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Chapter Nine

Michelle accepted her beret from Master Steward Billingsley and started to turn towards the door and the waiting Admiralty air car when she paused suddenly.

"And what, Master Steward, might that be?" she asked.

"I beg the Admiral's pardon?" Billingsley said innocently. "What 'that' would the Admiral be referring to?"

"The Admiral would be referring to that 'that,' " Michelle replied, one forefinger indicating the broad, prick-eared head which had just poked itself exploringly around the corner of a door.

"Oh, that 'that'!"

"Precisely," Michelle said, folding her arms and regarding him ominously.

"That's a cat, Ma'am," Billingsley told her. "Not a treecat, a cat—an Old Earth cat. It's called a 'Maine Coon.' "

"I'm well aware of what an Old Earth cat looks like, Chris," Michelle said repressively, never unfolding her arms. "I don't believe I've ever seen one quite that large, but I do know what they are. What I don't know is what it's doing in my mother's townhouse."

Actually, the townhouse and its landscaped grounds belonged to Michelle now, not to her mother, but it was Caitrin Winton-Henke's home, even if Michelle did have most of a wing reserved for her private use whenever she was on Manticore.

"Well, actually, Ma'am, he's mine," Billingsley said with the air of someone making a clean breast of it.

"And just when did this monumental change in your status as a parent take place?" Michelle inquired just a bit acidly as the rest of the impressively large feline ambled into the foyer.

"Day before yesterday," Billingsley said. "I . . . found him wandering around over near the Master Chiefs' Club. He looked like he needed a home, and he walked right up to me, and I couldn't just leave him there, Ma'am!"

"I see," Michelle said, looking into his guilelessly wide and innocent eyes. "And would it happen that this hulking menace to all mice, hamsters, chipmunks, and unwary small children has a name?"

"Yes, Ma'am. I call him 'Dicey.' "

" 'Dicey,' " Michelle replied with long-suffering resignation. "Of course."

Billingsley continued to look as if butter would not melt in his mouth, but the name was a dead giveaway of how his new pet had really come into his possession, Michelle thought, looking at the enormous cat. It was the first terrestrial cat she'd ever seen who looked like he probably came close to matching Nimitz's mass. Not only that, but 'Dicey' was a good twenty centimeters shorter overall than Nimitz, and although he was definitely a long hair, he was nowhere near as fluffy as a treecat, which made him substantially bulkier. One ear had a notch that looked like someone else had taken a bite out of it, and a scar across the back of his burly neck left a visible furrow in his fur. There were a couple of more of those on the left side of his face, as well, she noticed. Obviously, he'd been to the wars, yet there was something about him that reminded her irresistibly of Billingsley himself, now that she thought about it. A certain endearing disreputability, perhaps.

She glanced at her new flag lieutenant, who was observing the entire scene with a laudably professional and serene expression. There was, however, a certain almost subliminal twinkle in Lieutenant Archer's green eyes. One that boded ill, she decided. Clearly "Gwen" was already succumbing to Billingsley's incorrigible charm.

Much like a certain admiral you know, perhaps? she reflected.

"You do realize how many regulations there are against having a pet on board one of her Majesty's starships?" she inquired out loud after a moment.

"Regulations, Ma'am?" Billingsley repeated blankly, as if he'd never heard the word before.

Michelle started to open her mouth again, then gave up. A wise woman knew when to cut her losses, and she didn't begin to have the time it would take to make a dent in Billingsley's bland innocence. Besides, she didn't have the heart for it.

"As long as you understand that I'm not going to put any pressure on anyone to allow you to bring that beast along on our next deployment," she said, trying womanfully to sound firm.

"Oh, yes, Ma'am. I understand that," Billingsley assured her without a trace of triumph.

They'd managed to arrive almost twenty minutes early.

Not exactly the best way to look like I'm not champing at the bit for another assignment, I suppose, Michelle had mused as she and Archer were ushered into the waiting room. On the other hand, it's probably a little late to try to convince anyone I'm not doing exactly that. Besides, she looked around the spacious waiting room, it gives me more time to appreciate the "new air car smell," doesn't it?

Admiralty House's latest expansion project had been authorized less than a month after the High Ridge Government took office. The previous one had been completed—on time and under budget—just over a T-year before that by a subsidiary of the Hauptman Cartel. Obviously, an administration which had based its domestic policies so firmly on the time-honored, well-tested device of the support-buying boondoggle couldn't have such a potentially lucrative avenue for . . . creative capital flow sitting around unutilized, however. So another expansion had promptly been authorized . . . despite the fact that the Janacek Admiralty had been so busily downsizing the Navy. This one was going to add another forty floors when it was finished sometime in the next few months, and Michelle didn't like to think about how much it had contributed to the bottom line of Apex Industrial Group.

I probably wouldn't mind as much if Apex didn't belong to a bottom-feeder like dear, dear Cousin Freddy, she thought.

There'd never been any real likelihood that someone as strongly and openly opposed to High Ridge as Klaus Hauptman was going to get the contract for this expansion. Aside from his political views, Hauptman was known for a certain ruthless concentration on holding down little things like creative cost overruns, and his accountants were sudden death on anything that even looked like kickbacks or "comfortable" little relationships with corrupt politicians.

The Honorable Frederick James Winton-Travis, CEO and majority stockholder of the Apex Industrial Group, was a far smaller fish than Hauptman, but he'd been much more to the High Ridge crowd's taste. First, he was a card-carrying member of the Conservative Association who'd contributed in excess of three million Manticoran dollars to the political coffers of one Michael Janvier, also known as the Baron of High Ridge. There was no law against his doing that, of course, as long as the contributions were a matter of public record, and there was no doubt—unfortunately—that the contributions had reflected Winton-Travis' actual political convictions. Such as they were and what there was of them. Michelle would have found the political convictions in question distasteful enough on their own merits, however. The fact that the most recent Admiralty House "renovation project" had obviously been a way for High Ridge to pay back the contribution—with hefty interest—had simply added a particularly repulsive taste to the entire transaction, as far as she was concerned.

Being related to the scummy bastard doesn't help, either, she admitted to herself. Still, I don't think I'd mind quite as much if it wasn't something everyone knows about but no one can prove. If there was at least a chance of sending dear Freddy to prison for a decade or two, I'd be able to think about this much more philosophically. It's not even as if we didn't really need the extra space, because we do. But that doesn't make it any less of a boondoggle, because no one involved in deciding to build it could possibly have believed we actually ever would. And every time I think about the way the contracts were handled my blood pressure goes—

"Excuse me, Admiral."

Michelle turned from her study of the streets and green belts of the City of Landing, two hundred floors below her crystoplast window viewpoint, as the Admiralty yeoman spoke.

"Yes, Chief?"

"Sir Lucian is ready for you now, Ma'am."

"Thank you, Chief."

She managed to restrain the almost overpowering impulse to let nervous fingers check her appearance one last time, nor did she lick her lips anxiously or whistle a merry tune to disguise her nervousness. Despite which, unusually large butterflies seemed to be waltzing about in her midsection as the yeoman pressed the button which opened the door to Sir Lucian Cortez's palatial Admiralty House office.

She nodded her thanks and stepped through the waiting portal, with Archer on her heels.

"Admiral Gold Peak!"

Cortez was a smallish man who wore the uniform of an admiral of the green. In many ways, he looked more like a successful schoolteacher, or perhaps a bank bureaucrat, than a naval officer, despite the uniform. And in many ways, Michelle supposed, he was a bureaucrat. But he was a very important bureaucrat—the Royal Manticoran Navy's Fifth Space Lord and the commanding officer of the Bureau of Personnel. It was his job to meet the unending appetite of the frantically expanding, brutally overworked Navy, and no one—including Michelle—quite knew how he had done that so well, for so long. Under the prewar system of rotating senior officers regularly through fleet commands and then back to desk jobs in order to see to it that they stayed operationally current, Cortez would have been replaced in his present position long since. No one in her right mind was going to suggest replacing him under wartime conditions, however.

Now he came to his feet, smiling in welcome, and extended his hand to her across the desk as the other man, a commander wearing the insignia of the Judge Advocate's Corps, who'd been sitting beside the office's coffee table also stood respectfully.

"Good morning, My Lord," Michelle responded to Cortez's greeting, and clasped his hand firmly. Then she quirked one eyebrow politely at the waiting commander, and Cortez smiled.

"No, you're not going to need legal representation, Milady," he assured her. "This is Commander Hal Roach, and he is here because of you, but not because of anything you've done. Unless, of course, you have a guilty conscience I didn't know anything about?"

"My Lord, my conscience is as pure as the driven snow," she replied, holding out her hand to Roach, and the commander smiled in appreciation as he took it. He was a solidly built fellow, with dark hair, and probably somewhere in his mid-forties, Michelle estimated.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Milady," he assured her.

"A lawyer, and tactful, too," Michelle observed, and nodded her head at Lieutenant Archer. "My Lord, Commander, this is Gervais Archer, my flag lieutenant."

"Lieutenant," Cortez said, acknowledging him with another nod, and then gestured at the comfortable chairs which faced his desk.

"Please," he said. "Have a seat. Both of you."

"Thank you, My Lord," Michelle murmured, and settled herself in the indicated chair. Archer, with a junior aide's unfailing instincts, took another one, set slightly behind and to the left of Michelle's, and Roach resumed his own chair after Cortez seated himself behind his desk once more. Then the admiral tipped back slightly and cocked his head to one side as he regarded Michelle with deep-set dark eyes gleaming with intelligence.

"I understand you've been pestering Captain Shaw, Milady," he said.

"I'd hardly call it 'pestering,' My Lord," she replied. "I may have contacted the captain a time or two."

Captain Terrence Shaw was Cortez's chief of staff, which made him the ultimate keeper of the keys where BuPers was concerned.

"Captain Shaw didn't call it that, either," Cortez said with a twinkle. "On the other hand, Milady, seven com calls in eight days does seem just a tad . . . energetic."

"Did I really screen him that many times?" Michelle blinked, honestly surprised by the total, and Cortez snorted.

"Yes, Milady. You did. One would almost think that you were eager to get off-world again. Surely there's something you could think of to do with your convalescent leave?"

"Probably, My Lord," Michelle conceded. "On the other hand, I really wasn't gone all that long, and it wasn't particularly difficult to get things sorted back out after I got home. And," a smile softened her expression, "I made it in time for the one thing I really wanted to do."

"The birth of Lady Alexander-Harrington's son, Milady?" Cortez asked in a considerably gentler tone.

"Yes." Michelle's nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply, remembering that moment, once again seeing Honor's transcendent happiness and reliving her own joy as she shared that joyous experience with her best friend.

"Yes, My Lord," she repeated. "Mind you, I missed the wedding, along with all the rest of the Star Kingdom, but at least I did make it home for Raoul's birth."

"And then promptly began hounding BuMed again," Cortez observed. "So, tell me, Milady—how's the leg?"

"Fine, My Lord," she replied just a bit warily.

"BuMed agrees with you," he said, swinging his chair gently from side to side. "In fact, they've endorsed your fitness report in very positive terms." Michelle began to exhale a surreptitious sigh of relief, but amusement flickered in Cortez's eyes as he continued, "Although Captain Montoya did point out that you've been persistently . . . less than completely candid, shall we say, about the amount of physical discomfort you're continuing to experience."

"My Lord," she began, but Cortez shook his head.

"Believe me, Milady," he told her, his eyes now deadly serious, "Montoya would have to be reporting something a lot more serious than a case of someone who's too stubborn to take the convalescent leave to which she's entitled before we worried about it at this point."

"I'm . . . relieved to hear that, Sir," Michelle said frankly, and Cortez snorted.

"I'm going to assume that what you mean is that you're relieved we have a command for you, rather than that we're so desperately pressed for personnel we're cutting corners where medical considerations are concerned, Milady."

Well, there's something there's no good response to, Michelle thought, and Cortez chuckled.

"Forgive me, Milady. I'm afraid my sense of humor has gotten itself a bit skewed over the last T-year or so."

He gave himself a shake and let his chair come fully back upright once again.

"In fact," he told her, "the real reason I've been ducking your calls—and I have been, if I'm going to be honest—is that we've had quite a problem deciding exactly what to do about that parole of yours. No one here at Admiralty House has any qualms about your having given President Pritchart your parole, especially under the circumstances that obtained," he said quickly, as she started to open her mouth. "It's more a matter of our needing to figure out which precedents apply. Which is what Commander Roach is here to explain to you."

He looked at Roach and raised one hand. "Commander?"

"Of course, My Lord," Roach replied, then turned his attention to Michelle.

"For fairly obvious reasons, Milady, there weren't any paroles during the last war, and I'm afraid we've never set up the proper channels between us and the Republic since the fall of the Committee of Public Safety, either. An oversight we ought to have rectified long since, once we were rid of StateSec. Unfortunately, it would appear the previous government had other things on its mind, such as it was and what there was of it, and we've been just a bit busy ourselves since Baron High Ridge's . . . departure. So, frankly, we've been going around in circles over in the JAG's office, trying to decide how to handle your case."

"Not just over at the JAG's office, either," Cortez added. "Public Affairs has been dithering about it, too, I'm afraid, because of all of the interstellar news coverage this whole summit meeting proposal has spawned. Given your close relationship to Her Majesty and the glare of publicity which has accompanied your return, it's particularly important that we get it right, as I trust you understand."

"Yes, Sir. Of course," Michelle agreed.

"There was a minority opinion," Roach told her when Cortez nodded for him to resume, "that the exact wording of your parole technically disqualifies you from active service anywhere until you've been properly exchanged, on the basis that allowing you to serve somewhere besides directly against Haven would still free up another officer for that service. That's a very strict interpretation of the Deneb Accords, however, and it's one the Star Kingdom has never formally accepted. It was also, frankly, an interpretation that Admiral Cortez didn't much care for, so I was asked to do some additional research, probably because I'm currently the executive officer over at the Charleston Center for Admiralty Law."

Michelle nodded. The Charleston Center was recognized as one of the galaxy's premier authorities on interstellar admiralty law. Its original reason for being when it was initially established a hundred and sixty T-years ago had been to deal specifically with the military implications of the customary legal practices which had grown up over the centuries of the Diaspora. But despite the fact that it remained a Navy command, the sheer size of the Star Kingdom's merchant marine gave its decisions enormous impact where civilian interstellar traffic was concerned, as well.

"Like any good lawyer, I went looking for the precedents most favorable to my client's case—the stronger and more specific the better—and I found what I was looking for in a decision from the old Greenbriar-Chanticleer War. In 1843, they agreed to submit a dispute over officers' paroles for Solarian League binding arbitration. The decision of the arbitrator was that any legally paroled officer could be utilized for any duty in which he or she was not personally and directly engaged against the enemy who had paroled him or her. Staff, logistic, and medical services assignments for any unit directly committed against the enemy who had paroled him or her were held to be unlawful, but service in another astrographic area, or against another opponent, was specifically held to be a lawful employment of paroled officers. In other words, Milady, as long as you aren't actively shooting at the Peeps or helping someone else do the same thing, the Admiralty can send you anywhere it wants."

"Which is exactly what he told us, in considerably more detail, when he wrote the final decision that we can legally and honorably employ you in either Silesia or the Talbott Cluster, even if that does let us send some other rear admiral to go beat on Haven in your place," Cortez said. "And, frankly, it's a damned good thing we can, too, under the circumstances."

"I understand, My Lord," Michelle said when he paused, and she did.

It didn't seem possible that she'd been back in the Star Kingdom for the better part of two T-months. News of Captain Aivars Terekhov's stunning—and costly—victory at the Battle of Monica had arrived only nine days after she had, and the entire Star Kingdom had experienced a spasm of almost unendurable relief. The price his scratch-built squadron had paid might have been agonizing, but no one had any illusions about what would have happened if he'd failed to demolish the battlecruisers which had been supplied to the Union of Monica. Nor did anyone doubt that those ships had been supplied by someone who clearly did not have the Star Kingdom's best interests at heart, although just what the full ramifications of that "someone's" plans might have been was still being unraveled. Frankly, Michelle was one of those who doubted that even Patricia Givens would ever manage to dig all the bits and pieces of the plot out from under their concealing rocks. But the intelligence people reporting to Rear Admiral Khumalo, Vice Admiral O'Malley, and Special Minister Amandine Corvisart had already dug out enough to validate all of Terekhov's suspicions . . . and actions.

Unfortunately, anyone who thought the Star Kingdom was out of the woods probably enjoyed only intermittent contact with reality, she thought grimly. True, the Monican Navy had been completely removed from the board, but Monica had never been the true threat, anyway. It had always been Monica's status as a client state of the Solarian League which posed the real danger, and it was still far too early to predict how the League was going to react. The government of Baron Grantville and the Navy's officer corps had always realized that, and over the last month, that same awareness had begun sinking in for the average woman-in-the-street, as well.

It's a hell of a galaxy when Frontier Security can use a bunch of criminals like Manpower and come this damned close to getting us into war with the most powerful star nation in existence, she thought. And it's even more of a pain in the ass when we can't be certain they won't succeed in the end anyway, even after we've started turning over the rocks and exposing the slime underneath them. No wonder everyone's so relieved by the thought that we're at least going to be talking to Haven again!

"I know you've been briefed by Admiral Givens and her people," Cortez continued. "Since they've brought you up to date on the basic political and deployment aspects of the overall situation, I'm going to concentrate on the nuts and bolts of our manning requirements and the problems directly related to them.

"You may not be aware that the first wave of our emergency superdreadnought construction programs will be commissioning over the next several months," he said, and Michelle's eyes narrowed. He saw it, and snorted. "I see you weren't. Good. They've worked some not so minor miracles in the shipyards—and, to be frank, cut some corners in ways we would never have accepted in peacetime—to telescope construction times, and we're substantially ahead of schedule on most of the ships. We've done our best to conceal the extent to which that's true, and we sincerely hope Haven hasn't picked up on it yet, either. But, to be perfectly honest, that's one reason everyone here at Admiralty House heaved such a huge sigh of relief when Her Majesty agreed to meet with Pritchart and Theisman. Obviously, we'll all be delighted if some sort of peace settlement emerges from this summit. But, frankly, even if nothing at all comes of it in that regard, we should be able to string the talks out for at least a couple of months, even after Her Majesty and Pritchart reach Torch. And that doesn't even consider all the messages which are going to have to be sent back and forth to set something like this up in the first place. Just all of the physical coming and going involved is going to buy us time. Time enough for us to get a lot of those new wallers into service. And that, Admiral Gold Peak, coupled with the new weapons and control systems which are also coming into service, means the Republic's numerical advantage is going to be a lot less crushing than anyone in Nouveau Paris thinks it is."

He smiled thinly at her, but then the smile vanished, and he shook his head.

"That's all well and good where Haven is concerned, of course. But if we find ourselves at war with the Solarian League, it's going to be a very different story. As my mother always used to warn me, every silver lining has a cloud, and that's certainly true in this case. Given the situation vis-a-vis the League, we have no choice but to continue to tweak our recruiting, training, and building programs whenever and wherever we can, despite the summit and any respite it might offer on the Haven front. And despite all of the advances in automation and reductions in manpower requirements, crewing that much new construction is stretching our personnel strength right to the breaking point. For example, most of the new superdreadnoughts are close enough to completion at this point that we're already assembling cadre and assigning them to their new ships. Fortunately, we've been able to decommission many of the old-style ships of the wall we were forced to put back into service after Grendelsbane, and that's freed up a lot of trained manpower. And we've recovered from Janacek and High Ridge's build-down. But we're still short of all the people we need, and the situation is even worse for our lighter units. Like—" he gave her a sharp, level look "—the new battlecruisers."

He paused, and Michelle nodded. The most urgent priorities of the new war emergency construction programs had focused on producing as many ships of the wall, pod-laying superdreadnoughts like Honor's Imperator, as was physically possible. It couldn't have been any other way, given the overwhelming primacy the new "podnoughts" had attained. Because of that emphasis, lighter ships, like cruisers and destroyers, had been assigned a much lower building priority. Large numbers had been projected, and, indeed, laid down, but only after the needs of the superdreadnought-building programs had already been met. And only after additional dispersed yards in which to do the laying down could be thrown together, as well. As a result, construction had been much slower to begin on those smaller, lighter units.

On the other hand, it took much less time to build a destroyer or a cruiser—or even one of the new battlecruisers—than it did to build a ship of the wall. Which meant there'd been time to refine their designs and get classes like the new Nike-class battlecruisers and Roland-class destroyers into the pipeline. And it also meant that, despite their later start, truly enormous numbers of brand-new ships "below the wall" were already in the process of working up for service. But although the adoption of such vastly increased automation meant the once vast gulf between the absolute numbers of noncommissioned and enlisted personnel required by a superdreadnought and a mere battlecruiser had shrunk substantially, a battlecruiser still required almost as many officers as a superdreadnought. And while the new LACs might free up large numbers of starships which might once have been tied down on picket, patrol, or anti-piracy system security, each of them required its own slice of officers and enlisted, as well, which, in turn, put an even greater strain on the available supply of trained personnel.

"Here's what we have in mind, Milady," Cortez said, leaning forward and folding his hands on his desk blotter. "Initially, we'd earmarked somewhere around two thirds of the new cruisers and battlecruisers for Admiral Sarnow's command in Silesia. That, unfortunately, was before the situation in Talbott blew up in our faces. So now it looks as if we're basically going to be reversing the proportions we'd originally projected and sending two thirds of them to Talbott, instead. Including you, Admiral."

"Me, My Lord?" she asked when he paused as if to invite comment.

"You," he confirmed. "We're giving you the 106th."

For a moment, it failed to register. Then her eyes flared in astonishment. He couldn't be serious! That was her first thought. And on its heels, came another.

"Sir Lucian," she began, "I don't—"

"We're not going to have that particular discussion, Milady," Cortez interrupted her. She closed her mouth, sitting back in her chair, and he gazed at her sternly. "You've been not-pestering Captain Shaw for a billet, and now you've got one, and this decision has nothing to do with the fact that you're the Queen's cousin. It has to do with the fact that you are a highly experienced officer, who has just returned from demonstrating exactly how capable you are, and who—to be frank—we can't use where we'd most like to use you. But if we can't give you a superdreadnought division or squadron and send you back to Eighth Fleet, the 106th is, in the Admiralty's considered opinion, absolutely the next best use we can make of you."

Michelle bit her tongue rather firmly, remembering a conversation with Honor on this same topic. Despite Cortez's explanation, she remained less than fully convinced favoritism had played no part at all in the Admiralty's decision. Still, she had to admit Honor had also had a point. The fact that Michelle had spent so long guarding against even the appearance of playing the patronage game which had so bedeviled the prewar Manticoran officer corps might, indeed, have made her overly sensitive in some respects.

"Having said that, however," Cortez continued, "and to be completely honest, there are some factors in your orders which don't relate directly to your demonstrated capabilities as a combat commander. Not to the decision to give you the 106th, but to the decision as to where to send you—and it—after giving it to you."

Michelle's eyes narrowed as she sensed the impending fall of the second shoe, and Cortez smiled a bit crookedly.

"No, Milady, we didn't make any deals with Mount Royal Palace," he told her. "But the fact is that we've known from the beginning that we couldn't permanently leave Vice Admiral O'Malley in Talbott, for a lot of reasons. Among them, the fact that he's just about due for his third star. Another is that we have a task group of Invictus-class SD(P)s waiting for him when he gets it. So, as soon as possible, we need to recall him to the Lynx Terminus and get Admiral Blaine's screening units back to the rest of his task force. But we're going to need someone to replace O'Malley in Talbott proper, and we're going to be recalling the pod battlecruisers we borrowed from Grayson when we deployed him in the first place. We're replacing them with the 106th, and we're replacing him with you . . . Vice Admiral Gold Peak."

Michelle stiffened in her chair, and Cortez's smile grew broader.

"You were already on the list before Solon," he told her. "In fact, the promotion board had acted before Ajax was lost, although the paperwork was still being processed. And then things got a little complicated when we thought you were dead, of course. That's been straightened out, however, and some of those factors other than your combat skills are coming into play here, as well. For one thing, it's been decided Admiral Khumalo will also be promoted. In fact, he's already been notified of his promotion to vice admiral. His date of rank precedes your own, so he'll still be senior to you, and he'll be staying on as the Talbott Station commander."

Michelle kept her mouth shut . . . not without difficulty, and this time Cortez allowed his smile to slide over into a chuckle. Then he sobered.

"I'm sorry, Milady. I shouldn't have laughed, but your expression . . ."

He shook his head.

"No, My Lord, I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean—"

"Milady, you aren't the only one who's been . . . under-impressed by Augustus Khumalo over the years. To be honest, there'd been serious consideration of recalling him from Talbott before this situation with Monica blew up. And, the truth is, he's always been more of an administrator than a combat officer. But he demonstrated a lot of moral courage—more, to be honest, than I, for one, ever really thought he had, I'm a bit ashamed to admit—when he backed Terekhov to the hilt. His instincts turned out to be very sound in that instance, and he really is a superior administrator. Hopefully that's going to be more important than tactical acumen, assuming we can avoid a war with the League. And his and Terekhov's response to what every Talbotter is convinced was an OFS plot to annex the entire Cluster has made both of them extremely popular in Talbott. A lot of people would be very unhappy if we recalled him and replaced him with someone else at this particular time.

"All of that's true, but it still seems to us here at Admiralty House that he's going to need someone as his second-in-command who has the combat experience he lacks. Given your availability—and the fact that you aren't available for service with Eighth Fleet any longer—you're well suited to provide that for him. And, quite frankly, the fact that you stand so high in the succession, not to mention the fact that he's directly related to you through the Wintons, should give you an extra handle for influence with him. Not to mention the fact that your relationship to Her Majesty should also help to underscore the Government's support for the Cluster under the new constitution."

Michelle nodded slowly. In a sense, what Cortez had just said demonstrated that politics and her birth had, indeed, helped to dictate the Admiralty's policy. On the other hand, she couldn't disagree with a single one of the points he'd made, and little though she might like politics, she'd always known political and military strategy were inextricably entwined. As that ancient Old Earth military historian Honor was so fond of quoting had put it, the setting of national goals was a political decision, and war represented the pursuit of those same political goals by nonpolitical means.

"I know this doesn't constitute much warning," Cortez continued. "And I'm afraid you aren't going to have time to assemble your own staff. For that matter, you're not going to have time to properly work up your new squadron, either. From the last report I received, I'm not even sure all of your ships will have completed their acceptance trials before you have to depart. I've done my best to pull together as strong a team for you as I could, however."

He took a document viewer from his desk drawer and passed it across to her. She keyed it and pursed her lips thoughtfully as she scanned the information. She didn't recognize many of the names, but she did recognize some of them.

"Captain Lecter became available almost as unexpectedly as you did, Milady," Cortez said. "At least a half-dozen flag officers requested her services, but I felt she'd fit best as your chief of staff."

Michelle nodded in mingled understanding and gratitude. Captain Cynthia Lecter—only she'd been Commander Cynthia Lecter, at the time—had been the best executive officer Michelle had ever had. She was delighted Cynthia's promotion had come through, and she had no qualms at all about her suitability for the chief of the squadron command staff she'd had no idea she was about to inherit.

"I don't believe you've ever served with Commander Adenauer," Cortez continued, "but she's compiled a very impressive record."

Michelle nodded again. As far as she was aware, she'd never even met Commander Dominica Adenauer, much less served with her, but the bare synopsis of the combat record appended to the file Cortez had handed her was impressive. Not every skilled tactical officer worked out well as a squadron operations officer, but at first glance, at least, Adenauer looked promising. And Cortez did have that knack for putting the right officer into the right slot.

"I think you'll be pleased with Commander Casterlin and Lieutenant Commander Edwards, as well," Cortez told her.

"I know Commander Casterlin," Michelle said, looking up from the document. "Not as well as I'd like to, under the circumstances, but what I do know about him, I like. I don't know anything about Edwards, though."

"He's young," Cortez replied. "In fact, he just made lieutenant commander about two months ago, but I was impressed when I interviewed him. And he's just finished a stint with BuWeaps as one of Admiral Hemphill's assistants. He's too junior to hold down the ops officer's slot, and even if he wasn't, he's a communications specialist, not a tac officer. That's why Adenauer got Operations and Edwards got Communications. But he's been hands-on with both laser head development and the new command and control systems, and I think you—and Commander Adenauer—will find his familiarity with the admiral's newest toys very useful."

"I'm sure we will," Michelle agreed.

"I'm still trying to find you a good logistics officer, and I still need a staff EW expert for you. Edwards' experience could probably be helpful in that area, as well, but, again, it's not something he's really trained for. Hopefully, I'll have both Logistics and Electronic Warfare covered by the end of the day. Obviously, all of these are suggestions at this point, and if you do have any serious reservations or objections to my nominations, we'll do everything we can to accommodate you. I'm afraid, however, that time's so short we may not have a lot of flex."

"Understood, My Lord," Michelle said in a voice that sounded more cheerful than she actually felt. The Manticoran tradition had always been that BuPers tried hard to meet any flag officer's reasonable requests for staffers, and no squadron or task force commander was ever happy to find herself stuck with someone else's choices for her own staff officers. She couldn't pretend she was exactly delighted to find herself in that position, but she suspected that quite a few other flag officers were finding themselves in very similar circumstances at the moment.

With Cindy to ride herd on them, we should be all right, she told herself. I wish I'd ever at least met Adenauer, though. Her record looks good, from what I've been able to see of it so far, at least, but that's all on paper as far as I'm concerned. And Edwards looks like he'd be happier as a research weenie somewhere. God, I hope appearances are deceiving in that respect, anyway! But Casterlin's a good, solid choice for astrogator. Between them, he and Cindy should at least be able to keep things running on an even keel. And if there are any problems, it'll just be my job to make sure they . . . go away.

"I understand, My Lord," she said again, a bit more firmly. "I do have one additional question, however."

"Of course, Milady."

"From everything you've said, I assume you're planning on deploying the squadron as soon as possible."

"Actually, Milady, I'm planning on deploying the squadron even sooner than that," Cortez said with a tight smile. "That's what I meant when I said you might even be pulling out for Talbott before all of your ships have completed their acceptance trials. You do remember what I said about the shipyards cutting corners to streamline production, don't you? Well, one of the things we've dispensed with is the full spectrum of acceptance trials and pre-trial testing."

Michelle's eyes widened in the first real alarm she'd felt since entering Cortez's office, and he shrugged.

"Milady, we're between the proverbial rock and the hard place, and we've simply had no choice but to make some . . . accommodations. I won't pretend anyone's delighted by it, but we've tried to compensate by putting even more emphasis on quality control in the construction process. So far, we haven't had any major component failures, but I'd be misleading you if I didn't admit we have had some minor to even moderately severe problems which had to be worked out using on-board resources after a ship left the yard. I hope that won't be the case where your squadron is concerned, but I can't guarantee it. And if we have to deploy you with builder's reps still on board, we will. So, in answer to the question I'm sure you were about to ask, your deployment date is one T-week from today."

Despite herself, Michelle's lips tightened. Cortez saw it, and shook his head.

"I'm genuinely sorry, Milady. I fully realize one week isn't even long enough for you to complete straightening out the details of your personal affairs, far less long enough to develop any feel for your ship commanders, or even the members of your own staff. If we could give you longer, we would. But whatever may be happening where Haven is concerned, the Talbott Cluster is still a powder keg waiting for a single spark in the wrong place. A powder keg someone's already tried their damnedest to touch off for reasons we're still only guessing at. We need a powerful, sustained presence there, and we need it in place before any Solarian redeployments in response to events in Monica shift the balance. God knows there are enough arrogant Solly COs and squadron commanders out there, even without the little matter of the fact that we're still trying to figure out exactly who—besides Manpower—was doing what to whom until Terekhov spoked their wheel. I hope we'll all breathe a sigh of relief when we do figure that out, but I'm not planning on putting down any bets on that outcome. And one thing we don't need while we work on that little problem is for some Solly commodore or admiral to decide he has a big enough advantage in combat power to do something stupid that we'll all regret."

"I understand, Sir," Michelle said yet again. "I can't say I expected any of this when I walked into your office, but I understand."

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