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Chapter Eleven

"Welcome aboard, Admiral," Captain of the List Victoria Armstrong said as Michelle stepped across the decksole line that marked the official boundary between Her Majesty's Space Station Hephaestus and HMS Artemis, which had just become her flagship.

The outsized personnel tube connecting the battlecruiser's number two boat bay to the space station had been crowded when she arrived. It was amazing how that had changed when the PA had informed everyone she was headed down-tube, however. The flow in and out of the tube had stopped almost immediately, and those souls who'd been unable to get out of it had shrunk back against the tube walls as Michelle made her way down its center with Gervais Archer and Chris Billingsley at her heels.

It's good to be the admiral, she'd thought to herself, working hard at maintaining a properly solemn expression. The temptation to laugh, however, had faded abruptly as she stepped out of the tube and the bosun's pipes began to shrill. The ancient boarding ceremony's salutes and formalities had flowed around her, and she'd felt her nerves tightening in a combination of anticipation, excitement, and nervousness. Now she reached out and clasped the hand Armstrong was offering her.

"Thank you, Captain," she told her brand new flag captain . . . whom she'd never met before in her life.

Armstrong was on the tall side, somewhere between Michelle and Honor for height, with a strong face, dark green eyes, and chestnut hair, She was young for her rank, even after a half T-century of naval expansion and twenty-plus years of war—just over twenty-five T-years younger than Michelle, in fact—and no one would ever consider her beautiful, or even exceptionally pretty. But there was character in that face, and intelligence, and the green eyes looked lively.

"As you can see, Milady," the flag captain continued, waving her free hand at the bustling activity and seeming chaos which engulfed her boat bay, "we're still just a little busy." She had to raise her voice to be heard over the noise level, which had surged back up as soon as the new admiral's official welcoming was out of the way. "In fact, we've got yard dogs hanging from the deckhead, I'm afraid," she said with a smile.

"So I can see," Michelle agreed. "Is there a particular problem?"

"Tons of them," Armstrong said cheerfully. "But if you're asking if there's a problem that's going to delay our departure, the answer is no. At least, I'm pretty sure the answer is no. Engineering is the most buttoned up department, and I'm confident the ship will move when we step on the hydrogen, anyway. I may have my doubts about some of the other systems, but one way or the other, we will make our schedule, Milady. I've already warned Hephaesteus Central that if I have to, I'm taking their yard dogs with me when I go."

"I see." Michelle shook her head, smiling. Her first suspicion—that Armstrong was drawing attention to the yard workers still thronging her boat bay as a preliminary for explaining why it wasn't her fault they couldn't pull out on time—had obviously been misplaced.

"What I thought would probably be best, Milady," Armstrong continued, "was to get you onto the lift and out of this bedlam. Once we've got the doors closed and we can hear ourselves think, you can tell me where you want to go. Captain Lecter and Commander Adenauer are on Flag Deck at the moment. Cindy—I mean, Captain Lecter—asked me to tell you she knew you wouldn't be able to get anything done in the middle of all this racket, so she's waiting for you to decide where you want her. If you want her and Adenauer—and me, for that matter—in your day cabin instead of on Flag Deck, they'll be there by the time we could get there from here."

"I would like to see my quarters," Michelle admitted, "but I'd like to see Flag Deck even more." She pointed over her shoulder at Chris Billingsley, who stood beside Lieutenant Archer a respectful three paces behind her. "If you could detail a guide for Chris here, and see to it that he gets to our quarters, I'd really prefer to head on up to Flag Deck. It's one way to stay out from underfoot while he fusses around and gets everything arranged perfectly."

Armstrong glanced at the steward, one eyebrow rising as she noticed the out-sized animal carrier in his right hand, then shrugged, chuckled, and nodded.

"Of course, Milady. Would you object if I had my XO and tac officer join us there, as well?"

"On the contrary, I was just about to ask you to invite them to do that."

"Good. In that case, Admiral, I believe the lifts are on the other side of that heap of engineering spares somewhere."

It was indeed much quieter once the lift doors had closed behind them, and Michelle's nostrils flared as she inhaled the new-ship smell. There was nothing else quite like it. The environmental plants aboard the Navy's warships were extremely efficient at filtering out the more objectionable aromas a starship's closed environment generated so effortlessly. But there was a difference between air that was inoffensively clean and air that carried that indefinable perfume of newness. Before Michelle's Uncle Roger had begun his military buildup in response to the People's Republic of Haven's remorseless expansionism, some naval personnel had served their entire careers without smelling that perfume more than once. Some of them had never smelled it at all, for that matter.

Michelle, on the other hand, had actually lost track of the number of times she'd smelled it. It was a small thing, perhaps, but it was the sort of small thing that put the enormous investment in money, resources, industrial effort, and trained personnel into stark perspective. The Star Kingdom of Manticore, for its size, might well be the wealthiest political entity in the entire galaxy, yet Michelle hated to think about the deficit the Star Kingdom was running up as it strained every sinew to survive.

It's cheaper than buying a new kingdom, Mike, she told herself grimly, then gave herself a mental shake. And only you are perverse enough to go from "Gosh this ship smells wonderful!" to worrying about the national debt in point-three seconds flat. What you need is a treecat of your own. Someone like Nimitz to kick you in the ass—or bite you on the ear, or something—when you start doing crap like this.

"Despite all of the yard dogs and loose parts scattered around, she looks like a beautiful ship, Captain," she said to Armstrong.

"Oh, she is. She is!" Armstrong agreed. "And I only had to contract three murders to be sure I got her, too," she added cheerfully.

"Only three?"

"Well, there was that one other candidate," Armstrong said thoughtfully. "But he requested assignment somewhere else after I pointed out what had happened to the other three. Tactfully, of course."

"Oh, of course."

Michelle managed not to chuckle again, although it was difficult. Not many captains would have been prepared to wax quite that cheerful with a vice admiral they'd never met before. Especially not a vice admiral whose flag captain they'd just become. Armstrong, obviously, was, and that said interesting things about her. Either she was a buffoon, or else she was sufficiently confident of her own competence to be who she was and let the chips fall wherever they fell.

Somehow she didn't strike Michelle as the buffoon type.

In fact, what she strikes me as is the Michelle Henke type, she admitted to herself. God. I wonder if the squadron's going to be able to survive two of us?

"Ah, here we are," Armstrong observed as the lift slid to a halt and the door opened.

They passed two more yard dogs in the very brief walk between the lift shaft and the armored hatch protecting Artemis' flag deck, and Michelle shook her head mentally. A lot of what was being done seemed to come under the heading of "cosmetic"—closing up interior bulkheads around circuitry runs, painting, lighting fixtures, that sort of thing—but she doubted that she could have been as cheerful as Armstrong if she'd been the captain of a ship due to deploy into a potential war zone in less than one week now and still buried under such swarms of yard workers.

That thought carried her through the hatch, and the spacious, dimly lit coolness of her flag deck spread about her.

Four people had been waiting for her there, and all four of them came to attention as she appeared.

"Rule Number One," she said pleasantly. "Unless we're trying to impress some foreign potentate or convince some newsy we're really earning our lordly salaries, we all have better things to do than spend our time bowing and scraping before my towering presence."

"Yes, Milady," a trim blonde at least twelve or thirteen centimeters shorter than Michelle replied.

"Rule Number Two," Michelle continued, reaching out to shake the smaller woman's hand. "It's 'Ma'am,' not 'Milady,' unless the aforementioned foreign potentate or newsy is present."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am," the other woman said.

"And it's good to see you, too, Cindy," Michelle told her.

"Thank you. Although," Captain (junior-grade) Cynthia Lecter told her, "after what happened at Solon, I didn't think I was going to be seeing you again quite this soon."

"Which makes two of us," Michelle agreed. "This," she continued, waving Archer forward, "is Gwen Archer, my flag lieutenant." She grinned as Lecter quirked an eyebrow at the first name. "Don't let that innocent expression of his fool you, either. He graduated fourteenth in his class in Tactics, and he's just finished a deployment as JTO on a heavy cruiser."

She decided against explaining exactly how and when that deployment had ended. Cindy was more than good enough at her job to discover that information—as well as the reason for Archer's nickname—without having it handed to her on a plate. Besides, the practice would do her good.

Lecter didn't seem particularly perturbed by Michelle's failure to provide the information. She only nodded and smiled at Archer, who smiled back, and Michelle looked past Lecter at a considerably taller dark-haired commander.

"And this must be Commander Adenauer," she observed.

"Yes, Ma'am," Adenauer confirmed as she shook Michelle's hand in turn. Adenauer was obviously from Sphinx, and her accent reminded Michelle strongly of Honor's, although Adenauer's voice was considerably deeper than her own contralto, far less Honor's soprano.

"I hope you don't mind me mentioning this, Commander," Michelle said, "but your accent sounds awfully familiar."

"Probably because I was raised about thirty kilometers outside Twin Forks, Ma'am," Adenauer replied with a grin. "The other side of the city from Duchess Harrington. But she's my . . . um . . . fifth cousin, I think. Something like that, anyway. I'd have to ask my mom to nail it down any closer than that, but just about everyone born in Duvalier is related to everyone else, one way or another."

"I see." Michelle nodded. "Well, I've met Her Grace's mother and father, and if their level of competence runs in the family, I think you and I should get along just fine, Commander."

"Being related to 'the Salamander' is actually something of a karmic burden, Ma'am," Adenauer said. "Especially for a tac officer."

"Really?" Michelle chuckled. "Well, so is being her tac officer or XO. Both of which positions I happen to have held in the dim shades of my own youth."

"And speaking of tactical officers," Armstrong put in, "may I introduce Wilton Diego, my tac officer?"

"Commander Diego." Michelle offered her hand once again and hoped he hadn't noticed the sharp, biting flicker of pain she'd felt when Armstrong introduced him. It wasn't Diego's fault, but simply hearing his last name reminded her of her last flag captain, Diego Mikhailov.

Fortunately, the stocky, broad-shouldered commander was as fair-skinned as Lecter and as red-haired as Archer. He didn't look a thing like Mikhailov, and if he'd noticed her tiny twitch, he gave no sign of it.

"Admiral," he said, returning her grip firmly.

"I'm sure you're looking—that you and the captain both are looking—forward to getting the yard dogs out of your hair, Commander," she said.

"You've got that right, Mil—I mean, Ma'am," Diego said fervently. "Actually, Tactical is in pretty good shape. If it weren't for the traffic passing through at the most inopportune possible moments, I'd be a lot happier, though. It sort of takes the edge off a simulation when some yard dog cuts power at the critical moment because he has to change a heating element in the air scrubbers."

"I know," Michelle said with carefully metered sympathy.

"And this," Armstrong continued, waving the fourth and final officer forward, "is Ron Larson, my exec."

"Commander Larson."

Larson's handshake was as firm as Armstrong's own, although he was half a head shorter than the flag captain. He was as dark-haired as Adenauer, but his eyes were a curious slate-gray, not brown, and he sported a luxuriant but neatly trimmed beard that made him look vaguely piratical. There was something about him that reminded Michelle of Michael Oversteegen, though she couldn't put her finger on what it was. Hopefully it wouldn't turn out to be Oversteegen's cheerfully unquenchable arrogance. Michelle had always rather liked Oversteegen, and she respected his abilities, but that didn't mean she liked everything about him.

"Admiral Gold Peak," Larson replied while that thought was still running through the back of her brain, and it became instantly obvious that whatever the similarity to Oversteegen might be, it wasn't going to be Oversteegen's aristocratic sense of who he was. Not with that highland Gryphon burr. It was strong enough Michelle could have used it to saw wood.

"Let me guess," she said with a chuckle. "Commander Adenauer was raised fifty kilometers from Duchess Harrington and you were raised fifty kilometers outside what's become the Duchy of Harrington, right?"

"No, Ma'am," Larson said, shaking his head with a smile of his own. "As a matter of fact, I was born and raised on the other side of the planet. On the other hand, it's a fairly small planet, I suppose."

"Almost neighbors, in fact," Michelle agreed. Then she released his hand and stood back, gazing at the other officers.

"In a few minutes," she told them, "I'm going to want the ten-dollar tour. I had Michael Oversteegen and the original Nike in my last squadron, briefly at least, so I'm generally familiar with the class, but I'm sure Artemis has her own brand new bells and whistles, and I want to see all of them. First, though, I'd like to say a couple of things about our mission, as I understand it at this time."

The smiles had disappeared into sober, focused expressions, and she gave a mental nod of approval as they shifted gears right along with her.

"I have another briefing scheduled with Admiral Givens' people tomorrow morning at Admiralty House," she continued. "Cindy, I'd like you and Captain Armstrong to accompany me for that one. And I have another briefing, this one with Admiral Hemphill at BuWeaps, the day after that."

"Yes, Ma'am," Lecter agreed, and Armstrong nodded.

"I don't expect any major surprises," Michelle told them. "On the other hand, I've been surprised anyway, a time or two in the past. In fact, I've been bitten right on the ass a time or two, if we're going to be honest about it. Assuming that doesn't happen in this case, however, the basic parameters of our orders are clear enough. I'm sure all of us hope the summit meeting between Her Majesty and President Pritchart will actually do some good. Unfortunately, we can't count on that. And, equally unfortunately, we're not going to be here while that happens—if that happens. Instead, we're going to be off in the Talbott Quadrant, showing the flag and generally making certain no ill-intentioned souls make any more trouble for us.

"I'm confident all of you have taken steps to keep yourself abreast of events in Talbott. In light of the domestic political changes there, I think we all need to get into the habit of thinking of the Cluster by its new name, the Quadrant, but that isn't going to change any of the unpalatable realities about the region, I'm afraid. Until the rest of the staff assembles and we receive our actual instructions, we can't really get into a lot of detailed planning, but I learned a long time ago that the more people you can involve in actually thinking about a problem, the more likely someone is to come up with something that hadn't occurred to you. So here's what I want you to be thinking about.

"Militarily, our first responsibility is going to be to secure the physical integrity of the Quadrant and the lives, persons, and property of Her Majesty's new subjects. And, ladies and gentlemen, our responsibility is to secure those things against any threat, no matter who—or where—it may have come from. And lest anyone misunderstand me, let me make it very clear that that specifically includes the Solarian League."

She met each set of eyes in turn, and there were no smiles at all on Flag Bridge any longer.

"Admiral Caparelli, Earl White Haven, and Baron Grantville have made that perfectly clear to me," she continued after a moment. "No one wants a shooting incident with the League. God knows the last thing we need is a war with the Sollies. But the Constitutional Convention in Spindle has ratified the Cluster's new constitution and enacted all of the amendments Her Majesty requested. That means the citizens represented by that convention are now Manticoran citizens, ladies and gentlemen, and they will be defended by Her Majesty's Navy as such."

She paused once more to let that sink in, then shrugged.

"Our second military responsibility will be to provide support, as directed by Vice Admiral Khumalo, if, as, and when requested by Baroness Medusa or any of the planetary governments in the Quadrant. Despite the ratification, there are strong indications that the terrorist campaign in the Split System is still with us. They've been pruned back drastically, and they've become increasingly irrelevant, but those are some very angry people. The terrorists themselves—especially their leadership and central cadre—are probably even angrier than they were, now that the constitution's been ratified by their parliament, and that's scarcely likely to make people who've already picked up guns behave themselves. On the other hand, I expect much of the anger that drove anyone outside that central cadre to begin fading once the new civil rights provisions of the constitution work their way down to the grassroots level. And, frankly, I expect the upturn the entire Quadrant's economy is going to experience in the very near future will go even further towards eroding support for Nordbrandt and her FAK lunatics among anyone in the general population who was prepared to see them as some sort of freedom fighters or liberation movement instead of cold-blooded murderers. That, however, is going to take some time, and I'm sure Her Majesty would prefer for us to arrange things so that no more of her new subjects get killed by these idiots in the meantime than we can possibly avoid.

"Our third responsibility is going to be the fulfillment of our role as Baroness Medusa's and Vice Admiral Khumalo's primary fire brigade. The good news is that we're going to see a steady increase in light units in the Cluster. Plans are already afoot to forward deploy enough LACs to provide at least one LAC group to each system in the Quadrant to provide basic security against piracy and backup for local customs efforts in light of the increase in traffic we're expecting in the area. It's going to take a while to get all of that moving, especially with the call for LAC carriers for Eighth Fleet and system defense closer to home, but as soon as the CLACs can be freed up, they'll start moving forward. In the meantime, it's going to be up to our available starships to cover the most exposed systems.

"That's almost certainly going to lead to a certain inevitable dispersal of force, but it can't be helped for the immediate future. For that matter, despite all the Navy's experience in commerce protection and system defense, we've never before been responsible for the security of a single star nation spread out over this large a volume of space, so we're making some of this up as we go. That's going to pinch our toes harder than just about anyone else's in the immediate future, but at least everyone knows it, which is why the Admiralty's trying so hard to give us the tools we'll need . . . and why we're expecting at least two full flotillas of the new Roland-class ships, as well as additional Saganami-Cs and Nikes. The Agamemnons are going to be going to Home Fleet, Third Fleet, and—especially—Eighth Fleet, but we'll be getting the Nikes in compensation."

She paused as Adenauer half-raised a hand.

"Yes, Dominica?"

"It sounds like you're saying all the Agamemnons are being retained here at the front, Ma'am."

"That's exactly what I am saying," Michelle agreed. "The Nikes were designed for this sort of duty from the beginning. We're bigger than the Agamemnons, we've got larger crews, and we've got more Marines. And we're not a pod design. Unlike us, the Agamemnons can load their pods with all-up Mark 23s, whereas we're limited to the Mark 16."

Adenauer nodded, although it was evident she didn't see exactly why that was particularly significant, given the traditional battlecruiser's role and tactical doctrine. Then again, Commander Adenauer knew even less about a fire control system called Apollo than then-Rear Admiral Henke had known prior to the Battle of Solon . . . and considerably less than Vice Admiral Henke hoped to know about it in about two days' time.

And this isn't the time to tell her about it, either, Michelle thought.

"I'm sure another aspect of the Admiralty's thinking is that the Havenites have MDMs of their own, whereas the Sollies—as far as all of our intelligence sources know, at any rate—don't. The new laser head modifications are going to turn the Mark 16 into a much heavier hitter, and if we do find ourselves in a shooting situation with the Sollies, the Mark 16 is also going to outrange anything they've got. Which, unfortunately, is not the case where Haven is concerned."

Adenauer nodded again, this time more firmly, and Michelle shrugged.

"Unless present plans change—and Lord knows they're entirely likely to do just that—we'll be seeing a total of at least two and probably three squadrons of Nikes in the Cluster within the next few months. And, also unless present plans change, those squadrons will be integrated into a new fleet, designated Tenth Fleet. My understanding is that Vice Admiral Khumalo will remain Talbott Station SO, and that the entire Cluster will be integrated into that station. Tenth Fleet will be his primary naval component, and Artemis will become Tenth Fleet's flagship when it's formally activated."

Cynthia Lecter's eyes widened, and Michelle restrained an urge to chuckle at her expression. Michele's own expression when Cortez and First Space Lord Caparelli had sprung that additional little surprise upon her had been considerably more flabbergasted than Lecter's was.

From prisoner-of-war to fleet commander in one easy jump, she thought. What would life be like without these little surprises to keep us on our toes?

"That's, ah, the first I've heard of that, Ma'am," Captain Armstrong said after a moment, and Michelle snorted softly.

"I did say plans are likely to be subject to change, Captain," she pointed out. "Despite that caveat, however, I also have to say Admiral Caparelli and Admiral Cortez made it quite clear they don't expect this particular plan to change. The reason I'm mentioning it at this point is that we all need to be thinking outside the 'single-squadron' box. That's where our thinking has to be right now, of course, for a lot of reasons, but I want all of us to remember what's coming at us from the other side of the horizon. Not just because of its implications for our own responsibilities, either. When we begin interacting with the Talbotters—and, for that matter, with any Sollies in the vicinity—it should be with the understanding that in a very short time you people are going to be the staffers and flag captain, respectively, not of a single battlecruiser squadron, but of an entire fleet. We need to be careful about the sort of relationships we establish with the Talbotters, and we need to be both firm and cautious from the outset where the Sollies are concerned."

Heads nodded soberly, and she nodded back.

"In addition to the purely military dimensions of our duties in Talbott," she continued, "there are the diplomatic dimensions. At the moment, unfortunately, our military and diplomatic responsibilities are rather . . . intimately interwoven, one might say. Not only that, but the entire Quadrant is in a transitional stage. We're still going to be involved in what are essentially diplomatic missions, even though officially all of the ratifying star systems are now member systems of the Star Empire of Manticore."

She wondered for a moment if those last four words sounded as bizarre to the others as they still did to her.

"It's going to take some time for them to settle into their new relationships with one another and with us," she went on. "While that's happening, we're still going to be acting much more in the role of someone refereeing disputes between independent entities. At the same time, however, we have to act in a fashion which clearly indicates that as far as we're concerned, the annexation is an accomplished fact. And it's just as important we indicate that to the star systems—and the navies—of anyone who hasn't ratified the new constitution. I'm thinking in particular of systems like New Tuscany, but that also applies to the Office of Frontier Security and to the Solarian League in general.

"And, of course, in our copious free time, we'll be doing all those other little things navies do. Chasing down pirates, interdicting the slave trade and generally making ourselves pains where those bastards on Mesa are concerned, updating charts, surveying for dangers to navigation, rendering assistance to ships in distress, disaster relief, and anything else that comes along.

"Any questions?"

The other five officers looked at one another speculatively for several seconds, then returned their attention to her.

"I think that's all reasonably clear, Ma'am," Armstrong told her. "Please note that I didn't say that it sounds easy, just that it's clear," she added.

"Oh, believe me, Captain, any suspicion I might have cherished that the Admiralty, in the kindness of its heart, was trying to find some simple, uncomplicated billet for a recently released prisoner-of-war to fill went right out the airlock at Admiral Givens' first briefing. And I'm sure that, after tomorrow's briefing, the rest of you are going to be just as well aware as I am of the dimensions of the job waiting for us. Mind you, getting to play with all of the new ships as they become available is going to be fun, I'm sure. Unfortunately, this time around, one other thing I'm sure of is that we're all going to be earning our pay."

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