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Chapter Eight

"Lieutenant Archer?"

Lieutenant Gervais Archer turned quickly from his contemplation of the luxuriantly bright beds of terrestrial flowers on the far side of the picture window to the even more luxuriantly bearded master steward in the doorway.

"Yes, Master Steward?"

"The admiral will see you now, Sir."

"Thank you."

Archer suppressed an urge to straighten his beret nervously as he followed the steward through the doorway and down a tastefully—and expensively—furnished hallway. He also attempted, less successfully, to suppress the thought of how his parents, and especially his mother, would have reacted to an invitation to this Landing townhouse. And how unlikely it was that they would ever receive one.

The steward glanced back over his shoulder at him as they approached another, open doorway, then coughed gently, in an attention-gathering sort of way.

"Yes, Chris?" a throaty, almost furry-sounding contralto responded.

"Lieutenant Archer is here, Ma'am."

"I see. Ask him to step in, please."

"Yes, Ma'am."

The bearded steward stepped to one side and nodded courteously for Archer to step past him. Which, with a certain trepidation, the lieutenant did.

The room beyond the door was a combination library and office. It was a large room, and he felt his eyes widen very slightly as he saw towering shelves filled with what certainly appeared to be old-style printed books. For most people, that sort of collection would have been pure ostentation, or at least window dressing, at best. These books, though, weren't. He couldn't have said exactly how he knew that, but he did. Perhaps it was the fact that their spines had that slightly worn, almost matte-polished look that human hands left on things they actually handled.

In sharp contrast to the archaic books, the room also boasted a sleekly modern and efficient workstation. It was the woman seated at that workstation Archer had come to see, and he crossed to it, then braced to attention.

"Lieutenant Archer, Ma'am," he said.

"So I see, Lieutenant," she said, standing and extending her hand through the insubstantial holo of the display she'd been perusing when he arrived.

He took the hand, which gripped his firmly, and let his spine and shoulders relax at the handshake's unstated command to settle into a more comfortable stance.

"Have a seat," she invited, and he settled into the indicated chair just a bit gingerly.

She sat down behind her own desk again, this time deactivating the holo display, and leaned back slightly, regarding him intently. He looked back, hoping he didn't look nervous . . . especially since he was nervous.

"So," she said after a moment or two, "you were in Necromancer at Solon."

Her tone made the statement a question, although he wasn't certain exactly what the question was. Still . . .

"Yes, Ma'am. I was."

His voice came out sounding level, he noted with a certain almost distant surprise. Surprise because it didn't feel level. Nothing felt "level" whenever he thought about Solon. Thought about the screaming hurricane of missiles, about the way his ship had heaved and twisted indescribably under the pounding of the bomb-pumped lasers. Remembered the howling alarms, the screams over the intercom, the sudden silences where voices used to be, the bodies of two of his best friends . . .

"Pretty bad, wasn't it?"

His eyes snapped back into focus, and he blinked in surprise. Surprise that she should broach the subject so openly when everyone else had tried so hard to avoid talking about it at all. And surprise at the understanding—the sympathy born of mutual experience, not saccharine pity—in her quiet question.

"Yes, Ma'am, it was," he heard himself say, equally quietly.

Michelle Henke gazed at the young man on the other side of her desk. She'd had her doubts when Honor had recommended young Archer as her new flag lieutenant. Of course, part of that was because she'd wondered whether she'd even need a new flag lieutenant.

Getting just a bit ahead of yourself going ahead and interviewing candidates when the Admiralty hasn't even told you it's going to find you a command, aren't you, girl? she reflected. On the other hand, it's not like good flag lieutenants are a-dime-a-dozen, either. And even an admiral who doesn't have a command needs a good aide.

Indeed they weren't, and indeed she did. And it wasn't many lieutenants who were likely to gain the recommendation of someone like Honor Harrington without ever having served directly under her.

"He's been through hell, Mike," she remembered Honor saying, reaching up to touch Nimitz's ears. "His efficiency reports are top-notch, and I know Captain Cruickshank thought the world of him. He 'tastes' a lot like another Tim Meares, to be honest. But there's a lot of pain locked up inside him at the moment, too. I think part of its probably survivor's guilt." Those almond-shaped eyes had bored into Michelle's. "Almost like he did something wrong surviving when his ship didn't. Sound familiar?"

Yeah, Honor, she thought now. Yeah, it does.

"Well, Lieutenant," she said aloud, "when that kind of thing happens, it leaves marks. They don't go away, either. Believe me, I know firsthand. The question is whether or not we let it change who we are."

Gervais twitched. He'd come here expecting to answer the standard questions, to summarize his experience, demonstrate his expertise. He hadn't expected to find an admiral he'd never even met before talking about memories. About the bleak sense of loss, the gnawing question of why he'd survived when so many others hadn't.

"Change who we are, Ma'am?" he heard himself reply. "I'm not sure that's the right question. Isn't 'who we are' the result of everything that does change us? I mean, if we don't change, then we don't learn, either, do we?"

Whoa! Didn't see that one coming, Michelle thought. She managed not to blink or to narrow her eyes in surprise, but she did tip her chair back a bit further and purse her lips thoughtfully.

"That's an excellent point, Lieutenant," she conceded. "And I'm not usually guilty of such imprecise language. What I meant, I suppose, is that the question is whether or not we allow the changes to deflect us from who we want to be, change what we want to accomplish with our lives. Do we let them . . . diminish us, or do we accept the scars and continue growing?"

She's not talking just to me. Gervais had no idea where that flash of insight could come from, but he knew, without question, that it was true. She's talking to herself. Or, no, that's not quite right either. . . . She's talking about us. About all of us survivors. And she's talking to both of us about it.

"I don't know, Ma'am," he said. "Whether or not it's going to deflect me, I mean. I don't want it to. I don't think it's going to. But, I have to admit, it hurts so much sometimes that I'm not sure about that."

Michelle nodded slowly. She didn't need Honor's empathic sense to recognize the painful honesty behind that response, and she respected young Archer for it. In fact, a part of her was astonished that he could confront it that openly and honestly in front of a total stranger.

Maybe Honor was right about this one's metal, she thought, then chuckled silently to herself. Wouldn't exactly be the first time she'd been right about something, would it?

"That's something I'm not always as confident about as I'd like to be, either, Lieutenant," she said, returning honesty for honesty. "And, unfortunately, I only know one way for either of us to find out. So, tell me, are you game to climb back onto the horse?"

The young man gazed at her for several seconds, then nodded back to her, as slowly as she'd nodded to him.

"Yes, Ma'am," he said. "I am."

"And would you be interested in doing that as my flag lieutenant?" she asked. He started to reply, but her raised hand stopped him. "Before you answer that question, understand that at this particular point in time, I don't even know if I'm going to have a command. The doctors still haven't officially cleared me to return to duty, and I understand Admiralty House is having a fairly lively internal debate about exactly what the terms of my parole require. So it's entirely possible that if you do sign on as my flag lieutenant, we're not going to be offered any horses to climb back onto any time soon."

"Ma'am," Archer felt his lips trying to twitch into a half-smile, "somehow I don't really see that being a big problem. I don't know what the terms of your 'parole' were, but I'd be really surprised if the Admiralty wasn't willing to be fairly . . . creative in its interpretation, if that's what it takes to get you back on a flag deck."

"Obviously, Lieutenant, you have a high opinion of my abilities," Michelle said dryly.

She also watched Archer's expression carefully as she said it, but she saw neither surprise, nor chagrin, nor sycophancy. Nor, for that matter, did he appear to feel any compulsion to reply just to be replying or to explain—which she was confident would be completely honest—that he'd had no intention of flattering her. A most self-possessed young man, Lieutenant Archer, she reflected.

"I see from your file," she continued in a deliberately brisker tone, "that you and I are related, Lieutenant."

"Ah, not really—" he began, then stopped himself. For the first time since he'd entered her office, he sounded genuinely flustered, Michelle thought with a carefully hidden mental smile. "What I meant to say, Ma'am," he resumed after a moment, "is that the relationship is . . . very distant."

He really hadn't had to tell her that, Michelle thought with another silent chuckle, looking at his flaming red hair, green eyes, and snub nose. Anything less like the Winton genotype would have been difficult to imagine. In fact, young Archer was at best an exceedingly remote cousin. A point of which his mother appeared to have been unaware when it came time to name her infant son.

"I see." Despite herself, her lips twitched very slightly, and when she glanced up, she saw something she hadn't really expected. A sparkle of amusement of his own had displaced at least some of the shadows in those green eyes.

Gervais saw her tiny smile, and felt his own mouth trying to smile back. Somehow, especially after all of his mother's childhood tales about the Wintons, he hadn't expected the woman who stood fifth in line for the crown to be quite so approachable, so . . . human. For the first time, almost to his own surprise, he found himself looking forward to the possibility of this assignment in something more than merely professional terms.

"My mother always thought of the relationship as being just a bit closer than my father ever did, Ma'am," he heard himself saying. "That's how I ended up with my name. If you noticed, of course."

His last sentence came out so demurely that Michelle chuckled out loud this time, and shook her head at him.

"Actually, I did notice," she told him in a moderately reproving tone. Then she grinned. "Gervais Winton Erwin Neville Archer. Now that's a mouthful. Almost as bad as Gloria Michelle Samantha Evelyn Henke. There's a reason my friends call me Michelle or Mike, Lieutenant."

"I'm not surprised, Ma'am," he replied, and she chuckled again.

"No, I don't imagine you are," she agreed, tapping the record chip on her desk which contained his personal file. "I noticed that you were nicknamed 'Gwen' at the Academy—from your initials, as my keen intellect speedily deduced."

"Yes, Ma'am," Gervais agreed. "Mom never did understand why I preferred it to Gervais, either. Don't get me wrong—I love my mother, and she's a brilliant woman. One of the Star Kingdom's top molecular chemists. There's just this one point where she's . . . well, 'marching to another drum' is the way Dad's always put it."

"I see." Michelle regarded him for several more seconds, then reached a decision. She stood once more, holding out her hand again.

"Well, 'Gwen,' I suppose that since every flag lieutenant is part of his admiral's official family, our relationship is going to get a bit closer. Welcome aboard, Lieutenant."

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