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"All right, Helm, take us to eighty percent," Honor said quietly.
"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Coming to eighty percent power." Master Chief Coxswain Constanza's skilled hands brought up the strength of Nike's impeller wedge, and Honor watched the command chair repeater displays as her ship's acceleration rose to the Navy's normal maximum power settings. Nike charged towards the outer reaches of Manticore-A's family of planets and asteroids, the bright star chip of Manticore-B glaring dead ahead in the visual display, as the drive readings peaked.
"Eighty percent power, Ma'am," Lieutenant Commander Oselli announced. "Three-point-niner-four-one-four KPS squared."
"Thank you, Charlotte." Honor's soprano was coolly courteous, but her satisfaction was unmistakable. That was bang on the builder's estimate, and she touched a stud on her chair arm.
"Engineering, Commander Ravicz," a voice replied instantly.
"This is the Captain, Commander. How does it look down there?"
Ivan Ravicz glanced at the builder's rep at his elbow, and the woman raised a circled thumb and index finger in the ancient gesture of approval.
"Looking good, Ma'am," the engineer told his CO. "We're getting a tiny kick in the telemetry from Fusion Three, but the drive's dead on the green."
"What sort of kick?"
"Nothing major, Ma'am, just a little bottle fluctuation. It's well within tolerances, and the power room systems don't even show it. That's why I think it's in the telemetry, but I'm keeping an eye on it."
"Good, Ivan. Stand by for our full power run."
"Standing by, Ma'am."
Honor cut the circuit and looked back across at Constanza.
"Take us to maximum military power, Helm."
"Aye, aye, Ma'am. Coming to maximum military power."
There was a hint of suppressed excitement in the helmswoman's voice, and Honor hid a smile. Coxswains didn't get many opportunities to really open their ships upnor, for that matter, did captains, since BuShips could be remarkably crabby over "unnecessary and undue strain on the propulsive systems of Her Majesty's starships"but there was additional reason for excitement today.
Constanza adjusted her power settings slowly, eyes intent on her panel while Honor watched her own readouts with equal intensity. Her mind always tended to drift to the inertial compensator at moments like this. If it failed, Nike's crew would turn instantly into something gruesomely reminiscent of anchovy paste, and Honor's ship had been chosen to test BuShips's newest generation compensator. It was an adaptation of the Grayson Navy's, which hadn't been calculated to inspire confidence in all hands, given that Grayson's general technology lagged a good century behind Manticore's, but Honor had seen the Graysons' system in action. It had been crudely built and mass-intensive, yet it had also been undeniably efficient, and BuShips claimed not only to have exterminated every possible bug but to have tweaked the specs even further, as well. Besides, the Navy hadn't had a compensator failure in over three T-centuries.
Or, at least, not one anyone knew about. Of course, there'd been the occasional ship lost "to causes unknown," and since a compensator failure under max accel would leave no survivors to report it. . . .
She put the thought aside as the wedge peaked and Oselli spoke.
"Maximum military power, Captain." The astrogator looked up with an enormous smile. "Five-one-five-point-five gravities, Ma'am!"
"Very good!" This time Honor couldn't quite keep her delight out of her voice, for that was two and a half percent better than BuShips and the builders had estimated. It might be three percent less than her last ship had been capable of, but HMS Fearless had massed only three hundred thousand tons.
She touched the stud again.
"Engineering, Commander Ravicz."
"The Captain again, Ivan. Everything still green down there?"
"Yes, Ma'am. I wouldn't care to keep her here too long," Honor heard Ravicz's satisfaction waning with his professional caution, "but this ship is really built." The builder's rep grinned at the compliment, and he smiled back.
"We'll back off shortly," Honor told him, and leaned back in her chair as she released the stud. "Hold us at max for another thirty minutes, Helm."
"Aye, aye, Ma'am," Constanza replied crisply, and Honor felt her bridge crew's pleasure at their ship's performance.
She shared it, but her mind was already reaching ahead to the next phase. Once the sustained full power trial was out of the way, it would be time to exercise Nike's armament. That was one reason for their present course, since the Beta Belt was the Navy's traditional gunnery exercise area. There'd be a few less asteroids shortly, she thought cheerfully, and reached up to scratch Nimitz's chin as he purred on the back of her chair.
James MacGuiness poured cocoa into Honor's mug, and she raised it to sniff the rich, chocolaty aroma. The steward watched the crown of her bent head with a hint of anxiety, then banished the expression instantly as she straightened.
"Do I detect something new, Mac?"
"As a matter of fact, you do, Ma'am. Try it."
She sipped cautiously, and her eyebrows rose. She took another, longer sip, then lowered the mug with a sigh.
"Delicious! What did you do to it?"
"I added a touch of almond to it, Ma'am. The Bosun tells me it's something of a favorite on Gryphon."
"Well, I certainly approve. And be sure you remind me to tell Dad about it next time I see him, would you?"
"Of course, Ma'am." MacGuiness tried unsuccessfully to hide his pleasure at her reaction, then straightened as the admittance signal chirped and Honor pressed a button.
"Executive Officer, Ma'am," her sentry announced.
"Thank you, Corporal." Honor touched another key to open the hatch, and Commander Henke stepped through it.
"You wanted to see me, Ma'am?"
"I did, indeed, Mike. Sit down." Henke obeyed, her "on-duty" manner softening at the welcoming, informal tone, and Honor glanced up at MacGuiness. "The Exec is one of those barbarian coffee-drinkers, Mac. Could you get her a cup?"
"Of course, Ma'am." MacGuiness vanished, and Henke shook her head at Honor.
"Still sucking up the calories, I see. No wonder you spend so much time working out!"
"Nonsense," Honor said comfortably. "Some of us have active metabolisms, which allow us to indulge our taste for the finer things in life without fear of the consequences."
"Yeah, sure." Henke snorted.
MacGuiness reappeared with a coffee cup on a gold-rimmed saucer, and the commanders eyebrows rose. The cup bore Nike's crest, the winged goddess of victory hurling thunderbolts from a raised hand, but the hull number under the crest was BC-09. Which made the cup over two Manticoran centuriesalmost five hundred T-yearsold. It was part of the captain's service from the second ship of her name and, as such, reserved for formal occasions.
"To what do I owe the honor?" she asked, and Honor chuckled.
"Two things, actually. One, I happen to remember that it's your birthday." Henke grimaced, and Honor chuckled again. "Now, now! You're not getting older, just better."
"Maybe. But if I know you, you ratted to the rest of the wardroom about itprobably through your faithful minion heredidn't you?" Henke demanded with a wave at MacGuiness. Honor looked innocent, and the commander groaned. "Yes, you did. And that means they're waiting to pounce with that stupid song! Damn it, Honor, you know I've got perfect pitch! Have you ever heard Ivan Ravicz try to sing?" She shuddered, and Honor turned a laugh into a hasty cough.
"I'm sure you'll survive," she soothed. "On the other hand, that's only one of the things I'm celebrating. We've got our orders, Mike."
"Oh?" Henke straightened in her chair and set her cup aside, levity vanquished by sudden interest.
"Indeed. Being in all respects ready for deployment, HMS Nike is directed to Hancock Station, there to take aboard Rear Admiral of the Red Mark Sarnow as flagship of Battlecruiser Squadron Five."
"Hancock Station as a squadron flagshipand a newly formed squadron at that, hey? Well, well, well," Henke murmured, and her dark eyes gleamed. "Not too shabby. And from what I hear, Sarnow should keep things lively."
"If he lives up to his reputation," Honor agreed. "I've never met him, but I've heard good things about him. And I know at least one member of his staff quite well."
"Oh? Which one?"
"His communications officer was my com officer in Basilisk. Lieutenant Commander Webster."
"Webster," Henke repeated thoughtfully. "Would that be Sir James's cousin, or his grand-nephew?"
"Nephew. He's young, but he doesn't owe his rank to his relatives. I think you'll like him."
"If he does his job as well as his uncle, I probably will," Henke agreed, then smiled. "And, speaking of relatives, I've got one serving in Hancock, too."
"Yes. My cousinfourth cousin, actuallyis the repair base's exec." Henke cocked her head for a moment, regarding Honor with a quizzical expression. "As a matter of fact, you've met him."
"I have?" Honor was surprised. She'd met several of Henke's relativesmostly exalted personages who'd dropped in to visit her on free days at Saganami Islandbut she doubted any of them would be serving as an orbital bases executive officer.
"Uh-huh. You met him in Basilisk. Captain Paul Tankersley."
Honor triedalmost successfullyto keep her mouth from tightening in repugnance. Not, she told herself after the instant initial shock, that she had anything against Tankersley himself. To be honest, she hardly even remembered him. She tried to recall what he looked like, and frowned at the image's vagueness. Short, she thought, but square and solid looking. That was all that came to mindthat and his obvious discomfort at the situation he'd found himself in at the time.
"Paul told me about it," Henke said after a moment, breaking into her thoughts. "Or some of it, anyway. I think he'd have said more if he hadn't thought it would sound disloyal to an ex-CO. He's funny that way, even when the CO in question was Pavel Young."
This time Honor couldn't keep the cold, bleak hatred off her face, and her hand tightened about her cocoa mug in poisonous memory.
"You know," Henke went on, her voice carefully light, "you never did tell me what really happened that night."
"What?" Honor shook her head and blinked.
"I said, you never told me what really happened that night."
"Oh, don't be silly, Honor! You know perfectly well which night." Henke sighed as Honor looked at her without expression. "The night," she explained, "when you beat the holy living hell out of Mr. Midshipman Lord Pavel Young. You do remember that night?"
"He fell down the stairs," Honor said almost automatically, and Henke snorted.
"Sure he did. That was why I found you hiding under the covers with Nimitz ready to go rip someone's face off!" Honor winced, remembering a time when Nimitz had done just that, but Henke didn't seem to notice. "Look, Honor, I know the official story. I also know it's bullshit, and in case no one's ever told you, there are all sorts of rumors floating around about itespecially since Basilisk."
"Rumors?" Honor set her mug down, feeling a sort of distant surprise as she saw the tremors in her fingers. "What rumors? I haven't heard anything about them!"
"Of course not. Who's going to breathe a word about them around you? But after the way he tried to stab you in the back at Basilisk, there aren't too many people who doubt them."
Henke leaned back, eyes steady, and Honor shifted uncomfortably under their weight. She'd done her level best never to reveal any hint of what had actually happened, and she'd hopedmore desperately than realistically, she thought nowthat the story had finally died a natural death.
"All right," Henke said after a moment, "let me tell you what I think happened. I think the bastard tried to rape you, and you kicked his balls up between his ears. Yes?"
"I" Honor stopped and took a sip of cocoa, then sighed. "More or less," she said at last.
"Well, for God's sake, why didn't you say so at the time?! Lord knows I tried to get it out of you, and I'm sure Commandant Hartley did, too!"
"You're right." Honor's soprano was uncharacteristically soft, almost inaudible, as she stared down into her mug. "I didn't realize it at the time, but he must have known. Or guessed. But I was just" She broke off and inhaled deeply. "I felt so dirty, Mike. Like he'd soiled me somehow, just by touching me. I was . . . ashamed. Besides, he was an earl's son, and I wasn't even pretty. Who would have believed me?"
"I would have," Henke said quietly, "and so would Hartley. So would anyone who knew both of you and heard both sides of the story."
"Oh?" Honor's smile was crooked. "You would have believed the Earl of North Hollow's son tried to rape a hatchet-faced overgrown horse like me?"
Henke flinched inside at her friends bitter tone but bit her tongue against a quick reply. She suspected very few people guessed how ugly Honor had thought she was at the Academy. And, in truth, she had been on the homely side then, but her sharp-planed face had matured into a clean-cut beauty in the years since. She wasn't "pretty," and she never would be, Henke thought, but she also had no idea how other women envied her unique bone structure and dark, exotically slanted eyes. Her face had a mobile, expressive alive-ness, despite the slight stiffness of its left side, and she didn't even know it. Yet the pain in her eyes now wasn't for her supposed homeliness. It was for the girl she had been, not the woman she was. And, Henke knew, for the way she'd betrayed that girl by not seeking justice for her.
"Yes," she said softly. "I would have believed you. As a matter of fact, that was pretty much what I thought had happened at the time. That's why I went to Hartley."
"You went to Hartley?!" Honor's eyes widened, and Henke shrugged uncomfortably.
"I was worried about youand I was fairly sure you weren't going to come forward with the truth. So, yeah, I told him what I thought happened."
Honor stared at her, and her memory replayed the agonizing scene in the commandant's office, the way he'd almost begged her to tell him what had really happened, and she wishedagainthat she had.
"Thank you," she said softly. "You're right. I should have spoken up. They might've have broken him if I had . . . but I didn't think about all that then, and it's too late now. Besides" she squared her shoulders and inhaled again "he finally got his."
"Yes and no," Henke countered gently. "His reputation's shot to hell, and he knows it, but he's still in the service. And he's still on active duty."
"Family influence." Honor gave a ghost of a smile, and Henke nodded.
"Family influence. I guess none of us who have it can really help using it, whether we want to or not. I mean, everyone knows who we are, and there's always someone who wants us to owe them a favor, even if we never asked for it. But North Hollow" She shook her head distastefully. "People like him make me sick. Even if you weren't my friend, I would have loved to see Young busted. Hell, with a little luck, he might even have drawn brig time, but" Henke's mouth quirked "I forgive you. It's hard, you understand, but I guess I'm just naturally big-hearted."
"Gee, thanks," Honor said, relieved by the lightening tone of the conversation, and Henke grinned.
"Don't mention it. But I think you should know that Paul never did like Young, and he likes him a lot less now. As far as I can tell, it's mutual, too. Something about Paul's helping the brass deliberately sabotage his refit so Warlock didn't get back to Basilisk in time to keep you from making him look like the stupid sack of shit he is."
"What? I never knew that was deliberate!"
"Paul never said it was, but he sure did something Admiral Warner liked. They pulled him out of Warlock and transferred him to Hephaestus before you were even back from Basilisk, and he's been playing yard dog ever since. He's up to captain junior grade now, and Daddy tells me they're probably going to sneak him onto the list sometime soon. But don't you dare tell him I told you that!" Henke said with a sudden, ferocious frown. "He'd be madder than hell if he thought someone was pulling strings for him."
"Not as far as I know. Or, at any rate, not any more than they do for anyone they think is good at his job. So don't breathe a word to him."
"My lips are sealed. Not that I expect to have much opportunity to exchange confidences with him."
"No?" Henke cocked her head again, then grinned. "Well, just remember to keep mum if you do get the chance," she said. "Now, about those orders"
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