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"There, Ma'am," Ivan Ravicz said unhappily "See it?"

Honor studied the scanner display, then tightened her left eye socket to switch to microscopic mode. She bent closer to the housing and grimaced as she finally found it. The tiny, ruler-straight fracture line was almost invisible—even her cybernetic eye had trouble spotting it—but it ran clear across, cutting diagonally from corner to corner and extending almost down to deck level.

"I see it." She sighed. "How did the builder's scans miss it?"

"Because it wasn't there." Ravicz scratched his nose, deep-set eyes more mournful than ever, and gave the generator a disgusted kick. "There's a flaw in the matrix, Skipper. It looks like good old-fashioned crystallization to me, even if that isn't supposed to be possible with the new synth alloys. The actual fracture probably didn't occur until we went to a normal operational cycle."

"I see." Honor readjusted her eye to normal vision and straightened, feeling the gentle pressure of Nimitz's true-hand on her head as he balanced against her movement.

Like Honor's last ship, Nike had three fusion plants, yet her energy requirements were huge compared to a heavy cruiser's. HMS Fearless could have operated on a single plant, but Nike needed at least two, which gave her only one backup. She needed Fusion Three back before she could be considered truly operational, and from the look of things, getting it back was going to take far longer than Honor cared to think about.

Admiral Parks' greeting message had been perfectly correct, but she'd sensed a coolness behind it, and, under the circumstances, she would have loved to blame this on Hephaestus' yard dogs. Deprived of a legitimate human target for his unhappiness, Parks might well decide Nike's captain ought to have known it could happen . . . and taken steps to see that it didn't.

"Well, in that case, I suppose we—"

She broke off and turned her head as boots sounded on the deck plates behind her, and her lips tightened ever so slightly as she saw the man at Mike Henke's side. He was short, the crown of his head just topping Honor's shoulder, but solid and chunky, and his dark hair, longer than current fashion decreed, was drawn back in a neat ponytail under his black beret. His cuffs bore the same four gold rings as her own, but his collar carried the four gold pips of a junior grade captain, not the single planet of a captain of the list, and Nimitz shifted on her shoulder as he sensed her sudden spurt of associative dislike—and her self-recrimination for feeling it.

"Sorry we're late, Ma'am," Henke said formally. "Captain Tankersley was tied up on another job when we docked."

"No problem, Mike." Honor's soprano was cooler than she would have preferred, but she held out her hand. "Welcome aboard Nike, Captain. I hope you can get her back on-line quickly for us."

"We'll certainly try, Milady."

Tankersley's voice was deeper than she remembered, rumbling about in his chest, and a trickle of someone else's feelings oozed into her brain. It was Nimitz, tapping her into Tankersley's emotions as he'd learned to do since Yeltsin. She was still far from accustomed to his doing that, and she reached up to touch him in a silent injunction to stop. But even as she did, she recognized the matching discomfort in the other captain, a sense of awkward regret over the circumstances of their first meeting.

"Thank you," she said more naturally, and gestured at the scanner. "Commander Ravicz has just been showing me the damage. Take a look, Captain."

Tankersley glanced at the display, then looked again, more closely, and pursed his lips in a silent whistle.

"All the way across?" He cocked an eyebrow and grimaced at Ravicz's doleful nod, then smiled wryly at Honor. "These new alloys will be wonderful things, Milady—once we figure out exactly what we're doing with them."

"Indeed." Honor's lips twitched at his tone, and she tapped the generator. "Am I right in assuming we're looking at complete replacement here?"

"I'm afraid so, Ma'am. Oh, I could try a weld, but we're talking a bead a good twenty meters long just across the outer face. This stuff's not supposed to break in the first place, and according to The Book, patching should only be considered as a last resort. The fracture cuts right through two of the central load-bearing brackets and the number two hydrogen feed channel, too, I'm afraid. Odds are we'd have to pull it anyway, and I'd rather not leave you with a repaired unit that could crap out again without warning. My people can try to patch it once we have it in the shop. If they pull it off—and if it meets specs after they do, which I doubt it will—we can put it in stores for later use. In the meantime, we can get Nike back up and running with a new housing."

"You have one we can swap out?"

"Oh, yes. We're topped up with spares for almost everything." Tankersley's pride in his newly operational base showed, and Honor felt herself thaw even further at his obvious readiness to tackle the job.

"How long are we talking, then?" she asked.

"That's the bad news, Milady," Tankersley said more seriously. "You don't have an access way large enough to move the spare through, so we're going to have to open up the fusion room." He put his hands on his hips and turned slowly, surveying the huge, immaculate compartment, and his eyes were unhappy.

"If Nike were a smaller ship, we could disable the charges and take out the emergency panel, but that won't work here."

Honor nodded in understanding. As in most merchantmen, fusion rooms in destroyers and light cruisers—and some smaller heavy cruisers—were designed with blow-out bulkheads to permit them to jettison malfunctioning reactors as an emergency last resort. But larger warships couldn't do that, unless their designers deliberately made their power plants more vulnerable than they had to. Nike was a kilometer and a half long, with a maximum beam of over two hundred meters, and her fusion plants were buried along the central axis of her hull. That protected them from enemy fire, but it also meant she simply had to hope the failsafes worked in the face of battle damage which did get through to them . . . and that there was no easy access to them from outside.

"We're going to have to go through the armor and a lot of bulkheads, Milady, and then we're going to have to put them all back again," Tankersley went on. "We've got the equipment for it, but I imagine it's going to take at least two months—more probably fourteen or fifteen weeks."

"Could Hephaestus knock that time down if we returned to Manticore?" She kept her tone as neutral as possible, but if Tankersley took any offense at the question it didn't show.

"No, Milady. Oh, Hephaestus has an edge in ancillary equipment, but I doubt they could shave more than a week off our time, and you'd spend twice that long in transit for the round trip."

"I was afraid of that." Honor sighed. "Well, it seems we're in your hands. How soon can we get started?"

"I'll get my own survey people over here within the hour," Tankersley promised. "We're still pretty busy with expansion work, but I think I can juggle my schedules a bit and start clearing away the control runs by next watch. I've got a tin-can in Slip Two with her after impeller ring wide open, and my exterior crews will need another day or so to button her back up. As soon as they're finished, Nike gets top priority."

"Outstanding," Honor said. "If I have to turn my ship over to someone, Captain, I'm glad it's at least someone who gets right to it."

"Oh, I'll certainly do that, Milady!" Tankersley turned back from his study of the bulkheads with a grin. "No mere yard dog wants a starship captain on his neck. Don't worry. We'll have you back up as quickly as possible."

* * *

Admiral Mark Sarnow looked up and touched a stud as the admittance chime sounded.


"Staff Communications Officer, Sir," his sentry announced, and Sarnow nodded in satisfaction.

"Enter," he said, and smiled as the hatch opened to admit a tall, gangling redhead in a lieutenant commander's uniform. "So, Samuel. May I assume you bear word from the repair base?"

"Yes, Sir." Lieutenant Commander Webster held out a message board. "Captain Tankersley's estimate on Nike's repairs, Sir."

"Ah." Sarnow accepted the board and laid it on his desk. "I'll read it later. Just give me the bad news first."

"It's not all that bad, Sir." Webster's formal expression turned into a smile of his own. "The housing's definitely shot, but Captain Tankersley figures they can have a replacement in place within fourteen weeks."

"Fourteen weeks, eh?" Sarnow rubbed his brushy mustache, green eyes thoughtful. "I hate to have her down that long, but you're right—it is better than I was afraid of." He leaned back, still stroking his moustache, then nodded. "Inform Admiral Parks I think we can allow Irresistible to depart on schedule, Samuel."

"Yes, Sir." Webster braced briefly to attention and started to leave, but Sarnow raised a hand.

"Just a minute, Samuel." The lieutenant commander paused, and the admiral gestured at a chair. "Have a seat."

"Yes, Sir." Webster sank into the indicated chair, and Sarnow let his own swivel slowly back and forth as he frowned down at his desk. Then he looked back up to meet his com officer's eyes.

"You were in Basilisk with Lady Harrington?" His tone made the question a statement, and memory darkened Webster's eyes. One hand rose to his chest, almost by reflex, but he snatched it back down and nodded.

"Yes, Sir. I was."

"Tell me a little about her." Sarnow tipped his chair back and watched the lieutenant commander's face. "Oh I've read her record, but I don't have any sort of real feel for her personality."

"I—" Webster paused and cleared his throat at the unexpected question, and Sarnow waited patiently while he got his thoughts in order. RMN personnel were seldom invited to comment on their seniors—especially their ex-COs—and, as a rule, the admiral disliked officers who encouraged people to do so. But he didn't retract the request. Admiral Parks hadn't actually said anything, yet his reservations about Harrington were obvious in the way he hadn't said it.

Honor Harrington had more command combat experience than any two other officers her age. Nothing in Sarnow's download of her record seemed to justify any admiral's being less than delighted to have a captain of her proven ability under his command, yet Parks obviously was. Was that because he knew something Sarnow didn't? Something that wasn't in her official personnel jacket?

Of course, Parks always had been a nitpicker where military etiquette was concerned. No one could deny his competence, but he could be depressingly prim and proper—in fact, he was a pretty cold damned fish—and Sarnow had heard the gossip about Harrington. He also knew there were always stories, especially about officers who'd achieved what she had; the problem was knowing which were based in fact and which in fancy. What worried him were the ones that suggested she was hotheaded—even arrogant—and he more than suspected it was those same reports that concerned Parks, as well.

He could discount a lot of them as the work of those jealous of her achievements, and the Admiralty would hardly give any officer they had doubts about command of Nike. But there was always the specter of personal influence, and by all accounts, Admiral White Haven had decided to make Harrington's career some sort of personal project. Sarnow knew White Haven, if not well, and his obvious partisanship probably reflected his own belief that Harrington was every bit as good as her record indicated. It was an admiral's job to nurture outstanding junior officers, after all. But, in a way, White Haven's very reputation for refusing to play the influence game for anyone in the past made his present efforts on her behalf just the least bit suspect.

Yet whatever anyone else thought of her, she was now Sarnow's flag captain. He had to know the woman behind the stories, not just the "official" record. For that he needed input from someone who knew her, and Webster was hardly a typical junior officer. Despite his youth, Samuel Webster had probably seen more senior officers, both socially and professionally, than Sarnow had. He'd also been critically wounded under Harrington's command, which should counteract any tendency to idealize her. More than that, he was bright and observant, and Sarnow trusted his judgment.

Webster settled himself deeper in his chair, unaware of Sarnow's thoughts, and wished his admiral hadn't asked him. It felt disloyal to discuss Captain Harrington with her current superior. But he was no longer her com officer; he was Admiral Sarnow's.

"I'm not certain what you're asking for, Sir," he said finally.

"I know I'm making you uncomfortable, Samuel, but you're the only member of my staff who's actually met her, and—" The admiral waved his hand, unwilling to explain the reason for his concern, and Webster sighed.

"In that case, Admiral, all I can say is that she's the best," he said finally. "We had some serious problems when they banished us to Basilisk, and the Captain—well, she dealt with them, Sir, and I never heard her raise her voice once while she did it. You know what Basilisk Station used to be like, and we weren't exactly the best crew anyone ever gave a captain, either. Not when we arrived. But, by God, Admiral, we were when we left!"

Sarnow leaned back, surprised by Webster's vehemence, and the com officer looked away before he went on.

"The Captain gets the best out of her people—sometimes more than they ever guessed they could give—and I don't really think it's anything she does. It's who she is, Sir. You trust her. You know she'll never let you down, and when the shit hits the fan, you know she'll get you out of it if anyone can. I'm a com officer, not a tac specialist, but I saw enough in Basilisk to realize how good she really is. I don't know if you've been briefed on just how BuShips butchered our armament, Admiral, but we were so far out of our league it was pitiful. We all knew that from the start, but the Captain took us in anyway. The Peeps smashed us into a wreck, Sir—three-quarters of our people were dead or wounded, but she kept right on coming, and somehow she took them out. I don't know if anyone else could have done it, but she did."

The lieutenant commander's voice was soft, almost inaudible in the quiet cabin, and he stared down at his hands.

"We blamed her for getting us sent to Basilisk when we first arrived. It wasn't her fault, but that didn't change the way we felt, and it showed. But by the time it all broke loose, we would have followed her into Hell. In fact, I guess that's just about what we did . . . and we'd do it again."

Webster blushed at his own intensity. "I'm sorry, Sir. I don't know if that's what you wanted to know, but—" He shrugged almost helplessly.

He met his admiral's gaze, blue eyes strangely vulnerable, and Sarnow looked back in silence for a long, long moment, then nodded.

"Thank you, Samuel," he said quietly. "That was exactly what I wanted to know."

* * *

Honor worked steadily, frowning in concentration as her fingers moved on her keyboard. She sometimes thought the Navy was really powered by reports and memos, not fusion plants. There was never an end to it, and BuShips was almost worse than BuPers—especially when one of Her Majesty's captains was so careless as to break the starship with which the Lords of Admiralty had entrusted her. Had some psych type convinced Their Lordships to generate so many forms as a none too subtle way to punish such miscreants for their sins?

She finished the final corrections and captain's endorsements to Ravicz's report, cross-referenced her own report to Captain Tankersley's, routed copies of all relevant documents to Admiral Sarnow, Admiral Parks, and Third Space Lord Danvers, with yet another copy to the attention of Nike's builders and one for the inspectors aboard Hephaestus, then dashed her signature with the electronic stylus and pressed her thumb to the scan panel with a sigh of relief. From here on out, it was in the yard dogs' hands, and she, for one, was profoundly grateful it was.

She leaned back and sipped the cocoa MacGuiness had left at her elbow. It was fresh and hot, though she hadn't even noticed his silent passage to deliver it, and she made a mental note to thank him later.

She sighed again. There was plenty more paperwork where the last lot had come from, and she was guiltily aware that she should get straight onto it, but the thought was unappealing. Part of her wanted to wander down to Fusion Three to rubberneck, instead, but Captain Tankersley's people would be less than delighted to have Nike's skipper hanging over their shoulders. On the other hand, she could feel herself developing a serious case of bulkhead fever, complicated by an allergic reaction to paperwork. Maybe what she ought to do was take herself off to the gym and spend an hour or so—

Her com chirped, and she pressed the button with something like relief.

"Captain speaking."

"Communications, Ma'am," Lieutenant Commander Monet's voice said. "I have a personal signal for you from Irresistible. It's Admiral Sarnow."

Honor set her cocoa mug hastily aside and ran her hands through her hair. It remained far too short to braid as most female officers did, but its new, longer length made it harder to keep tidy, and she wished fervently that she'd had some warning Sarnow might com. She winced as her hurried, ruthlessly grooming fingers caught in a snarled curl, then twitched her tunic straight. It was one of her older, more comfortable uniforms, a little worn, its braid just a bit frayed, and she dreaded MacGuiness' reaction when he discovered she'd greeted her new admiral for the first time wearing something so disreputable, but there was no time to change. A brand new flag captain didn't keep her admiral waiting when he finally got around to screening her at last.

"Put it through to my terminal, please, George," she said.

"Yes, Ma'am," Monet replied, and Admiral Mark Sarnow replaced the data on her screen. His complexion was darker than she'd expected, a darkness emphasized by his green eyes, chestnut hair, and the pronounced eyebrows, several shades darker than his hair or mustache, which met in a straight line above the bridge of his high-arched nose.

"Good evening, Dame Honor. I hope I'm not interrupting?" His tenor voice was gentler than his strong-jawed face, almost soft.

"Good evening, Sir. And, no, you're not interrupting. I was just wrestling with some routine paperwork."

"Good. I've had a chance to look over the yard report on your fusion plant, and it seems to confirm your engineer's assessment. I realize you'll be stuck in dock for quite a while yet, but under the circumstances, I'd like to release Irresistible to return to Manticore and shift my flag to Nike as soon as possible."

"Of course, Sir. At your convenience."

"Thank you." Sarnow's sudden smile gave his face an unexpected, almost boyish enthusiasm. "We'll try not to get in your way, Captain, but I want my staff to shake down with your officers as soon as possible. And, of course, I need to spend some time getting you involved."

"Yes, Sir." Honor kept her face calm, but she felt an undeniable satisfaction at his welcoming tone. Some admirals would have greeted an unknown flag captain with reserve—especially one who'd inconvenienced them by arriving with a lamed ship, whether it was her fault or not.

"Very well, then, Captain. With your permission, we'll come aboard at oh-seven hundred tomorrow."

"That will be fine, Admiral. If you wish, I'll have my steward contact your steward and arrange the transfer of your personal gear."

"Thank you. And, in the meantime, I'd like to invite you to join Captain Parsons, Captain Corell, and myself for supper aboard Irresistible at seventeen hundred, if that would be convenient."

"Of course, Sir."

"Good! I'll see you then, Captain," Sarnow said, and cut the connection with a courteous nod.


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