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Bolgeo Homestead

Liberty Crossing

Henderson Highlands

Planet Gryphon

Manticore Binary System

August 24, 1905

“well, look at you!” The dark-haired, muscular lieutenant commander with the small golden ring in her right nostril put her hands on her hips and grinned infectiously at Brandy Bolgeo. “Looking a lot better than the last time I saw you in person!”

“With all due respect, Commander Briscoe, Ma’am, that’s a pretty low bar,” Brandy said. She crossed the room with the swinging stride enforced by her right leg’s grav splint and held out her hand with a matching grin. “And, if memory doesn’t fail me, the last time I laid eyes on you in the flesh, as it were, you were a mere senior-grade lieutenant, such as myself, toiling in the trenches and far from the exalted heights of departmental command.”

“True, true,” Janet Briscoe conceded with becoming modesty. “I wouldn’t want to say anything about water finding its own level, or cream rising to the top, or anything like that, of course.”

“Oh, of course not! ’Cause if you did, I’d have to point out that cream isn’t the only thing that floats, wouldn’t I?” Brandy held out her hand for a handshake, then shrugged and threw her arms around the other woman to hug her firmly. Given her visitor’s musculature, it was a longish reach. “It’s good to see you, Janet. Really!” she said, standing back with her hands still on Briscoe’s upper arms.

“Good to see you up and about, too,” Briscoe replied in a more serious tone. “Truth is, you weren’t looking that good the last time I saw you.”

“Bassingford does good work,” Brandy told her with an off-center smile. “Takes a while, but they do do good work.”

“So does your dad.” Briscoe grinned, but then her expression sobered. “Truth to tell, I wasn’t all sure for a while that they were going to repair Cassie at all, Brandy.” She shook her head. “The detailed survey once they had her back here in the yard . . . it was bad. Even worse than we thought it was when we were getting her home.”

“I know. Dad’s kept me updated.”

Brandy twitched her head, then led the way back out onto the enclosed sun porch that ran the full width of the sizable Bolgeo home. It was winter on Gryphon, and Gryphon winters tended to be extreme, which meant the air-gapped crystoplast walls gave them an excellent view of snow devils dancing across knife-edged drifts on the breathlessly cold wind. It was a brilliantly lit icy vista, gilded with sun sparkle off the snow that only made it look still colder. But that vista also made the porch feel even toastier, and the two of them settled into comfortable loungers on either side of a table which bore a coffeemaker, a two-liter carafe of cocoa, and a towering pile of ham and cheese sandwiches.

“As you can see, I made preparations,” Brandy said, and Briscoe snorted.

The lieutenant commander’s dark, coppery complexion and powerful, although thoroughly feminine, physique was the gift of her immigrant ancestors, who’d moved to the Star Kingdom of Manticore—and, specifically, to the planet Sphinx—a century and a half earlier from Quelhollow in the Rindahl System. Quelhollow, one of old Earth’s more ancient daughter colonies, boasted a gravity even heavier than Sphinx’s, and Briscoe’s great-great-great-whatever grandparents had been genetically modified to thrive in it. After four hundred T-years of immigration and intermarriage, virtually every established Sphinxian family incorporated at least some genetic modification, but the Quelhollow mods remained much more readily apparent to the casual observer than some others, like the Meyerdahl mods. And like most people who’d been genegineered for heavy-grav environments, Briscoe had a ferociously demanding metabolism.

“I’ll have you know that I could go at least another . . . oh, ninety minutes before I’d need to eat,” she said now.

“Sure you could.” Brandy nodded with a serious expression. “I believe you. And I also believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and every single word I read on the Infonet.”

Briscoe laughed, then poured herself a mug of cocoa and reached for one of the thick sandwiches. This was far from her first visit to the Bolgeo Homestead, and she closed her eyes in bliss as she took the first bite. Linda Bolgeo knew exactly how to feed a Sphinxian, she thought, with slabs of ham, lots of mayonnaise, Swiss and provolone cheese, spicy brown mustard, banana peppers, and thick-cut onion rings.

“Are you sure we couldn’t convince your mom to join Cassie’s galley crew?” she asked after a moment.

“Hey! You’ve already got my daddy putting your ship back together again, Commander! And, by the way, in case I didn’t mention it, congratulations. You deserved the slot.”

“I dunno about that,” Briscoe said a bit more somberly. “Commander Cartwright wrote me a lot better efficiency report than I deserved after the battle.”

“No, he didn’t.” Brandy looked at her very levelly.

“Brandy, I was responsible for missile defense.” Briscoe’s bright green eyes went dark. “We got the shit pounded out of us, and I was the one who was supposed to stop it.”

“No, you were the one who was supposed to stop what got past the screen. If I recall correctly, there was supposed to be an entire integrated missile defense net. You know, the one that kind of disappeared at the critical moment?” Brandy’s own eyes were hard. “You did damned well after Young ran for it, and you damned well ought to know it. I do, anyway, and not just because I know you. Admiral Winston let me view the tactical records after they pinned the stupid medal on me. Believe me, I know exactly what you and your people were up against, Janet, and no one could’ve done better after Young bugged out on us!”

Briscoe looked back at her for a long moment, then bobbed her head in an abbreviated nod—more in acknowledgment than in agreement—and took another bite of her sandwich.

“Maybe you’ve got a point,” she said. “Everybody keeps telling me that, anyway. And most of the time, I pretty much believe ’em. Gets bad sometimes in my dreams, though.” She met Brandy’s eyes as she admitted that. It wasn’t something she would have confessed to just anyone, but Brandy only nodded back. After all, she had her own nightmares, didn’t she?

“And for that matter,” Briscoe continued more cheerfully, “I guess they wouldn’t have given me the slot if they didn’t figure I could fill it.”

“I think you could probably say that,” Brandy agreed. Her friend’s promotion to lieutenant commander had coincided with her appointment as HMS Cassandra’s tactical officer when Commander Jason Cartwright, Cassandra’s previous TO, was promoted out of the ship. That was almost always at least a full commander’s billet in a battlecruiser, which made her assignment a fairly emphatic statement of the Navy’s opinion of the job she’d done in Hancock.

“Actually, in a lot of ways, it’s probably a good thing it’ll take so long to put Cassie back into commission, even with your dad in charge,” Briscoe continued. “What with the casualties we took and how thoroughly we’ve been raided for experienced personnel since we went into the yard, I’m rebuilding the Tactical Department almost from scratch. I got to hang onto Chief Tillis and Senior Chief Langenbucher, but almost everybody else will be so new they squeak.”

“Then you’ll get to build it your way.” Brandy shrugged. “You’ll do just fine, Janet!”

“Probably. That’s what Langenbucher keeps telling me, anyway. In his delightfully tactful fashion, of course!”

Brandy snorted as she poured herself a cup of coffee. Senior Chief Finnian Langenbucher had been Lieutenant Briscoe’s senior noncom—which had also made him her keeper and mentor—when she first reported aboard Cassandra nineteen T-months before Hancock. “Delightfully tactful” was not the exact descriptor Brandy would have applied to him.

“You know, seriously, I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to get out here to visit with you. I promise it wasn’t just because of the weather.” Briscoe waved at the ice and snow around them. “Mind you, only a Gryphon or a lunatic—but I repeat myself—would live someplace with weather like this, you understand.”

“This from someone who was raised on Sphinx? Where, if I recall, winter lasts about a year and a half?”

“But it’s so much nicer a winter,” Briscoe said earnestly.

“And it lasts three times as long.”

“Maybe. But spring and summer last three times as long, too!”

“Point,” Brandy conceded. “Definitely a point.”

Briscoe chuckled and leaned back, stretching her legs in front of her and crossing them at the ankle while she nursed her cocoa.

“You dad going to make it home for dinner tonight?” she asked after a moment.

“He’s supposed to.” Brandy shrugged. “Mom’s still planning on it, and I was pretty confident he would, too. Up till a couple of hours ago, anyway.”

“Oh?” Briscoe arched an eyebrow.

“Yeah, they grabbed him for a consult on Nike. Turns out getting to some of her damage’s going to be tougher than anyone thought. And Dad was one of the project managers when they built her, so they want his input.”

“And they only figured that out today, did they?” Briscoe shook her head. HMS Nike had returned to the Manticore Binary System just over three T-weeks ago.

“Fair’s fair.” Brandy shrugged again. “The initial report from Hancock Station missed some of the problems, and Hephaestus only got her docked where they could get a good hands-on look at her a couple of days ago. The yard should have had her at least a month earlier, but they couldn’t pull her off of active operations for a detailed survey, you know.”

“I guess.” Briscoe nodded, then made a face.

“What?” Brandy asked.

“I was just thinking. If I’d been Dame Honor and they’d sent Young home aboard my ship, I think life support might just have had a minor accident in his case. It would have been a pity to waste the potential failures resulting from all that damage he let through. Especially if he was breathing my ship’s air! Can you imagine what it must’ve been like to have him aboard Nike?”

“Yeah. I wouldn’t have much enjoyed that, either. But as Dad pointed out, it meant she got to personally hand him over to the JAG when she arrived, too. She was standing right there when they took him into custody. There had to be some satisfaction in that!”

“Probably be more if his frigging daddy doesn’t manage to stall things,” Briscoe growled.

The lieutenant commander had her own very personal bone to pick with Pavel Young. As a fellow Sphinxian who’d deeply admired her battlecruiser squadron’s flag captain, her tribal loyalty to Honor Harrington ran deep. As a tactical specialist, she knew exactly what Pavel Young had done to Mark Sarnow’s task group when he’d cut and ran for it in Hancock. And as one of HMS Cassandra’s surviving officers, she knew with even more precise, painful exactitude what his cowardice had cost her ship . . . and people like Brandy Bolgeo.

It would be a cold day in hell before Janet Briscoe was interested in cutting Young a single millimeter of slack.

“There’s no proof anyone’s managing to ‘stall’ anything,” Brandy pointed out.

“Say that with a straight face,” Briscoe challenged.

“I didn’t say no one was; I just said there’s no proof of it, and there isn’t. So far, at least. For that matter, he’s only been back in-system for three weeks. There’s a lot of i’s to dot and t’s to cross if the Navy’s planning to try an earl’s son on capital charges.”

“And his daddy will make sure it takes as long as possible. Hopefully forever!”

“You sound more like a Highlander than a Sphinxian!” Brandy pointed out with a sour chuckle.

“Where Young is concerned? Hell, yes! I’ll volunteer for the firing squad myself . . . if they ever get around to court-martialing the bastard.”

“Not even North Hollow can spin things out forever,” Brandy said philosophically.

“You sure about that?” Briscoe gave her a skeptical look. “According to what I’m hearing, he’s the whole reason the Conservatives went into Opposition. He’s got them lining up to hold the declaration of war hostage until the Navy promises not to shoot his precious baby boy!”

“That probably is what he’s trying to do,” Brandy acknowledged. “Oh, nobody’s likely to admit it—not even the Prime Minister could afford to make that part of it public—but anybody who’s ever paid attention to High Ridge knows that any time he talks about ‘a matter of principle’ it’s really a steaming pile of crap. But be honest. The Conservatives wouldn’t have a hope of pulling it off if the Liberals and Progressives weren’t already providing covering fire by fighting the declaration tooth and nail for their own reasons.”

“You mean reasons like ‘because they’re fucking idiots’?” Briscoe asked caustically, and Brandy snorted.

“I don’t think I’d have chosen that exact . . . pithy phrase, but yeah.” She shrugged. “Daddy’s still pretty tapped-in to the Navy grapevine, though. From what he’s hearing, it won’t be a lot longer before Young has to face the music. And God knows we need to get it behind us! We’ve got to be able to begin full-scale offensive operations!”

“Preaching to the choir, girl.” Briscoe drank more cocoa, then took a rather moody bite out of a second sandwich.

“Yeah, and I need to get my sorry butt back up and running again,” Brandy said sourly, and Briscoe frowned.

“You do realize that ships aren’t the only things that need repairs, don’t you? And that it takes as long as it takes? As I believe we were just discussing about Cassie and Nike?”

“Yeah, but—”

“But me no buts, Brandy Bolgeo!” Briscoe said sternly. “I believe we were also just discussing the fact that we don’t even have a declaration of war yet, so keep your shirt on. Trust me, this thing’ll last plenty long enough for you to get back aboard ship and get shot at some more. And,” she added, looking at her friend shrewdly, “why do I sort of suspect your mom and dad aren’t what you might call brokenhearted over having you home a little longer?”

“You do know us pretty well, don’t you?” Brandy chuckled. “And, yeah. Mom’s a little more willing to show that, but Dad’s a lot worse at hiding it.”

“Probably because he knows what’s involved even better than she does.” Briscoe reached across and patted Brandy on her good leg. “But listen to the docs, girlfriend. Don’t push too hard, cause if you do, all you’ll manage is to lose ground. Got me?”

“Got you,” Brandy sighed.

“Good. And now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me tell you what the Navy wants to do to my perfectly good sensor arrays.” Briscoe rolled her eyes. “They say it’ll make things more efficient, give us more reach. Personally, I think they’re lying out their asses, which was something I was looking forward to discussing with your male parental unit over dinner. I want to know what the heck he thinks he’s doing letting them mess up my perfectly good ship this way. Man’s got some explaining to do!”

“I wonder if that’s another reason he commed to say he might be delayed?” Brandy mused.

“It’s certainly possible!” Briscoe laughed. “I’ve been kinda . . . forthright in my evaluation of the proposed changes. Mostly, to be honest, because they’re going to add another two weeks minimum to the overhaul. But still, would you believe that—”

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