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The intra-system shuttle settled into the docking buffers of Her Majesty's Space Station Hephaestus, and Honor tapped the save key on her memo pad and rose from her seat just inside the hatch.

Her face gave no hint of her inner excitement as she drew the white beret of a starship's commander from under her left epaulet. She grimaced mentally as she adjusted it, for she hadn't worn it in over a T-year, and she hadn't allowed for the way her hair had grown. It was considered bad luck for an RMN officer to replace her first white beret, which meant she either had to get her hair clipped or the beret re-sized, she thought, and held out her arms to Nimitz.

The 'cat swarmed up onto her padded shoulder and settled his weight with a soft bleek, then patted the soft, white beret with a proprietary air. Honor hid a grin that would never have suited the probity of a senior grade captain, and Nimitz snorted in amused tolerance. He knew how much that symbol meant to her, and he saw absolutely no reason she shouldn't show it.

For that matter, Honor had to admit there was no real need to assume her "captain's face" so soon, since, aside from MacGuiness, no one on the shuttle knew who she was or why she was here. But she needed the practice. Even the shuttle felt strange after so long off a command deck, and few things were more important than starting a new command off on the right foot. Besides—

She brought her mental babbling to a stern halt and admitted the truth. She didn't feel just "strange"; she felt worried, and under her joy at getting back into space, butterflies mated in her midsection. She'd put in all the simulation hours she'd been allowed between bouts of surgery and therapy, but that wasn't as many as she would have liked. Unfortunately, it was hard to argue with your physician when he was also your father, and even if Doctor Harrington had allowed all the sim time she wanted, simulators weren't the same as reality. Besides, Nike would be her biggest, most powerful ship yet—eight hundred and eighty thousand tons, with a crew of over two thousand—which was enough to make anyone nervous after so long dirt-side, simulators or no.

Yet she knew her long medical leave wasn't the only reason for her anxiety. Being picked for Nike was an enormous professional compliment, especially for a captain who'd never before held battlecruiser command. Among other things, it was an implicit approval of her performance in her last command, whatever her own mixed feelings, and a clear indication the Admiralty was grooming her for flag rank. But there was another side to the coin, as well. With opportunity came responsibility . . . and the chance to fail.

She inhaled deeply, squaring her shoulders, then touched the three gold stars embroidered on her tunic, and deep down inside something laughed at her own reactions. Each of those stars represented a previous hyper-capable command, and she'd been through almost exactly the same internal cycle with each of them. Oh, there were differences this time, but there were always differences, and the underlying truth never changed. There was nothing in the universe she wanted more than command . . . and nothing that scared her worse than the thought of failing once she had it.

Nimitz bleeked again, softly, in her ear. The sound was comforting yet scolding, and she glanced over at him. A delicate yawn showed needle-sharp white fangs in the lazy, confident grin of a predator, and humor narrowed her eyes as she rubbed his ears and started for the hatch with MacGuiness at her heels.

* * *

The personnel tube deposited them at a slip on the extreme rim of Hephaestus' hull. The space station seemed larger every time Honor saw it . . . probably because it was. Hephaestus was the Royal Manticoran Navy's premiere shipyard, and the Navy's steadily accelerating building programs were mirrored by an equally steady growth in the station's size. It was over forty kilometers long, now—a lumpy, ungainly, immensely productive amalgamation of building and repair slips, fabrication shops, deep-space foundries, and living quarters for thousands of workers that never stopped growing.

She glanced through the armorplast wall of the space-dock gallery as she and MacGuiness headed for the docking tube, and it took all her will power not to gawk like a middy on her first deployment, for the sleek, powerful shape floating in the building slip's mooring tractors cried out for her to stop dead and stare hungrily through the armorplast.

HMS Nike was all but completed. Yard dogs and their remotes floated about her and crawled over her like tiny, furiously laboring ants, and the double-ended, flattened spindle of her battle steel hull looked mottled as it awaited its final coating of skin-fused pigment. But the hollow throats of missile tubes and the ominous snouts of lasers and grasers crouched in her opened weapon bays, and mechs were already closing up the plating around her last drive nodes. Another two weeks, Honor thought, three at the most, till the acceptance trials. Only twenty T-years ago, the process would have been far more extended, with builder's tests followed by pre-acceptance trials before she was turned over for the Navy's own evaluation, but there was no time for that now. The tempo of construction was almost scary, and the reason for the endless hurry was enough to frighten anyone.

She turned a bend in the gallery and the Marines manning the outboard end of Nike's docking tube stiffened and snapped to attention as she crossed to them with a measured stride. She returned their salutes and handed her ID to the sergeant in charge, who scrutinized it briefly but closely before he returned it with another salute.

"Thank you, Milady," he said crisply, and Honor's upper lip quivered. She was still getting used to being a peer of the realm—although, in truth, that wasn't exactly what she was—but she suppressed the temptation to smile and accepted her ID folio with a grave nod.

"Thank you, Sergeant," she said and started to step into the tube, then paused as she saw one hand twitch towards his communicator. He stiffened into immobility, and this time she did let herself smile. "It's all right, Sergeant. Go ahead."

"Uh, yes, Milady." The sergeant blushed, then relaxed and responded with a slight smile of his own. Some captains preferred to catch their new crews by surprise, but Honor had always thought it was rather pointless—and foolish. Unless an executive officer had managed to completely alienate her crew, they were going to flash a warning to her as soon as the new captain's back was out of sight anyway. And there was no way a crew would leave Nike's exec in the dark.

She grinned at that thought as she crossed the scarlet zero-gee warning stripe and launched herself into a graceful free-fall glide.

* * *

A full side party waited in the entry port. The side boys came to attention, electronic bosun's pipes twittered in archaic ritual, and the spotlessly uniformed commander at the head of Nike's assembled senior officers snapped a salute that would have done Saganami Island proud.

Honor returned it with equal formality and felt Nimitz sitting perfectly still on her shoulder. She'd worked hard at impressing the need for proper decorum upon him, and she was a bit relieved to find her efforts paying off. He was choosy about familiarity, but he was also demonstrative about greeting those he admitted to the select circle of his friends.

"Permission to come aboard, Ma'am?" Honor asked very formally as she lowered her hand from the salute.

"Permission granted, Milady," the commander replied in a soft, furry contralto, and stepped back to clear the entry port.

It was an oddly gracious gesture on a subordinate's part. Not consciously so, but on an almost instinctive level, and Honor hid another smile. She stood a good fourteen centimeters taller than the other woman, but she'd never had the same presence, the same easy ability to dominate the space about her, and she doubted she ever would.

The Manticore Colony, Ltd., had drawn its original settlers primarily from Old Earth's western hemisphere, and five hundred T-years had gone far towards pureeing the original colonists' genetic heritages. There were exceptions—such as Honor herself, whose emigrant mother was of almost pure Old Earth Asian extraction by way of the ancient colony world of Beowulf—but by and large it was difficult to estimate anyone's ancestry at a glance.

Her new exec was an exception, however. Through whatever trick of genetics, Commander The Honorable Michelle Henke was a throwback to her first Manticoran ancestor's genotype. Her skin was barely a shade lighter than her space-black uniform, her hair was even curlier than Honor's . . . and there was no mistaking the clean-cut, distinctive features of the House of Winton.

Commander Henke said nothing as she escorted Honor up-ship to the bridge. Her face was admirably grave, but a twinkle lurked in her eyes, and Honor was relieved to see it. The last time they'd seen one another had been over six T-years ago, and Henke had been senior to her at the time; now she was not only two full ranks Honor's junior but her executive officer and immediate subordinate, as well, and Honor hadn't quite been able to rule out the possibility of resentment over the change.

They reached the bridge, and Honor looked around appreciatively. Her last ship had been just as new as Nike when she assumed command, and she knew how lucky she'd been, even in the expanding Manticoran Navy, to win two brand new ships in a row. Yet marvelous as the heavy cruiser Fearless had been, her bridge paled beside Nike's, and the hugely expanded tactical section made her mouth water. Battlecruisers were Manticore's ship of choice, ideally suited to the fast, slashing tactics the Navy had embraced for over four T-centuries, and she could practically feel her new command's lethality quivering about her.

She shook off the moment of almost sensual enjoyment and crossed to the captain's chair. She started to shoo Nimitz off her shoulder to the chair's back, then stopped herself. This was his moment, as well as hers, and she decided to let him be as she reached out and touched a stud on the chair arm.

The clear, sharp chimes of an all-hands announcement sounded from every speaker on the ship, and com screens blinked alive with her face as she reached into her tunic and withdrew the stiff parchment. She looked straight into the pickup, forcing herself not to clear her throat and wondering, with a corner of her mind, why she felt so nervous. It wasn't as if she'd never done this before!

She pushed the thought aside and unfolded her orders, the sound of the paper loud in the stillness, and began to read in a calm, clear voice.

" 'From Admiral Sir Lucien Cortez, Fifth Space Lord, Royal Manticoran Navy, to Captain Dame Honor Harrington, Countess Harrington, KCR, MC, SG, DSO, CGM, Royal Manticoran Navy, Twenty-First Day, Sixth Month, Year Two Hundred and Eighty-Two After Landing. Madam: You are hereby directed and required to proceed aboard Her Majesty's Starship Nike, BC-Four-One-Three, there to take upon yourself the duties and responsibilities of commanding officer in the service of the Crown. Fail not in this charge at your peril. By order of Lady Francine Maurier, Baroness Morncreek, First Lord of Admiralty, Royal Manticoran Navy, for Her Majesty the Queen.' "

She refolded the document slowly and carefully, feeling once more the thrill of the moment, then looked at Commander Henke.

"Madam Exec, I assume command," she said.

"Captain," Henke replied formally, "you have command."

"Thank you," Honor said, and looked back at the pickup that connected her to her so-far anonymous crew. "This is a proud moment for me," she said, and her quiet sincerity deprived her words of the trite formality she feared infused them. "Very few captains have the honor of commanding a ship with this one's battle record. Even fewer are privileged to assume command straight from the builder's hands, and none of them ever have the opportunity to do both of those things more than once. As keel plate owners, we have a great deal to live up to as we build on the tradition entrusted to our keeping, but I know that when the time comes for me to pass this ship into another captain's keeping, he or she will have even more to live up to than we do now."

She paused, her eyes very level, then smiled almost impishly.

"You're going to feel overworked and underappreciated while we work up, people, but try to remember that it's all in a good cause. I'm sure I can rely on all of you to give me your very best. I promise you'll get my best in return." She nodded at the pickup. "Carry on," she said, and killed the circuit and turned back to Henke.

"Welcome aboard, Captain." The commander extended her hand in the traditional welcoming handclasp, and Honor gripped it hard.

"Thank you, Mike. It's good to be here."

"May I present your senior officers?" Henke asked, and then waved the waiting officers forward at Honor's nod.

"Commander Ravicz, Ma'am, our engineer."

"Mr. Ravicz," Honor murmured. The engineer's deep-set eyes were frankly curious as he nodded courteously to her, and she shook his hand before glancing back at Henke.

"Commander Chandler, our tac officer," her exec said.

"Ms. Chandler." The diminutive tactical officer's flaming red head didn't reach even to Honor's shoulder, but she had a tough, no-nonsense look to her, and her blue eyes were as firm as her handshake.

"I believe you know Surgeon Commander Montoya, our doctor," Henke said, and Honor smiled hugely as she took Montoya's hand in both of hers.

"Indeed I do! It's good to see you again, Fritz."

"And you, Skipper." Montoya studied the left side of her face for a moment, then nodded. "Especially to see you looking so good," he added.

"I had a good doctor—two of them, in fact," Honor said, and gave his hand another squeeze before she turned to the next officer on Henke's list.

"Lieutenant Colonel Klein, commanding our Marine detachment," Henke said.

"Colonel." The Marine bobbed a sharp, respectful nod as he took Honor's hand. His was the sort of face that revealed very little, but the ribbons on his black tunic were impressive. Which they ought to be. Nike carried a full battalion of Marines, and the Admiralty wouldn't have picked their commander's name out of a hat.

"Lieutenant Commander Monet, our com officer," Henke continued down the order of seniority.

"Mr. Monet." The com officer was the antithesis of her new tac officer: a tall, thin, almost colorless man with humorless features. His handclasp was firm enough, but almost mechanical.

"Lieutenant Commander Oselli, our astrogator." Henke's bland voice laid just a hint of emphasis on the word "astrogator," and Honor's lips twitched, for her own astrogation skills were less than outstanding.

"Ms. Oselli." Honor shook her astrogator's hand, pleased with what she saw. Oselli's hair and eyes were as dark as Honor's own, and her thin, almost foxy features looked both confident and intelligent.

"And last but not least, Lieutenant Commander Jasper, our logistics officer."

"Mr. Jasper." Honor gave Nike's supply officer a small smile that mingled conspiracy and sympathy. "I imagine you and I will be seeing a lot of one another over the next week or so, Commander. I'll try not to ask the impossible of you, but you know how captains are."

"Yes, Milady, I'm afraid I do." Amusement colored Jasper's deep baritone. "At the moment, I know almost exactly where we are and what we still need. Needless to say, that's subject to change without notice until the yard turns us loose."

"Needless to say," Honor agreed, and folded her hands behind her as she surveyed the entire group. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, we've got a lot to do, and no doubt I'll get to know you all in the process. For now, I'll let you get on with whatever you were doing before my arrival interrupted, but you're all invited to dine with me at eighteen hundred, if that will be convenient."

Heads nodded as agreements were murmured, and Honor chuckled mentally. It was a rare officer who wouldn't find it "convenient" to dine with a new captain on her first day in command! She nodded a courteous dismissal, and they began to move away, but she held up a hand as Henke started to leave.

"Wait a moment, Exec. I'd appreciate it if you could join me in my quarters. We've got a lot to discuss."

"Of course, Milady," Henke murmured, and looked across the bridge. "Ms. Oselli, you have the watch."

"Aye, aye, Ma'am. I have the watch," Oselli responded, and Henke followed Honor into the intraship car. The doors slid shut behind them, and the commander's formality vanished in a face-splitting grin.

"Damn, but it's good to see you again, Honor!" She flung an arm around her superior and squeezed tightly, then reached up to Nimitz. The treecat buzzed a happy purr and extended a true-hand in a handshake all their own, and she laughed. "Good to see you, too, Stinker. Still extorting celery out of your hapless companions?"

Nimitz bleeked smugly and flirted his fluffy tail, and Honor smiled back at her exec. As a rule, she disliked easy embraces, and despite her own recent elevation, she was still uncomfortable with those from the rarefied heights of the aristocracy, but Mike Henke was a rule unto herself. She never presumed upon her family's position as a cadet branch of Manticore's ruling dynasty, yet she had an unaffected ease with people and public situations Honor could only envy. They'd been roommates at Saganami Island for over three T-years, and Henke had spent hours trying to beat the fundamentals of multi-dimensional math into her shy, towering roommate, and even more hours unveiling the mysteries of etiquette and social interaction. Honor's yeoman ancestry hadn't prepared her for interaction with the nobility, and she'd often wondered if that was one reason the Academy adjutant had paired her with Henke, but whether it had been intentional or not, she knew how much Michelle's easy, breezy confidence had helped her.

"It's good to see you, too, Mike," she said simply, squeezing back briefly, then straightened as the lift stopped. Henke grinned at her, then twitched her face into properly formal lines as the door hissed open and the two of them walked down the passage to Honor's quarters.

The Marine sentry outside the captain's cabin came to attention at their approach, immaculate in green and black. Honor nodded courteously to her, then opened the hatch and waved Henke through it, only to pause as she saw her new quarters for the first time.

They were huge, she thought with a touch of awe. Her belongings had come up the day before, and MacGuiness was fussing over the treecat-sized life-support module mounted on a bulkhead. He turned and started to come to attention as he realized his captain wasn't alone, but Honor gestured for him to stand easy.

"Mac, meet Commander Henke. Mike, Senior Chief MacGuiness—my keeper." Henke chuckled, and MacGuiness shook his head resignedly. "Go on with what you're doing, Mac," Honor continued. "Commander Henke and I are old friends."

"Of course, Ma'am." MacGuiness bent back over the module, and Nimitz leapt lightly from Honor's shoulder to the module's top to watch him while Honor looked around and shook her head. Her personal gear had filled her last set of quarters to the point of crowding; here, it looked almost spartan. Expensive carpet covered the decksole, and a huge painting of the original Nike's final action in the Battle of Carson dominated one bulkhead, faced from across the cabin by a state portrait of Elizabeth III, Queen of Manticore. A portrait, Honor noted, which bore a striking resemblance to her own exec.

"BuShips really spoils its battlecruiser captains, doesn't it?" she murmured.

"Oh, I don't know." Henke looked around and quirked an eyebrow. "I'd say it's about right for one of your eminence, Dame Honor."

"Yeah, sure." Honor crossed to the padded seat under a view port and leaned back, staring out at the space station's irregular flank. "This," she said, "is going to take some getting used to."

"I'm sure you'll adjust," Henke replied dryly. She crossed to Honor's desk and reached out to a heat-warped golden plaque on the bulkhead. The sailplane etched into its metal had lost a wing tip, and the commander reached out to touch it gently. "This happen in Basilisk?" she asked. "Or Yeltsin?"

"Basilisk." Honor crossed her legs and shook her head. "Just missed Nimitz's module, too. We were lucky."

"Sure you were. Skill didn't have a thing to do with it," Henke agreed with another grin.

"I wouldn't go quite that far," Honor said, surprised by how easily it came out, "but honesty compels me to admit that luck did enter into it."

Henke snorted and turned back to the plaque, straightening it carefully, and Honor smiled at her back. They hadn't seen one another in far too long, and their relationship had changed, for their roles were different, but her earlier concern that the change might make them awkward with one another seemed as silly as it had been unfounded now.

The exec gave up on getting the warped plaque to hang square and turned one of the comfortable chairs to face the view port. She draped herself across it with a loose-limbed casualness that was the antithesis of Honor's economical movement and cocked her head.

"It really is good to see you again—especially looking so fit," she said quietly. "I'd heard it was a rough convalescence."

Honor made a small, throwing-away gesture. "It could have been worse. Given that I lost half my command, I sometimes think it was actually easier than I deserved," she said, and Nimitz looked up from the life-support module, ears half-flattened, as bitterness shadowed her voice despite herself.

"Now how did I know you'd say something like that?" Henke murmured with a headshake. "Some people don't change a lot, do they?"

Honor glanced at MacGuiness. "Mac, could you bring us a couple of beers?"

"Of course, Ma'am." The steward gave a last punch at the module keyboard and vanished into his pantry, and Nimitz jumped from its top to the couch beside Honor.

"All right, Madam Exec. You might as well give me your version of the pep talk," she sighed as the pantry hatch closed, and Henke frowned.

"I don't think a 'pep talk' is exactly what you need, Honor. Maybe a lick or two of common sense wouldn't hurt, though." Honor looked up, startled by her friend's suddenly astringent tone, and Henke gave her a crooked smile.

"I realize a commander isn't supposed to tell a senior grade captain she's got her head up her ass, but blaming yourself for what happened to your people—or to Admiral Courvosier—is stupid." Honor winced at Courvosier's name, and Henke's voice softened. "Sorry. I know how close you were to the Admiral, but, damn it, Honor, no one could have done better with the information you had. And didn't Admiral Courvosier always tell us no officer's performance can be accurately measured except in terms of what she knows at the moment she makes her call?"

Her eyes were stern, and Honor's mouth quirked as she remembered other lectures in a dormitory room long, long ago.

She started to reply, then paused as MacGuiness returned with their beers. He served both officers, then withdrew again, and Honor turned her stein in long fingers, staring down into it. She sighed.

"You're right, Mike. The Admiral would kick my backside up between my ears if he knew how much I blame myself for what happened to him, and I know it. Which—" she looked back up "—doesn't make it a lot easier to stop doing it. But I'm coping with it. Really."

"Good." Henke raised her beer. "Absent friends," she said softly.

"Absent friends," Honor whispered back. Glass clinked, and both women sipped, then lowered their steins almost in unison.

"In case I haven't already mentioned it," Henke went on more briskly, gesturing at the four gleaming gold rings on Honor's cuff, "I must say a captain's uniform becomes you."

"Makes me look less like an overgrown horse, you mean," Honor said wryly, relieved by the change of mood, and Henke laughed.

"If you only knew how lesser mortals envy your centimeters," she teased. "But I hope you realize I expect you to do wonderful things for my career."

"Oh? How's that?"

"Well just look at it. Both your last two execs got their own ships, and from what I hear, Alistair McKeon's getting his fourth ring next month. I just got a letter from Alice Truman, too, and she just got her first heavy cruiser. You think it's just a coincidence they all served with you? Hell, Honor—I'm not going to be satisfied with anything less than a cruiser of my own at the end of this commission!" She grinned and took another long pull at her beer, then leaned back with an expansive air.

"And now, Ma'am, before we dive into the kilometers of paperwork we both know are waiting for us, I want to hear your side of everything that's happened since the last time I saw you."


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