, he was a first-rate astrogator who manipulated courses and voyage times with an ease Honor could only envy.
She watched now as he gazed at his display, watching vectors shift and change while he played with the input values and variables. It was odd, she reflected, how often outward appearances were so completely misleading. Of every officer on her staff, her brutish astrogator was almost certainly the most gentle . . . despite the lengths to which he went to hide it.
The lift doors hissed open once more, drawing her eyes from Lethridge, and a small, fond smile curved her lips as her squadrons senior medical officer arrived on the bridge. Surgeon Commander Fritz Montoya was Alvarez's surgeon and technically not a member of her staff at all, but she'd specifically requested him for Alvarez, and she made a point of including him in staff meetings.
By rights, a physician with his experience and demonstrated skill should have been home in the Star Kingdom on the staff of one of the major base hospitals, or else assigned to one of the lavishly equipped hospital ships which accompanied the Fleet Train. Some flag officers might have wondered why he wasn't in one of those other pigeon holes and been leery about accepting his services lest they discover there was a reason no one else had wanted him. But Honor had known Montoya for over twelve T-years . . . and knew he'd spent the time since they'd last served together systematically avoiding the promotion to captain which would have pulled him out of regular fleet deployments and seen him assigned to one of those base hospitals or hospital ships. She doubted he'd be able to avoid that fourth cuff ring much longer, but in the meantime she'd grabbed him and had no intention of letting him go, whatever BuPers might want. In addition to being (as she could attest from painful personal experience) one of the finest doctors around, he was a friend. And his Medical Branch commission meant he stood outside the normal chain of command, which gave him a certain detached perspective she'd found useful in the past.
The extremely young lieutenant commander who accompanied Montoya onto the bridge was the final Manticoran-born member of Honor's staff. His third cuff ring was so new it still squeaked, but Honor had known Scotty Tremaine since he was an ensign, and despite her ingrained distaste for anything that resembled favoritism, she'd done her best to shepherd his career. It was part of the payback she owed the Navy for the officers like her own first captain and Admiral Courvosier who'd shepherded her career, and she knew all about the skilled professional who hid behind his irrepressible surface persona. She'd been glad to get him as her staff electronics officer, although she knew he'd had a few reservations about the job, not about serving on her staff, but about the position itself. First and foremost, Tremaine was a small craft specialist who felt most at home as a boat bay officer or in charge of flight ops for a LAC squadron. That was where he was most comfortable and where he would really have preferred to remain . . . which was one reason Honor had picked him for his new job. It would do him good to stretch his mental muscles and push him into something beyond his beloved small craft. The experience would stand him in good stead down the road, just as his quick mental agility would stand him, and Honor, in good stead as they worked together to establish the exact parameters of his position's responsibilities.
They wouldn't be the only RMN officers working on that particular problem, and Honor knew some of the others were going to approach the concept with negative preconceptions. She understood that, but she rejected their reservations . . . and not simply because she'd become as much a Grayson as a Manticoran. To be sure, the notion of devoting a staff-level slot to an officer specifically responsible for coordinating an entire squadron's or task force's electronic warfare systems, however logical, had never occurred to the RMN, which had always seen that sort of duty as one of the ops officer's responsibilities.
That was where most other navies assigned the responsibility, as well, but the Graysons, continuing their iconoclastic ways, had chosen to split the function off. They'd created the new staff position less than a T-year before, which meant it was as new in practice to Honor as to any other RMN officer, but both the Office of Personnel and Commodore Reston's Doctrine and Training Command had put a lot of thought into it before they'd acted. She'd known they were considering it before she'd left Yeltsin to return to Manticoran service, which put her at least a little ahead of her RMN contemporaries, many of whom were still busy grumbling about newfangled notions thought up by inexperienced amateurs without the common sense to leave things alone if they weren't broken. In Honor's experience, that was usually the first response of people who clung to tradition simply because it was tradition. That would have been enough by itself to incline her to give the concept a fair try, and like quite a few of the GSN's other heretical ideas, the arrangement appeared to be working out well in practicea conclusion Scotty seemed to be coming to share as he settled into his new responsibilities.
As she watched, Tremaine crossed the bridge to the second youngest member of her staff. Lieutenant (Senior-Grade) Jasper Mayhew, her staff intelligence officer, was a distant relative of some sort of Protector Benjamin and only twenty-eight T-years old, with auburn hair as thick as Andrew LaFollet's and sky-blue eyes. Despite his extreme youth, Honor was confident of his abilities, and the fact that he'd been trained by Captain Gregory Paxton, who'd held the intelligence slot on her BatRon One staff, only made her more so. Besides, he and Scotty already worked together with the smoothness of long-time cronies, and little though she might choose to admit it (at least where Tremaine could hear her) she had great faith in the electronics officers judgment.
Lieutenant Commander Michael Vorland, her staff chaplain, was the only one of her staffers who would be absent from this mornings meeting. A small, neat, balding man with gentle brown eyes and a fringe of sandy hair, Vorland actually wore antique wire-rimmed spectacles and steadfastly refused to avail himself of the corrective services available since Grayson joined the Manticoran Alliance. On the other hand, his lense prescription was modest, and Honor suspected that his refusal to discard them had less to do with old-fashioned prejudice than with preserving something which had become a part of his "uniform" over the years. No one could have presented a milder appearance, yet his slight frame hid a surprising physical strength and he could radiate an astounding degree of sheer moral presence at need.
It was obvious that he was also aware that the Manticoran members of her staff felt a bit uncomfortable where he was concerned. The RMN had no official chaplains, and it would have been surprising if there hadn't been a certain period of . . . adjustment. At the same time, the Grayson Navy had never been without its chaplains, and even the most skeptical of Manticorans had to admit that a mixed squadron required a clerical presence. Honor would really have preferred to call once more on the services of Abraham Jackson, who'd served as BatRon One's chaplain, but Jackson had been detached from active duty and assigned to Reverend Sullivan's personal staff, and although Vorland was a very different man, she sensed from him the same sort of open-minded, flexible strength she'd found in Jackson. At the moment, he was somewhere in Mackenzie Steading instead of aboard Alvarez, but Honor could hardly begrudge his absence. His only son was marrying his third wife today, and Vorland would be there to perform the wedding himself.
Honor rubbed the tip of her nose slowly, contemplating the strengthsand occasional weaknessesalready emerging from her new staffers. Even the ones with whom she had served before would be performing in new roles, assuming new responsibilities and relationships with her, but so far most of the surprises had been pleasant ones, and
She heard a sudden sound behind hera soft, almost slithery noise, followed by the flat, slapping sound of something flexible hitting the deckand turned her head just in time to see a husky young man grab frantically for the armload of hardcopy binders he'd just spilled. He managed to snag one of them, but the others evaded his desperately reaching hands like missiles on preprogrammed evasion courses. The noise level as they hit the deck was remarkable, and Honor pressed her lips together to keep from smiling as the youngsters face went beet-red.
The color showed very clearly, for Ensign Carson Clinkscales, her flag lieutenant, was cursed with the fair, freckled complexion that went with his dark red hair and green eyes. He was enormously tall for a Graysonat a hundred and ninety centimeters, he was taller than Honor herself, which was a claim very few Graysons could makebut he was also only twenty-one T-years old. He never seemed entirely certain what to do with his hands and feet, and he was agonizingly aware of Honor's reputation and rank . . . which only made his lingering, puppylike awkwardness worse. In many ways, he reminded her of young Aubrey Wanderman, a grav tech from her last ship who'd suffered from both inexperience and a massive case of hero worship. Except, of course, that Wanderman had always seemed to get things right where his job was concerned, and Clinkscales, well . . .
She'd never met a youngster who tried harder or applied himself more conscientiously to his duties, but if there was any wayany way at allthat something could go wrong for him it did so with an inevitability that was almost awesome. She devoutly hoped that he would outgrow his penchant for disasters, because she liked him a great dealrather more, in fact, than she was prepared to let him guess. She'd bent one of her own rules by accepting him for her flag lieutenant, and she was determined to avoid even the suggestion that his status as Howard Clinkscales' nephew was going to buy him any favoritism. And in fairness to the youngster, he seemed to have all the right ingredients, if he could only get on top of his private jinx. Although he was the physical antithesis of Jared Sutton, her last flag lieutenant, his lingering shyness and determination to get things righteventuallyreminded her almost too strongly of Jared. She couldn't forget the way young Sutton had died, and his face wanted to superimpose itself on Clinkscales' whenever she let her guard down.
But there were no ghosts on the flag bridge just now, and she heard Venizelos chucklenot softly, but not unkindly, eitheras the ensign squatted to fumble after the binders. The chief of staff walked over to him and knelt to reach under a console for a folder which had slithered away from the main heap, then held it out with a smile.
"Don't sweat it, kid," Honor heard Venizelos say, though the commander had obviously pitched his voice only for Clinkscales' ears. "You should've seen my first disaster on a starship bridge. At least you're only dropping folders; I dropped an entire cup of coffeecream, with two sugarsright in the XO's lap!"
Clinkscales stared at him for a moment, then grinned shyly and bobbed his head in gratitude, and Honor looked away once more. Clinkscales had obviously expected someone to tear a strip off him, and no doubt some senior officers would have done just that. Not on this staff, though, and she drew a deep breath of satisfaction, for the seemingly tiniest things were often the best indicators of a team's cohesion and quality.
"Yes, Sir. I'm sorry, Sir," Clinkscales told Venizelos quietly. "I just picked these up from CIC for Lieutenant Mayhew to distribute before the morning brief, and, well" He broke off, looking down at the stack of binders. Some had popped open when he dropped them, spilling pages which had lost any sort of order in a confetti-like pile, and Venizelos squeezed the taller youngsters shoulder with his right hand. His left beckoned to Mayhew, and he smiled reassuringly.
"We've still got twenty minutes, Carson. You'll have time to get them sorted back out . . . but you should probably go ahead and get started on it."
"Yes, Sir. Right away, Sir!"
The intelligence officer arrived, and he and the ensign carted the scrambled binders off towards his console. Venizelos watched them go and nodded to a trio of yeomen, who quickly converged to lend additional hands to the problem, then glanced at Honor and gave her a wink before he turned to walk calmly back to his own console.
Yes, the chemistry's good, Honor thought, listening to Mayhew rag Clinkscales gently. The intelligence officers own relatively junior rank made him a logical mentor for the ensign, senior enough to be an authority figure, yet junior enough not to be frighteningand Mayhew seemed to have slipped naturally into the role. Still, I hope Carson does get over this fit of the clumsies. Andy's on the right track for now, and the others are following his lead, but sooner or later the kid's simply going to have to get it together. He is an officeror the larval stage of one, anywayand
Nimitz made a soft chiding sound from the back of her chair, and she chuckled as she reached up to caress his ears. He was right. Generations of young officers had survived maladroitness and embarrassment, and no doubt Carson would as well. And whether he did or not, it was her chief of staff's job to fret over it, not hers. Except, of course, that fretting was one of the privileges of command.
She chuckled again and lifted Nimitz down to her lap so she could rub his ears properly.
"so that's about it, Milady," Marcia McGinley finished up. "Command Central says it will be at least a month before the rest of the squadron assembles here, but we're on notice that we may be tasked for miscellaneous duties between now and then. Once Admiral White Haven takes over, our posture and deployment will be up to him."
"Understood, Marcia. Thank you." Honor tipped her chair back, moving her eyes to scan the faces gathered around the conference table in her flag briefing room. "Did you discuss this with Captain Greentree, Andy?"
"Yes, Milady," the chief of staff replied with a slight grin. "He hasn't heard anything more than we have, and nothing official's come in yet at all, but you know how the grapevine works."
"Ah?" Honor cocked an eyebrow, and Venizelos shrugged.
"His astrogator's just received an updated download on the Clairmont-Mathias Sector, Milady. That inspired me to do a little checking, and it turns out that System Control's expecting a JNMT convoy to arrive shortly. It's scheduled to move on to Quest, Clairmont, Adler, and Treadway, and a little birdie down in Command Central tells me that the dreadnought division escorting it is due to peel off here to join Eighth Fleet. Sounds to me like they're going to have to find some replacement escorts, Milady."
"I see." Honor rocked her chair gently from side to side, then nodded to Jasper Mayhew when the lieutenant raised a hand. "Yes, Jasper?"
"I think Commander Venizelos is on to something, My Lady," Mayhew said. "According to my latest update from High Admiral Matthews staff," he tapped the binder in front of him, one of the ones Clinkscales had delivered to the flag bridge, "most of the convoys cargo is actually intended for Treadway, the endpoint of the voyage. I don't have detailed specs on it, but reading between the lines suggests that it's probably more hardwareand possibly some more personnelto help upgrade the yard facilities we captured from the Peeps. One part of the convoy manifest that I do have, though, is the portion for Adler.
Apparently the Protector has agreed to provide Marines to garrison Samovar, the systems inhabited planet, until the Royal Army can take over. A large part of this convoy constitutes ammunition, ground equipment, and general support for those Marines, and there's also a fairly hefty load of humanitarian relief supplies. From the look of things, the system was in pretty poor shape before the Alliance threw the Peeps out, and the locals seem to prefer us to the old management."
"You say all this was included in your most recent download?"
"Yes, My Lady."
"Then I suspect you and Commander Venizelos are right about where we're likely to be headed shortly. And to be honest, I'm just as happy to hear it. We've got sixty percent of the squadron assembled, and I'd sooner put it to good useand get some operational experience under our beltsthan just sit up here in orbit. Andy," she turned back to Venizelos, "talk to your little bird at Command Central. `Suggest' to him that we think we'd be ideal for this particular mission. After all" she smiled one of her crooked smiles "we might as well let the brass know we're bright-eyed and eager, right?"
"Yes, Milady." Venizelos' tone combined exactly the right degree of respect and resignation, and a quiet chuckle circled the table.
"And while the Commander is doing that, Carson," Honor went on, turning to her flag lieutenant, "I'd like you to contact Captain Greentree and Captain McKeon. Invite both of them to join meand, I think, you, Andy, and you, too, Marciafor supper tonight. If we're going to be volunteering for escort duty, I'd like to run a few squadron-level sims before we pull out, and we might as well get started planning them now."
"Yes, My Lady!" Clinkscales remained in his chair, but somehow he gave the impression of having risen, saluted, clicked his heels together, and bowed in acknowledgment, and Honor hid a grin.
"All right, then. I think that just about covers everything. Unless anyone has something else we need to look at?" No one did, and she nodded in satisfaction. "Good! In that case, I'll be in the gym for the next hour or so if anyone needs me. After that, Andy, I'd like to see some rough ideas from you and Marcia."
"Fine." Honor stood and lifted Nimitz from the back of her chair, setting him in his proper position on her shoulder as her subordinates rose to their feet as well. "A good brief, people. Thank you."
A gratified murmur answered her, and she smiled, nodded once more, and headed for the hatch and an overdue appointment with her sparring partner.
"Earl White Haven has arrived, Sir," the yeoman said. He stood aside to admit Hamish Alexander to the comfortably austere office, then withdrew and closed the old-fashioned door quietly behind him.
"Ah, Admiral White Haven!" High Admiral Wesley Matthews rose and walked quickly around his desk to extend his hand. "I apologize for interrupting your schedule, but thank you for coming so promptly."
"You didn't actually interrupt anything, High Admiral," White Haven reassured him. "My staff is running a battle simulation for Admiral Greenslade and Rear Admiral Ukovski, but we're only acting as umpires for this one. What can I do for you, Sir?"
"Please, sit down," Matthews invited. He waved his guest into one of the comfortable chairs before his desk, then settled himself into another one while he considered exactly how to approach his current concern. Things weren't made any easier by the fact that Hamish Alexander, despite the fact that he was both twice Matthews' own age and one of the most highly respected strategists and fleet commanders in the explored galaxy, was technically junior to him. In fact, Sixth Fleet, White Haven's last command, had out massed the entire Grayson Space Navy by a factor of around eight, which always made Matthews feel a little awkward when dealing with the earl through the formal chain of command. But the high admiral was also unaccustomed to dodging responsibilities, and he crossed his legs, rested his folded hands on his raised right knee, and launched into the reason he'd invited White Haven here.
"As you know, My Lord," he began, "Lady Harrington has assumed command of her squadron several weeks sooner than we'd anticipated." White Haven leaned back with a brief nod of acknowledgment, but had there been a momentary flash of. . . something in those ice-blue eyes? "Needless to say, I was delighted to have her back, however temporarily," the high admiral continued, "and she's been settling into her new position with all her usual efficiency. In fact, that's the reason I wanted to see you."
"I beg your pardon?" White Haven blinked, and Matthews smiled wryly.
"As I'm sure you know even better than I, My Lord, every fleet is always short of cruisers, and Home Fleet is no exception. Given our need for pickets and scouts, as well as screening units, our light forces are stretched very tight." White Haven nodded once more. As Matthews said, cruisers were always in short supply, which was the reason cruiser skippers got so little rest. . . and why any ambitious junior officer lusted to become one.
"Unfortunately, that shortage seems to be even more widespread than usual," Matthews went on, "and everyone in the Alliance is looking around for any of them they can latch ontoincluding me. Specifically, Admiral, I'd like to `borrow' Lady Harrington's squadron for a few weeks."
"Ah?" White Haven leaned further back and crossed his own legs. He was aware of a small, highly unusual spike of internal consternation, but no trace of it showed in his politely curved eyebrow.
"Yes. I realize CruRon Eighteen is still a GSN formation for the moment, but I also realize that its status could change very quickly as the rest of Eighth Fleet assembles here. Actually, you'd be justified right now in activating your fleet HQ and assuming control of the currently assembled forces, in my opinion. That's why I wanted to speak to you before I make any decisions."
"Exactly what mission did you have in mind, Sir?" White Haven asked after a moment.
"A fairly routine one, actually. We've got a major convoysixteen or seventeen freighters and transportsrouted through Yeltsin to Clairmont-Mathias. They're scheduled to make deliveries to several systems, but these are all JNMTC ships, so transit times will be a lot shorter than you might think."
He paused until White Haven nodded understanding. The Joint Navy Military Transport Command was the brainchild of the RMN's Logistics Command and the GSN's Office of Supply. Logistics Command had pointed out that really big freighters and transports, while invaluable under many circumstances, weren't really ideal in terms of flexibility. Smaller ships in the four- to five-million-ton range couldn't carry as much cargo or as many personnel, but smaller size translated into a larger total number of hulls for the same cumulative tonnage, and that equated to more destinations which could be served simultaneously. In peacetime, operating costs would have doomed the proposal (after all, a four million-ton ship required the same crew and very nearly the same fuel and maintenance costs as an eight million-ton vessel), but faced with the war against the Peeps, military, rather than financial, efficiency had become the overriding priority.
The Joint Navy Military Transport Command, composed of midsized ships and normally assigned to the delivery of high-priority, time-critical cargoes (or delivery to potential combat hot spots), was the result. And as part of the same move to speed and streamline the transportation process, the ships designated for JNMTC use had been taken in hand by navy shipyardsManticoran or Grayson, as available slips permittedfor overhaul. Time was too tight for their civilian grade inertia! compensators and impellers to be altered, but they'd received light sidewalls and missile defense systems, upgraded sensors and rudimentary electronic warfare systems, and military hyper generators to permit them to reach as high as the eta bands. Since most merchantmen were designed to cruise no higher than the delta bands, their up-rated generators virtually doubled the sustained apparent velocity JNMTC ships could attain.
"Even so, however," Matthews pointed out, "the entire round trip is going to take something like two T-months, and it could run more if they have longer than expected layovers at any of their stops. That's why I wanted to talk to you before simply assigning Lady Harrington to the job. In many respects, her squadron would be a perfect fit. She's still short a quarter of her official strength, but those ships won't even arrive for at least another month, and six heavy cruisers should be enough to ride herd on the convoy. At the same time, since I didn't actually expect her to assume command so quickly, her ships haven't been assigned to any other pigeonholes, which means I can detach them without taking them away from any other pressing duty. And a routine mission like this would also give her an opportunity to shake down her crews and her staff. But with the activation date for your headquarters still up in the air, I wanted to clear it with you before detaching one of `your' units for that long."
"I see. And I appreciate your thoughtfulness, Sir," White Haven replied, rubbing his chin as he thought. Not that there's all that much to think about, he told himself. Until we activate Eighth Fleet, the ships belong to Matthews. And he's right that they'd be ideal for the job. So why does the idea bother me?
He frowned mentally, probing for the answer to that question. The obvious explanation was that Matthews was also right about the perpetual scarcity of cruisers, which made White Haven as unhappy as any other fleet commander at the prospect of detaching a squadron of them. But much as he was tempted to accept that as the reason for his hesitation, he knew better. It wasn't as if Harrington's squadron would be gone all that long, and although High Admiral Matthews was right about how quickly Eighth Fleet was assembling, they both knew it would be at least three or four months before the new force was ready to move against Barnett. There'd be plenty of time for an officer of Harrington's caliber to complete the escort mission, return, absorb her remaining units, and settle comfortably into her slot in the fleet's table of organization.
So why did it bother him? He chewed the question a moment longer, but the answer had already suggested itself to him; he simply didn't want to look at it too closely, because he already felt guilty.
He snorted mentally as he admitted it. He didn't know precisely what he'd done, but he couldn't shake an inexplicable certainty that Honor Harrington's hurried departure from Harrington House was somehow his fault. She hadn't said or done anything to suggest such a possibility, yet he'd picked up a certain tension which hadn't been there before. An . . . uneasiness. Whatever it was, it had started that evening in the library, and he rubbed his chin harder to hide the tightening of his jaw muscles from Matthews as his mind ran back over their confrontationif that was the word for itand its aftermath.
Had he somehow given away his sudden, radically altered awareness of her? He'd tried not to, and after so many years of naval service and all too frequent exposures to the rough and tumble of the Star Kingdom's political strife, he would have sworn his face was well enough trained to hide anything he commanded it to. But that was the only reason he could think of why she might abruptly become so much more guardedso . . . warywhere he was concerned. Had she picked up on it? Certainly she had an uncanny ability to read the people around her. He wasn't the only one to have noticed that, he reflected, recalling conversations with Mark Sarnow, Yancey Parks, and other flag officers under whom she'd served. Had her intuition or whatever it was she used detected his feelings? Had she misread his reaction, possibly even feared he might use his position as her soon to be commanding officer to attempt to force some sort of intimacy upon her?
Of course not! She knew him better than thatshe had to! But even as he thought that, another small part of him wondered if perhaps she would have been as wrong to fear that as he preferred to think. He'd never done anything of the sort before, and he'd always believed there was no chance he ever would, for he'd despised anyone, man or woman, who attempted to exploit his or her position that way. Yet he also had to admit that he'd never felt anything quite like . . . like whatever it was he'd felt that night. And, he admitted guiltily, you're not quite the saint you'd like your admiring public to believe, now are you, Hamish?
He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. He loved his wife. He'd loved her since the day he met her, and he would love her till the day he died, and she knew it. But she also knew, although they'd never discussed it, that he'd had more than one affair since the freak accident put her in her life-support chair. There was no waycould never be one, ever againthe two of them could enjoy a physical relationship. Both of them knew that, and so Emily looked the other way whenever one of his rare affairs blossomed. She knew they were only temporary, that his occasional lovers were all women he liked and trusted but did not lovenot as he loved and would always love her. She was the one to whom he always returned, for they shared everything but the one form of intimacy they had lost forever. He knew that it hurt her, less because he was being "unfaithful" than because it reminded her of what she'd lost, and that his "infidelity" would cause her great pain if it ever became public, and so he was always circumspect . . . and always careful to avoid any relationship which could ever become more than friendship.
But now he was no longer certain of himself, and that hurt deep down inside, where his belief in himself, his ability to trust himself, lived. He'd never felt anything like that sudden, soaring moment when he looked at Honor Harrington and saw not merely an officer but a woman he'd never truly looked at before. It wasn't just that she was attractive, though she certainly was, in her own exotic, sharply carved way. He'd lost track of the stunning womenand menhe'd seen in a society in which biosculpt had become as common as teeth-straightening braces had been in pre-space days, and although mere physical beauty might still attract his eye, it was no longer capable of seizing his thoughts by the throat this way.
No, he was responding to something far deeper, some elemental part of her that called to something deep inside him. Aside from the occasional handshake or a touch on a shoulder or an elbow, he'd never even touched her, yet that something inside had roused for her as it never had for any of the women who'd been his lovers, and that scared him. It was one thing to turn to another for the physical intimacy he could no longer give Emily or receive from her; it was another thing entirelya dark, frightening thingto feel so strongly drawn to another woman. And especially to one who was not only half his own age but one of his subordinate officers. From every possible perspective, Honor Harrington could never be anything but a fellow officer to him, and he knew it.
But a part of you doesn't really believe it, does it Hamish? his conscience observed mercilessly. And if you don't, and if she did pick up on it, then maybe she was right to put some distance between you. And while we're on the subject, My Lord, just what in hell do you intend to do about all this? Are you going to let yourself act like some testosterone-bullied adolescent, or are you going to remember that you're a Queen's officer . . . and that she's an officer, as well?
He realized Matthews was looking at him rather intently and shook his head as if to discourage a nagging fly. No doubt Matthews wondered just what the problem was. The proposition was straightforward, as was the escort mission, and given who the Eighteenth Cruiser Squadron currently reported to, this entire meeting was little more than a professional courtesy.
"Excuse me, High Admiral," the earl apologized. "I'm afraid I started shoving ships and deployments around in my head and allowed myself to become distracted. As far as I'm concerned, Lady Harrington and her squadron would be an ideal choice for the mission you've described. Obviously, I'd like to have her present when we actually begin putting the fleet together. Despite her relatively junior Manticoran rank, I envision a major role for her in the coordination and deployment of my screening units, which will also let me take the best advantage of her GSN status. But there should be plenty of time to deal with all of that after her return. I appreciate your informing me of your intentions, of course, but I see no objection to them."
"Thank you, My Lord." Matthews stood, extending his hand once more, and walked the earl to the door as they shook hands again. "I suppose," the Grayson added with a wry smile as he personally opened the door for his guest, "that the real reason I wanted to discuss it with you was that I feel a bit guilty to be poaching Lady Harrington from you. There are never enough good officers in any navy, and when you get one like her, well" He shrugged. "Any admiral I know would want to get his hands on her."
"Indeed he would, Sir," White Haven agreed. But by the time she gets back, he added mentally, maybe this admiral will have gotten his head straightened out and realized he has to keep his hands in his pockets where she's concerned!
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